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A Blessing Within a Tragedy

April 09, 2020 - 8 minute read

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On March 8th, 2020 I served my last official day of military duty. It was a bittersweet feeling as I reflected on my 23 years of military service as I walked to my Toyota Camry in preparation for my two-and-a-half-hour drive home from the Manhattan Beach National Guard Armory to my home in Riverside. On one hand, I was finally done with the stress that comes with serving as a senior leader in the Army. More importantly, I would now be able to move forward in my civilian aspirations and finally be able to spend more quality time with my wonderful family. On the other hand, I still felt as if I had several more years of quality service to give to country and community. After more than two decades of putting the Army first, I had finally put my family first. Just minutes earlier my commander had called me in front of our assembled formation of troops and announced my last duty day and tried to summarize my 23-year service history to a group of approximately 65 soldiers, most of whom only really knew me as the strict Master Sergeant who was always correcting soldiers for having their hands in their pockets or minor uniform violations. You see, I was one of the most senior leaders in my unit and have always led with a no-nonsense demeanor. In the Army, maintaining discipline is a vital aspect of mission accomplishment and as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) that is paramount to our success as Army leaders. I said some last-minute goodbyes and off I went.

The drive home was a bit emotional as I reflected on all my military assignments spanning over more than two decades. The good and bad times, the laughs and cries, and the relationships that were built all ran through my mind as I traversed the 91 freeway on that late Sunday afternoon. As an active duty Soldier, I was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, after several months of basic combat and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was hard to believe that the same 19-year-old young man who started his military career back in 1996 was now a 23-year veteran and about to call it a career. I started thinking of the things that I never accomplished, such as becoming a Command Sergeant’s Major (CSM). I thought about not having any more military responsibilities and how that feeling would affect my self-worth. Then I quickly snapped back into it and reminded myself that I voluntarily requested retirement because I was ready to move on and put my family first! But still, it is the Soldiers whom I would miss the most. These men and women that I had the pleasure to have served with over the years are some of the bravest, smartest, and overall best people the United States of America has to offer. I had a great military career. I made a difference in so many lives as a leader. I did my part to deter the enemies of the United States from doing us and our allies harm, simply because of our numbers, our training, our equipment, and most of all, our heart! I told myself, “I’m good. I’ve served honorably and now it’s time for someone else to step up and fill my shoes”.

Once home, I was greeted by a few close friends and immediate family who had gathered to celebrate my last day of service. My mood immediately changed from somber to happy. On the long drive home, old memories and a slight feeling of regret consumed me. I was leaving a culture that I helped cultivate after 23 years of selfless service. My family and close friends were a much-needed reminder of why I chose to move on. Now I could spend more time with my wife, children, and grandson. I was also primed to spend more time coaching softball, which is what I truly love doing! It also marked an opportunity for me to concentrate heavily on my dissertation and enter the home stretch to completing my Doctoral degree at Concordia University. With my military obligations freshly behind me I was now able to breathe a sigh of relief and prepare for the next chapter of my life’s journey. Later that evening I went outside and smoked a cigar. As I puffed away at my celebratory “stogie”, I felt at ease. In the distance I could faintly hear Taps being played, which plays every evening at 9:00 pm sharp from March Air Reserve Base, only a few short miles from my home. That was my signal to go to bed.

Retired Life

The following week was relatively relaxing. I was able to relieve some stress from my wife by taking care of our daughter, Victoria; getting her up in the mornings, feeding her breakfast, and taking her to school. This was what I missed out on her entire life, as well as with our older children. My family had always been understanding that my work in the military was important and that their sacrifices were in the name of freedom. Despite their deep understanding of my frequent absences, I felt guilty for missing birthdays, holidays, and day-to-day events in their lives. After school, Victoria and I visited the local library where she was issued her first library card and checked out her first two books. I also spent time helping around the house those first few days since my wife still had to work. She did most of the household chores since I was gone so frequently. I even went grocery shopping and cooked the family dinner a few nights of my first week as a retiree. There was so much I wanted to do once I had the time, but thinking of all those things was overwhelming, so I made a deal with myself that for the first couple of weeks I would not do much except be there for my family.

