Forging Purpose And Community One Mile At A Time

It didn’t matter that the West Point guys called her Legs when she wasn’t listening, or that she felt like they stripped her down with their eyes. As Sarah Roberts barreled around the track during the Army physical fitness test that would determine whether or not she’d make it into Airborne School, she knew she belonged. When she crossed the finish line ahead of the pack, she was sure the guys knew she belonged too.

West Point puts a high value on running fast, and Sarah had impressed the military college’s scouts when she was in high school. Students had to be, in her words, a “perfect human specimen” to earn admission. A ski jump injury as a kid left Sarah with a pin in her leg. Theoretically, it could have jeopardized her admission status, but in her mind the injury was ancient history by her last year of high school. The scouts seemed to think it was ancient history too: The school granted her a medical waiver.

At West Point she quickly proved herself to be one of the school’s fastest female runners, and she worked relentlessly to get faster. “Any time I’d be out there running, chances were high there’d … be Sarah, also running,” remembers her West Point teammate, Mary Nolan. “And even if she was at the tail end of her run, she’d move back and finish out your run with you.”

When it came time to try out for the prestigious Airborne School during the summer of her third year at West Point, Sarah knew she would light up the track. Pass the Army physical fitness test and she’d be allowed into the program where, in less than a month, she’d learn how to parachute from a plane. Fail and she’d be packing her bags and heading back to West Point.

She beat every man in class except one—two miles in less than 12 minutes. She felt like she’d torn up the field. But the sense of accomplishment didn’t last long.

Hours after her run, Sarah was called to speak with her cadre leader before dinner. She’d just finished showering, so she threw on some gym clothes and ran to his office.

She says she had no idea what he would say. She feared she had done something wrong, but knew she hadn’t; school had just started.

When she arrived he tore into her. He demanded to know why she was wearing lipstick at Airborne School. She wasn’t. Sarah’s lips are bright red by nature. He cussed her out, demanding to know why she would dare disrespect the school and its rules.

West Point cadets are taught they can give four answers: “Yes sir,” “No sir,” “No excuse, sir,” and “I don’t understand.” As in:

You’re wearing makeup.

No sir, I don’t even have any in my bag.

Who do you think you are?

I don’t understand.

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Talking back meant a fast track to getting cut from the summer program. So she listened to him talk about how makeup was promiscuous, how he hated to see female cadets slide through without following the rules, and how lucky she was to be there.

He laid into her for nearly 10 minutes before dismissing her. Sarah walked away feeling humiliated. She tears up now, thinking about how he’d made her feel dirty and embarrassed about what she now calls her “stupid red lips.” But she went back to her dorm, put on her uniform, and went to dinner. It was her fault, she figured. She was a woman who’d signed up for the military, and feeling less-than was part of the job description.

By her fifth year in the Army, after Sarah had finished her mandatory commitment, she had plenty of reasons to say goodbye.

Sarah Roberts in the woods on the Bridal Trails in Kirkland, Wash. before she takes a Team RWB Leadership run.

There was the moment when Sarah’s commander in Germany told her that she’d have to decide whose career to follow—hers or her husband’s—and that it shouldn’t be hers. She was a mere finance officer.

There was the day she learned her husband, Jeff—her college sweetheart and a fellow officer—had been attacked by a suicide bomber, and that his superiors had left him and his men out there for days, she said. When he returned, he was different—shorter-tempered, depressed. She couldn’t deal with it then. She was preparing for her own deployment, so they bottled up their frustration and left it for later.

There was the day after a 15-month deployment that she and her team returned in Germany, not to the usual welcome-home fanfare that’s customary in the military but to an empty airport.

She chartered a bus for her team back to their base, and a friend’s father came to pick her up and give her a ride home to her apartment. That night she sat alone in the kitchen. Dustcloths still covered the furniture.

Over the previous five years, Jeff and Sarah had seen each other for a total of 17 months, and then they got orders that they’d be heading in separate directions again. She’d go to South Carolina for training; he’d go to Arizona and then straight to Iraq.

The two applied for Sarah to join Jeff’s brigade as a budget officer so they’d be in the same city and base and get the same deployment schedule. With her finance experience, the job seemed like a perfect fit. The request went through the chain of command and was approved by nearly everyone, until her major turned down the transfer, citing “needs of the Army.”

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

She was tired of long-distance calls and meals for one. And she knew if they stayed in there’d be no end in sight. They finished their five-year commitment and said goodbye to the military.

Jeff and Sarah moved from Germany thinking it would be easier to find civilian job offers if they were stateside, but competitive interviews were still tough to come by. Employers didn’t seem to understand the high level of expertise at which they’d been operating, the responsibility they’d borne, and the teams they’d been overseeing. They received job offers only for entry-level positions.

Things finally turned around when Sarah was invited into Amazon for a prestigious position building a new recruiting operation from the ground up, one that would bring more veterans into the company.

She’d gotten an offer where she felt valued. But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. The day after she went into the Seattle office to get her bearings, Sarah flew to Kentucky to tour a nearby warehouse and start recruiting area veterans to work for Amazon. She’d suit up, work 80-hour weeks, never leave her laptop. Finally she felt like she got to prove her worth.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., picking home grown strawberries with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Seattle was everything Sarah and Jeff had wanted. It was hip. It was closer to family. They made it home, bought a house, had a daughter. She continued in the corporate world, getting a new job with Microsoft.

