By Kira Cluff
Laura Leseberg scans past the flying sand every time news cameras pan over a coalition encampment. Most viewers would look for a familiar face, a nametag stamped in black on desert camis. Laura and her family search for a lone pink flamingo – a symbol of her daughter”s continued safety.
Laura has always thought the flamingo a tacky bird. A number of years ago, a friend gave her a cheap plastic flamingo as a gag gift. In an odd twist of fate, the one-time gag mushroomed into a running joke.
When the Lesebergs arrived at their air base home in Albuquerque 19 years ago, a large pink flamingo proudly jutted from the center of their yard, planted in a whitewashed tire filled with dirt.
Every time a neighbor”s daughter gets married, a friend”s son receives his mission call or a ward member receives a call to a mission presidency, flamingos dressed for the occasion appear on their front lawns.
The gag is more than two decades old, but over the past couple of months, the flamingo has taken on new meaning – Laura and her family now search for one particular flash of pink in a wasteland of desert, always seeking for a glimpse of Sarah.
More than a desert mirage
Patriot missile launch officer Capt. Sarah Ralston, a graduate of BYU”s army ROTC program, continually moves from one forward camp on Kuwait”s side of the Iraqi border.
Because communication from such encampments is sporadic, her e-mails are concise, pointed and tender.
One of the more recent e-mails ran two sentences long: “Hey everybody, I will be leaving in less than an hour for a more forward camp. Still will be in Kuwait. I love you. Sarah.”
Laura”s voice trembles a little when she tells people how her eldest daughter is doing.
“The days when we hear from her are good,” she said. “Those days when we don”t are harder.”
Sarah has been bivouacked in the deserts north of Kuwait City for more than a month. In what her father calls “the luck of the draw” assignment, Sarah left El Paso for a rotation just outside enemy lines, leaving her husband, Capt. Bob Ralston, at home.
Last week Sarah ran convoys of soldiers to a new “home,” Camp Virginia. She and her troops swelter under incredible heat, often only sleeping three hours a night.
On March 29, Sarah frightened her family with what was designed as an ironic quip about life on the front.
“It”s bizarro land … ever stop eating an ice cream cone because you”re under missile attack? 🙂 Very weird.”
The emoticon smile clashes with the e-mail”s contents until you realize that Sarah focuses on the light side of her life, never doubting that someday she”ll accomplish the mission and return home.
“It”s hard to imagine months passing by,” Sarah wrote on March 31. “But I know time will speed up. Twenty-three more days to a combat patch. Probably two or three days before I move out into nastier parts of this country.”
Far from the front lines, Sarah”s family devour the e-mails from Kuwait and pray.
“Every time the phone rings I”m afraid it”s going to be someone telling me something”s happened to her,” younger sister Kate Fowler whispered brokenly. “I”m obsessed with the CNN war tracker, always trying to find out what”s happening in Kuwait.”
Kate is not alone in her worry. She is also not alone in the faith she places on God to protect the troops and bring Sarah home.
The Leseberg”s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided the family a tie to bind them to the places they traveled and to one another. That tie pushed them to attend church meetings in whatever country they stayed regardless of distance, language barriers, or convenience.
“We never dropped that thread,” Laura said. “It”s nice because no matter how strange the place you”re living is, when you go to Church, it”s the same order of things, it”s the same songs. You know where you fit in. We never could have done it without the church.”
Mel, her husband of 28 years was the wing commander the year he graduated from the air force side of BYU”s ROTC program in 1973.
He believes “The lord makes the assignments and the air force does the paper work. Everywhere we were assigned was where Heavenly Father wanted us to be.”
The Church bound the Lesebergs together during their early travels. Several years after the last duty post, sightings of pink flamingos reminded them that distances cannot separate families sealed in the temple.
Founded on Air Force soil
Sarah is the eldest of three sisters and one brother. Sarah and her next youngest sister Kate are only 18 months apart. Neighbors commonly mistook the sisters as twins.
“Now people don”t even see how we”re sisters,” Kate quipped with a chuckle. They and their younger sister Elizabeth Wallace did everything together.
The military lifestyle comes easily to the girls. Their father”s duty assignments shifted them from one base to the next every couple of years.
Because they never stayed anywhere long enough to settle, their closest friends were found in one another.
Almost in tears, Kate painted a tomboy who wore an American flag bathing suit, tube socks and tennis shoes to cruise the neighborhood on her bike. “She”s just such a strong person,” Kate said.
Elizabeth remembers a protective best friend who would eschew dolls to play with Legos and GI Joes.
By the time Sarah was three years old, she could identify airplanes and the men on base who flew them – Colin Powell was her hero.
“We went to church with people in uniform and brought guns,” Elizabeth said with a laugh. “I thought all the dad”s wore green garments and all the mom”s wore white.”
They attended department of defense schools in Ramstien, Germany, where instead of fire drills, the children drilled for bomb scares.
When the family moved to Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, Calif., Sarah spent hours at the airplane museum often taking her brother.
In her love of all things military, Sarah often marshaled the neighborhood kids into constructing forts, battling off imaginary invaders, and camping outside in tents.
“I used to tell them when they hear the roar of a jet engine or smell J-P4, which used to be the jet fuel, that that”s the sound and smell of home,” Laura said.