The high school softball season had started just a few weeks prior and I felt guilty that I could not attend any of the games due to my military obligations. Although I am only an assistant coach, I should have been there for them. My career and the retirement process were so time consuming; I truly could not find the time to be there with them. Luckily there were more than enough assistant coaches to make things happen; and for that I am grateful. The team had a rough start to their season but settled in very well and were now on an impressive winning streak. I could not wait to get back on the field and continue coaching, but I realized that after 23-years of military service, I owed it to myself and my family to take a couple of weeks to decompress and get some well needed rest. The head coach agreed that I deserved to take some time off before jumping back into anything. It felt great not having to get up at 4:00 am and spend five to six hours in traffic every day. Life was good for that first week. I went for a run, worked out a bit at the gym, and spent a lot of quality time with my kids and grandson. I had begun mind mapping my next steps toward a solid research design for my dissertation and the rest of my new life!

The Game Changer

At the time of my retirement the Coronavirus was already in the media, but the country had not yet caught up with how widespread it had become in the United States and globally. As the week progressed, however, it became keenly aware of how severe this epidemic was becoming. At the end of the week all college and professional sports organizations had shut down, and most shockingly, we were informed via email that the public schools my children attended would be closed for the rest of the month of March. Of course, we would soon find out that the President of the United States and most governors would issue stay-at-home orders for its citizens, as well as major extensions to the closure of schools and non-essential businesses. My retirement dreams soon became a nightmare, full of wide-spread panic, home schooling, and worst of all, uncertainty!

As I sat in awe that Friday afternoon watching the news anchors announce the beginning stages of the shutdown and subsequent quarantine, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. How could this be? How long was this going to last? What about my plans? What about my children and their school year? My mind was a whirlwind of questions, concerns, and scenarios. I recall feeling very sad at the thought of telling my sweet six-year-old daughter that she would not be returning to her kindergarten class for a while. I sat numb for roughly 30 minutes as I contemplated everything that would be affected by this awful chain of events that were still unfolding. My plans would have to be put on hold. With schools shut down, I could no longer continue my passion of coaching softball, at least no time soon. My research would also have to be postponed until student-athletes returned to their universities, hopefully by next fall. One thing is for certain, I would soon get more family time: but sadly, not with everyone. My adult children and grandchild live on their own now, and with my wife serving as an essential employee in law enforcement, my exposure to them would be limited to phone calls, facetime, and video conferences. I’ve had to deal with adversity many times in my life, both personally and professionally, but this global attack on humanity was unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced. Not even a full week had elapsed since my last day in the Army, but my mission had suddenly changed. My new mission was to protect my family from what would soon become the worst epidemic and economic collapse since the early 1900s, if not worse. I would have to plan a hasty defense and fast. My mind began to race as I established priorities of work. My military decision-making process training kicked in. Food and water, ammunition, disinfectant, PPE, fuel, generator maintenance, and… wait… toilet paper? Prepared for this new battle, I grabbed my car keys and headed out to secure my most precious resource, my six-year-old daughter, Victoria. As I drove away, I wondered what plan had God devised within this tragedy; and why?

Michael Soto wrapped up his 23-year military career in March of 2020. During his tenure, Master Sergeant (MSG) Soto has served as a Combat Engineer, Recruiting and Retention Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), UH-60 (Blackhawk) Helicopter Mechanic, Team Leader, Platoon Sergeant, First Sergeant, Senior Human Resources Sergeant, Senior Recruit Sustainment Training Sergeant, and Operations Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC).

Soto’s awards and decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal (6th award), Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal (6th award), National Defense Service Medal, just to name a few.

Soto holds a Master in Coaching and Athletics Administration (MCAA) degree from Concordia University Irvine, and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Education (Ed. D.) degree at Concordia University Irvine.

Now that he has retired from the military, Michael Soto’s goals and aspirations are to complete his doctoral degree, teach and coach softball at the collegiate level, and spend time with his wonderful wife, Luisa, their six children, and grandson.

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