This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.By Jeanne McKinney
She was just a child in Bangkok, Thailand, when she was exposed to a shocking scene during the Vietnam War. Her father, an American Air Force officer, was stationed at Dong Muang Air Base and would take her and her brother into the office with him. One day, a plane landed and she watched as body bags were unloaded, one after another. Her father told her to never forget that “young people are the ones who bear the brunt of war.”
This distinctive childhood memory was present years later, in 1993, when she answered a handsome young officer’s proposal with, “Ask me to marry you again when we’re not in a war zone.” Earlier, in 1990, they had met in Puerto Rico – she on a drug interdiction assignment for the Air Force and he, her Navy counterpart.
“I didn’t particularly like him at first — he wasn’t my type.” However, she admired that he was hard-charging and had a plan and soon began to fall in love. For Lieutenant Hal Pittman, it was immediate attraction for this dark-haired beauty. “She was outgoing, fun and adventurous.” Another assignment called her away from Puerto Rico and Hal. Ahead, a noble legacy was to continue.
Rebecca Lynn Feaster is a descendent of generations of American military service members, starting with the Continental Army, to later include Confederate forces, and she is African-American. Rebecca says, “If you really love your country, you serve it. With greatness comes sacrifice. It’s not just about taking and taking.” Because she’s spent so much time overseas — her entire life entwined with the military — she believes, “This is the greatest country on the planet. To be born in the United States, you’re in the top 5 percent of the world’s population in relation to accessible resources and opportunities.” With this, she considers, “How do you give and live your life so it’s an exemplary one?”
Rebecca’s father, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, joined the military because he was a black man in the 1950s who had a college degree and few chances to use it in civilian society. Her sister Hilary is an Air Force Lt. Colonel on the rise, currently serving in Afghanistan. Rebecca and her siblings learned from their father to do the right thing, work hard, and to pursue something they had a passion for.
After attending middle and high schools in Wethersfield, Conn., Rebecca considers herself blessed to have received her commission through an ROTC scholarship that helped her earn an economics degree at Tufts University. From there she joined the Air Force as a munitions officer, but it wasn’t her passion. Thankfully, a senior officer allowed Rebecca to change career fields and get into public affairs.
Rebecca and Hal’s careers crossed again during deployments to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in 1992. “Our paths were going to collide, no matter what geography was between us.” So after a two-and-a-half-year courtship, when somehow they knew “the time was right,” she left the Air Force and became a Navy wife.
Rebecca has been with Rear Admiral Pittman most of his career. She tells young women, “If you’re thinking of marrying someone in the military, this life is not for everyone.” There are career and school shifts, quick moves, financial cutbacks, months of separation, and daily frustrations. She adds, “You’ll often be a single parent. You won’t hear from them every day and when they come back you have to step into a secondary role on how to run things and that takes huge adjustments.”
The October 2000 suicide bombing of the guided missile destroyer, the USS Cole, was a refining fire in more ways than one for Rebecca. “My husband called from the Pentagon saying, “There’s been a terrible accident. Sailors are dead. I’ve got to go.” I was in grad school, we had a newborn that was teething and replied, “You’ve got to be kidding me?”
Rear Admiral Pittman was sent to the grizzly bombing scene in Yemen with the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) when he got a call at his hotel. Rebecca relates, “I was having an extremely frustrating day telling him, ‘I don’t like the military. I hate the Navy and I can’t believe you’re there.’ He said to me in the calmest voice, “Listen, you’re doing a great job at home. Now, there’s a potential suicide bomber threat in this hotel and we have to put mattresses on the windows. Can I call you back?”
“He was so kind and sweet and loving,” which made her think, “Oh no, the last thing this man’s going to hear from me is this horrifying rant.” She hung up the phone and was scared.
In 2004, Hal, then based at Central Command, was with General Abizaid’s team visiting an Iraqi police station in Fallujah when a handful of snipers attacked. Rebecca heard from one of Hal’s mentors at the Pentagon, “We think everything is fine. If there were [American] injuries, we’d know about them.” But there were hours wondering if her husband was safe. Later, Hal emailed asking if they had enough life insurance on him. Rebecca says, “We [in the military] have to prepare for doing this life without our soul mates.” Rebecca’s own mother has been a role model on making the most of hard situations.
Rebecca has turned trials to triumphs with a self-made business. Utilizing her master’s degree in international public policy from John Hopkins University and years working in public affairs, she works with executive and community groups across the U.S. on how to handle crises. She delivers more than a dozen courses and her personal favorite (which is often requested) is about understanding Islam, backed by her studies and having lived as a Christian in Muslim countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Her love and joy is being part of the Feaster-Pittman team in support of their 13-year-old son Evan, unusually gifted in music and athletics. He’ll answer his mom’s question about his day at school with, “Let’s not talk about school. What happened in the world today?”
The former young Navy Lieutenant describes his wife, the reluctant former Air Force officer as, “warm, open and kind, yet practical. I don’t know anyone I’d rather hang out with.” She says marrying her persistent suitor was, “the very best decision I’ve ever made. I’m blessed to have him in my life.” They’re moving on to the next challenge as Rear Admiral Pittman retires. “We still have a son to get through college.”
From a shocked little girl overseas to a woman contributing much to her country, Rebecca advises, “The way you live your life is important because you don’t know when it will be over.”