Early on Sarah decided to follow her father into the air force. Only one shadow clouded that goal. Air force pilots must have 20/20 vision. Sarah”s determination couldn”t overcome her eyesight, but it would steer her to another equally challenging road.
All that she could be
In Albuquerque, Kate jointed the junior Air Force ROTC program. Her sharp mind and almost photographic memory helped Sarah secure a place at the top of her class.
When she graduated Sarah had enough scholarship offers to take her anywhere her dreams directed, including a slot at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
However, her mother had serious reservations about the academy. She worried that Sarah wouldn”t like the environment.
“To not go is nothing,” Laura said. “But to drop out is bad. I told her how strongly I felt about it and she was shocked. I didn”t think she would be happy there.”
Sarah”s parents instead guided her footsteps toward the Utah valley, feeling it more important that she attend school among the Saints. About that time, she discovered her eyesight would forever limit her ability to fly.
“She had heard her whole life that it”s not the paper force, it”s not the admin force, it”s not the finance force; it”s the Air Force,” said Laura. “There are those that fly and those that don”t. My husband was a pilot.”
Rather than competing for an air force slot that wouldn”t require perfect eyesight, Sarah turned to the army air defense artillery.
“She doesn”t consider it second choice,” Laura said. “She could have done anything.”
Just as she had in high school, Sarah fought her way to the top of the class both academically and physically – earning an enviable GPA and jump wings that qualified her for missions where deployment of ground troops happens several thousand feet in the air.
“I don”t know what I did wrong,” Mel said with a laugh. “I fly airplanes while my daughter jumps out of perfectly good ones and shoots at them. Mom said it was because she was born in army hospital. It must have been the drops in her eyes.
In a poignant ceremony held in the Wilkinsen Center, Sarah”s father had the opportunity to commission her. In a gesture of gruff tenderness, Lt. Col. Leseburg took a fist and tapped the gold bar into Sarah”s shoulder.
Sarah was exhilarated to finally graduate and take off for her first assignment in El Paso, Texas. Her family watched in admiration as Kate thrived in a place her sister could only describe as ugly and hot.
They then watched as she moved to Korea for 18 months where she met and fell in love with another officer, now Captain Bob Ralston. They were engaged in July, in El Paso.
Together they bought an orange tiger-striped tomcat that they dubbed “Benny.” Shortly after, their engagement, Bob returned to Korea. They were married on Friday in November, shortly after he returned. She left Saturday to go to Fort Bliss. He traveled almost every weekend of their five-month marriage.
Now that she”s deployed he finds being the one left behind is a little different.
All the ties that bind
Kate and Elizabeth feel the tug of their own newly cemented companionships and mourn Sarah and Bob”s separation.
“We”d known for a while that she”d be going,” Kate said. “It was more a matter of when.”
Sarah had been on a two-hour alert for the first year after Sept. 11. She had to call her younger sister Kate and tell her she wouldn”t make it to her wedding, she simply couldn”t get away.
Shortly before the wedding, Sarah called left a brief voicemail. She”d been called up and would be gone in 12 hours.
“I started crying,” Kate said. “I”m so scared for her.”
When Kate finally reached her that evening, she found Sarah excited about her deployment.
“She was so excited, I couldn”t even be upset with her. This is what she”s trained for, this is what she was born to do.” Kate said.
They talked of Sarah”s assignment, of being on the front lines, and of the one way the family could track her whereabouts. When it came time to hang up, Kate hesitated.
“I told her, ”I won”t tell you goodbye, I”ll tell you I”ll talk to you when I talk to you.” ”
“I”ve only been married two months,” Kate said. “I think of leaving my husband an indefinite amount of time and I can”t imagine it. She and Bob knew it was going to happen. ”We”ve done it before, our country needs us,” she said, and off she went. Not even a second thought.”
Today Sarah”s family waits on baited breath for each successive e-mail. They each take private moments throughout the day to pray for Sarah, for the troops that she works with and depends on.
“There”s a lot of strength in knowing that we”re not the only ones praying for her, said Elizabeth. “The whole nation is praying for our troops. Her knowing that we”re all praying for her and the troops gives her comfort. It gives them strength to do what they need to.”
They read the papers, devour the satellite transmissions from the Middle East and seek for Sarah”s bright pink flamingo.
You see, Sarah gave Laura a set of pack flamingos on tent stakes last fall. Sarah also purchased a set for herself to prove she”d been to the places in the pictures she sent home. The flamingo in the foreground is unmistakable.
“She took her flamingo with her to Kuwait and said to watch for it,” Laura said. “If it”s at all safe to do so, she”ll be out and about taking pictures and at all these sights there will be this pack flamingo.
Her family recognizes that looking for Sarah in the faces and uniforms that scroll across the nightly news is pointless. One soldier tends to look like another in the blowing sand.
However, “I am quite sure that Sarah is the only soldier in South West Asia equipped with an inflatable flamingo,” wrote Bob in a recent e-mail. “I know it will show up in the pictures from the front.”
Every evening between 5 and 7, Kate said she and her husband watch the news, looking for the Pink Flamingo. Elizabeth, her brother, her parents and their friends have extended the search for Sarah to others.
“She knows how much we love her,” Kate said. “Heavenly father loves her and no matter what, she”s not gone forever. That gives us so much comfort. If something does happen she will have died doing what she loved. Serving a country she”s so proud of. Whatever happens, she shows we”re a family forever, no matter what.