FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. –
Albert Einstein once said: “Billiards is the well-developed art of thinking ahead.” A pool player’s every move must set up the next.
Spc. Leigha Skadsem was beginning to think she had made all the wrong moves in her life when she found herself at a bar called the Hideaway Lounge in Cresco, Iowa on Christmas night 2015.
First, she dropped out of online college coursework after one semester because “it wasn’t for her”, and then she was forced to abandon her aspiring rock music career when she moved from Kansas City to Topeka, Kansas to be with her ex-boyfriend. Skadsem was all the while being drained emotionally and financially by her abusive relationship with that ex-boyfriend.
”I had to get away from where I was, as he was draining all of my money and putting me in debt,” said Skadsem, who at 25 was $10,000 in debt. “I felt lost and like a failure. It was late 2015, and I was contemplating moving back home with my mom to get away.”
But as fate would have it, that Christmas night at Hideaway, she met a young U.S. Army Soldier, Sgt. Johnny Roberts, shooting pool. Like any good pool player, she took a calculated risk and dropped in four quarters to play against him.
“I had played in a league, so I was pretty decent,” she said. “But Johnny is amazing at pool. We hit it off right away.”
The pair discovered while talking throughout the night that they grew up only 25 minutes apart – her in Southeast Minnesota and him in Northeast Iowa – and currently lived within an hour of each other in their respective locations.
“He was stationed in Kansas City, and I lived in Topeka,” said Skadsem. “It’s corny, but I feel we were truly meant to meet, because if he had been at Fort Hood (Texas) still, which is where he was until five months prior to Christmas, we wouldn’t be together today.”
Roberts, a Supply Specialist with the 901st Minimal Care Detachment said he immediately cautioned her that he was playing very well that night, and she might have more fun playing elsewhere.
“I told her, ‘Hey, if you don’t mind not getting to shoot much, I’m not going to stop you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,’” he laughed. “She maybe got two or three shots in per-game before I’d win. She shot pretty good when she had the chance though, better than I expected. But she still did not know how to control the cue ball to get shape on her next ball. She was only concerned about making the current shot.”
After a few hours of pool, the two agreed to meet up at a late-night party where they played beer-pong at one of Roberts’ local friend’s house. Roberts said Leigha had made an instant impression on him.
“I liked that she was down-to-earth, had a cute smile, and she wasn’t a girly-girl,” he said. “She had been in a rock band, and wasn’t the typical girl you normally meet. She definitely caught my attention.”
After six months of friendship and well after she cut ties with her ex-boyfriend, the two struck up a romantic relationship and Roberts invited Skadsem to come live with him in Kansas City.
“He saved me, honestly,” said Skadsem. “He helped me leave an abusive ex and helped support me as a friend before we got together romantically. He got me out of my debt by letting me live rent free for a while. I eventually paid him back later, with no interest.”
Removed from her previous toxic relationship and all the distractions that came with it, Skadsem was able to regain focus. For a pool player, focus means being aware of opportunities and understanding options. For Skadsem, who had wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army since high school, it was very much the same idea.
“I knew my maternal great-grandfather served and was a POW in World War II, and although I never met him, serving was something I thought about,” said Skadsem. “But being young, my friends and classmates scared me out of joining, saying I would be sent overseas right away, and it freaked me out. I ended up not enlisting right out of high school.”
Even at the age of 27, she still had doubts about serving in the military, so she started asking Roberts, a veteran by then with multiple years served, all the questions she could think of.
“She had a lot of anxiety about going to Basic Training as people do – I had a lot before I went to Basic as well,” said Roberts. “I told her forget anything you have seen in the movies – they are not realistic at all. And I told her to just expect to be smoked all day every day. Expect the worst and hope for the best. I told her she was ready.”
After gathering all the information she could, she made the decision to enlist in the Army Reserve the day after Valentine’s Day, 2018 – just over two years from the time she first met Roberts. She shipped out for Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri about a month later.
Skadsem, who turned 28 while at Basic Training, found it challenging physically but more so mentally. The first step was to be honest about her strengths and her shortcomings.
In pool, one’s specific abilities and weaknesses will impact shot selections. That player must strive to become comfortable with the “right” decision in a given circumstance, less he or she always falls back on the “safe” play. For years, Skadsem had opted to play it safe, but now that she was at Basic Training, it was no longer an option.
“I learned really important coping skills and how to remain mentally and emotionally strong through stressors,” said Skadsem. “This was something I had struggled with all my life, and there were times I broke down at Basic Training. But it was just the push in life I needed, and I am a stronger person now because of it.”
Skadsem said, as someone who was lacking purpose and direction in life, becoming a Soldier was the best decision she ever made.
“When I made my oath, it was one of the first times I could look at myself and be proud,” said Skadsem. “I have more motivation and a clearer goal of not only what I want do, but what I am also very good at.”
Her friends, too, have noticed a difference in her, beginning when she first met Roberts.
“My friends have seen my ups and downs over my life, and once I met Johnny, they saw the difference in me. I was happier, more successful,” said Skadsem. “They all love Johnny and are proud I joined the military as well. They all say, ‘Wow, I don’t think I could be brave enough to do that,’ and that of course makes me feel good as well.”
Skadsem now has three years of service in the Army Reserve as a Human Resources Specialist and currently serves in the same unit as her husband—the 901st Minimal Care Detachment in Fairmont, West Virginia. She completed Basic Leadership Course in February and is about to earn a promotion to sergeant while also seeking an Active Guard Reserve position like Roberts. She and Roberts were married in late 2016. They plan to have a ceremony and reception in August 2021.
Coincidentally, as Skadsem has pieced her life back together personally and professionally, Roberts says she has also become a much better pool player.
“She has gotten better at controlling the cue ball and setting up her next shot,” he said. “There are days when I don’t shoot well, and she’s on fire. And she ends up beating me.”
When looking back, Skadsem assesses her life like a game of eight-ball. Her mistakes were something to learn from, the consequences something to accept and move on, and her circumstances something to make the best of.
“There is so much I would like to tell my 18-year old self. Like be brave, don’t let a man dictate your life, take risks even when you’re scared to,” she said. “But all the things that have happened to me in my life, I truly believe led me to where I am today. I wouldn’t want anything to change in that regard. Everything in life happens for a reason, although some of those things were painful, I am happy to be where I am today.”