FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. –
The Soldiers take a break, some grab a cup of coffee, while others practice clearing their weapons. Behind the training area, a group surrounds a Soldier, passing around her cell phone, beaming with pride, as her buddies catch a glimpse of her world: a blue-eyed baby boy named Brodie.
For U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Cassie Kiester-Maldonado, a cargo specialist with the 743rd Transportation Company, Operation Cold Steel II is teaching her crew-served weapons operations, but she is also learning what it means to be away from her seven-month old son for the first time.
The U.S. Army Reserve is comprised of citizen-soldiers who balance a full civilian life with their military duties. They work to keep the Army Reserve the most capable, combat-ready and lethal Federal Reserve force in the history of the United States. For Kiester-Maldonado, that includes being a stay-at-home parent and going to training events such as Operation Cold Steel II, a crew-served weapons qualification and validation exercise. She said it’s a unique experience for her.
“I'm working with the M249 light machine gun as an assistant gunner,” she explains. “I'm learning everything about this weapon so I can help my unit when we go downrange.”
Kiester-Maldonado said the skills she learned as a Soldier have helped with the transition to motherhood
“I've found that routine helps with my parenting style,” she said. “It helps me to maintain all the different things I need to handle throughout the day.”
There are a lot of tasks for her to accomplish with a new child. As she adapts to the ever-changing needs of her son, she certainly has her plate full.
“It doesn't stop. Just because I stay at home, that doesn't mean I'm not working,” Kiester-Maldonado said. “In fact, being here [at Operation Cold Steel II] is the most sleep I've gotten in months.”
Fortunately, she has a strong support system within the military. U.S. Army Reserve Pfc. Drielle Mitchell, cargo specialist, 743rd Transportation Company, and fellow mother, has been helping Kiester-Maldonado along the way.
“Every time I start feeling down and out, she's there,” said Kiester-Maldonado. “She's getting me to go have fun, or to focus on the task at hand.”
“Everyone pulls together to support parents here,” Mitchell explained. “Your kids will someday understand that you're doing something great, not just for yourself but for your whole community.”
U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Justin Jarosz, cargo specialist, 743rd Transportation Company and the second half of Kiester-Maldonado's gunner team, has a deep respect for his assistant gunner.
“Being here has helped us build a good solid bond,” said Jarosz. “That's what happens when you rely on one another in this capacity.”
“He's probably tired of seeing pictures of Brodie by now,” Kiester-Maldonado said with a laugh. “But I don't care; he's a good sport and always looks and listens.”
Jarosz also had the opportunity to talk with Kiester-Maldonado's husband and son via video chat.
“To meet them, so to speak, it helps me understand,” Jarosz said of the experience. “I don't treat her any differently, because we all have something going on outside of this. I just try to be aware of what that something is, and for her, it's missing her family.”
Becoming a mother has also helped Kiester-Maldonado to become a better Soldier.
“It makes you relate to other people more,” she explained. “You think 'how would I want somebody to help my son if he was in this position?' You open your eyes to other people's situation.”
Jarosz says that compassion isn't the only strength he is able to see.
“Mothers, more so than any other group of people, are always better at adapting and overcoming,” he said. “And that's a skill everybody needs.”
While Kiester-Maldonado plans on going back to work full-time as a civilian with her unit soon, she intends on taking the lessons she has learned with her.
“I've noticed a difference with military mothers. People can be so judgmental with parents. How you feed your baby, how you hold them ... anything can get you labeled as a bad mom or dad. But my Army family isn't like that,” she said with a smile. “They all know what it's like to leave loved ones, so as long as you're spending the time you can with your family, they support you.”
As for her training at Operation Cold Steel II, she said she's grateful for the opportunity.
“How many other stay-at-home moms do you know that are subject matter experts on machine guns?” Kiester-Maldonado asked. “I've never been to California, and I've never gotten this much hands-on experience with a machine gun before. So I think all of this is really cool.”
Operation Cold Steel II is the U.S. Army Reserve's crew-served weapons qualification and validation exercise to ensure America's Army Reserve units and Soldiers are trained and ready to deploy on short notice, bringing combat-ready and lethal firepower in support of the Total Army and Joint Force anywhere in the world. Kiester-Maldonado is part of that support now.