Although she felt valued for her experience, she began to feel like she couldn’t relate to the freshly minted college graduates who refused to move to Seattle for anything less than $160,000 and then rolled into the city with beautiful new cars. She and Jeff were back in the U.S. after using piss tubes and drawing gunfire, and after Sarah had watched her husband recover from the suicide bomber’s attack.

Something else nagged at her: “What is the legacy I want to leave?” The military and West Point had always emphasized the role of service to others. She wanted to know she was giving back.

Around that time, a veterans service organization approached Sarah about partnering with Microsoft for help with one of its big annual events: the Old Glory Run. Team Red, White and Blue’s founder, Mike Erwin, had long believed in the power of running to bring civilians and veterans together, and to help ease the transition back home. The “most under-prescribed medication,” he called it in a 2011 story in Runner’s World, touting running’s virtues for mental health care.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., playing with her daughter Katelyn, 3 after returning from work with Team RWB. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Something about the organization and its mission resonated with Sarah. When a position opened up, she applied. Taking a hefty pay cut, Sarah became Team RWB’s northwest regional director and started expanding their work through the region. Finally, she felt, she could have a real impact on a community about which she cared deeply.

That’s Sarah’s personal goal too: “I’ve started to see and believe in the importance of human connections,” she says. “How can you create that common thread with a veteran that’s known loss and a civilian who’s known loss and build that shared humanity?”

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

A lot of veterans feel displaced and disconnected from civilians when they come home, said Sarah’s colleague, Garrett Cathcart, the organization’s southeast director and a fellow West Point graduate. “A lot of Americans want to understand veterans,” he said, “[and] do more than awkwardly buy them a drink.” But many veterans tell him that when they returned home, meeting people was tough outside of the confines of a smoky VFW bar. “When you have healthy relationships with people, it’s not just drinking buddies—you’re going to be better off.”

But RWB offered something different—athleticism to build connections and community—and Sarah loved it. The longer she worked for the organization, the more she became an evangelist for its mission.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Roberts is checking her email after returning home from work. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

Describing one veteran she’s worked with, she says he started out volunteering with them as, honestly, “a bit of a jerk”—often demanding things in emails, being short, generally seeming unhappy. That shifted when he started showing up to a storytelling event at an RWB leadership camp. As he shared his story, he broke down and realized that he had a group of fellow veterans and civilians who were there for him. He’s since thrown himself into the work, rethinking what it means to be a leader, she says.

Courtesy of Sarah Roberts

Finance, like running, is a world of discrete measurements. Surpluses and deficits. Bills, coins, ledgers. And American leaders, contractors, and Iraqi warlords with whom they were trying to build alliances—everyone had a price. A herd of cattle blown up, or other collateral damage? A road that the military wanted locals to keep clear? A soldier would put piles of cash in a rucksack or small container and be sent out to pay for it personally. Combat soldiers might encounter an IED if the right person wasn’t paid in time.

As a finance officer, Sarah was in charge of more than 170 missions and $250 million—all before she was 23 years old. One of her first missions: Go pick up about 20 million in cash from a warehouse in the city of Balad. Sarah headed to the Iraqi city with a female sergeant around her age. The two women picked up 200 pounds each of stacked and packaged freshly minted bills and waited for a helicopter that would fly them back to their base. At night, the women slept on the cash to make it harder for anyone to steal.

Bartering and good relationships became the way that work got done, but for all the importance Sarah places on personal connections, she didn’t make many friends. She kept her distance from the soldiers who looked to her for leadership as a commanding officer, and she stayed away from men, wanting to avoid being the subject of innuendo or gossip. Sarah spent a lot of her time alone, working on an online master’s degree or calling her husband.

Running became a relief from all the rules. Another West Point grad named Sarah Davidson saw Sarah Roberts in the gym. Davidson knew Sarah from her reputation as an athlete and suggested they become running buddies. The two started meeting regularly to circle the base’s perimeter.

Sarah Roberts at her home in Seattle, Wash., with her daughter Katelyn, 3 and husband Jeff, 36. Here Jeff is sharing a chocolate with their daughter. Photo by Stuart Isett for The War Horse

They ran past trailers, a row of port-a-potties, and a burn pit filled with whatever classified materials the base wanted destroyed. Away from other service members, the two Sarahs could kvetch without looking over their shoulders. They talked about their husbands, who were also in the military; home; and white tea.

“By any standard of what we experience in the U.S., it was not a nice run,” Davidson said. After all the shit, the dirt, the trucks, and the sand, they’d see a little patch of reeds and long grasses. The plants and those runs provided moments of serenity. Running had gotten Sarah through West Point and Iraq. Now, she’s hoping it will get fellow veterans through whatever’s next.

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The Veterans Adding Value series is a multimedia project that challenges the “broken” stereotype often associated with veterans by focusing storytelling on transitions from military service into academia, social impact work, and entrepreneurship.This series aims to bridge the military-civilian divide through in-depth, vivid reporting and highlights the resilience, compassion, and selflessness forged through military service.

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Katie Toth

Katie Toth is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School in 2014, Toth's first full-time journalism job was at the historic Village Voice in New York City.She has also contributed to National Public Radio, VICE and Motherboard.

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