(A post from the archives)
Today, May 12, 2012, marks my last day of military service obligation. Eight years ago, I became a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. [Actually, it wasn't until May of 2014 that I was formally discharged.]
Growing up, I always had a bit of hero worship for my dad. This really came forth when I came of age and began thinking about my future, college, and the man I wanted to be. I looked to my dad as the model of what a man should be: hard-working, loving, disciplined, strong, funny, thankful for life. That's the man I wanted to be.
In talking with him, Dad's time in the Army seemed to have been a significant time in his life and shaped him into the man he became. I have heard many of his war stories, but I know I haven't even scratched the surface. Dad is a Vietnam Veteran, part of the 101st Airborne, a paratrooper; he was also briefly in charge of almost half the nuclear weapons in Europe in the 1960's.
At about the same time, I read the book Starship Troopers. This book is one of 3 books I can wholeheartedly say changed my life. I loved Heinlein's definition of service. In the book, military service was required to be considered a citizen and vote, etc. To me, that embodies the fact that we are all part of government and society, but many of us take that for granted because we have not personally bled or sweated over its formation or upkeep. I did not want to be one of those people that takes the sacrifices of others for granted.
Say what you will about it, when I saw the movie Starship Troopers, it resonated with my 16 year-old self like very few things have in my life since. It only took nudity, graphic violence, and a message with the subtlety of a Neanderthal wielding a club to get through to my adolescent self. This was one of those rare life moments of epiphany: I knew right then that I wanted to serve.
I personally do not believe military service is right for everyone, and that's the way it should be. The military is for those who are willing to protect those that either cannot or will not protect themselves. In the imperfect world we live, they are the men and women "doing violence on our behalf." Service should not be limited to the military. I strongly believe inother paths. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college and serve.
For a brief time, I entertained going the hardcore route like Dad; paratrooper, special forces, gun-toting, anything that would sound badass to the grandchildren. I also wanted to be the intelligence guy; knowing secrets has always appealed to me. I hate not being in the know. I wanted to be the guy holding all the cards, throwing others at a problem where only I could see all the pieces. Army Intelligence seemed to be the place to start to work through to the CIA and a clandestine life to follow.
Reality set in one night when I got a phone call from an Air Force recruiter. I wish I remembered his name because that phone call changed my life; the Air Force had the technology and looked for slightly more cerebral recruits than grunts. I started applying for ROTC scholarships immediately. Eventually, I got a 4-year scholarship applied to Auburn, one of Dad's Alma Maters. After everything my parents had done for me, I wanted to pay for college.
At first, I almost didn't make it in. Before I could sign a contract, I had to pass all of the medial hurdles. The Department of Defense Medical Evaluation & Review Board (DoDMERB) didn't like that I was lactose intolerant. They considered this a food allergy, and I spent my first semester of college fighting the bureaucracy and going to specialists to prove I wouldn't die or cause others to die on the battlefield because of my inability to digest milk.
Finally, I persuaded DoDMERB to let me in, and I signed my contract. In order to meet the conditions of my scholarship, I had to keep a certain GPA, pass a physical fitness test (PFT) every semester, and graduate in 4 years (5 with a waiver). It sounded easy, but that contract was a dark cloud over every day of college for me. See, one of the possible consequences of not meeting the terms of the military contract was to be enlisted. That meant leaving college and immediately going to bootcamp with 4 years of service commitment, a death sentence in my mind.
I chose computer science as my major because I liked computers in high school, and I always wanted to be able to do things most people couldn't. Also, the AF is always looking for technical majors, and it made it simple to get a scholarship. In my sophomore year, though, I realized that I was incredibly lousy at math and the more esoterically technical parts of computer science. I struggled every semester to keep my GPA above the red line; the further into the major I got, the more math and technical classes I had. I could have always changed majors, but if I went off the AF's approved technical major list, I would risk having to reapply for an ever-dwindling scholarship slot.
So, I stuck it out, but I entertained a Backup Plan. When I would get discouraged or come seriously close to failing a class, I would put more pieces together. Basically, my plan was, if I failed out of college, I would get full tattoo sleeves, flee to Las Vegas, and drive a cab. I hoped to end up on Taxicab Confessions or just write the great American novel based on all the characters in and out of my cab. That's about all I got, but I used that idea like a security blanket when classes and ROTC started to get to me. Just having the idea there helped.
I always skirted disaster with the PFT too. The AF didn't have rigorous physical standards especially compared with the other branches, but I still struggled. I never had problems with the sit-ups or the push-ups, but running was new for me. I started running some in high school to qualify for my scholarship. In college, I tried to ramp it up, but it was never something I was very good at. I would always struggle in our morning PT sessions. But, I kept at it because I knew it would be a part of my life for the foreseeable future. It never failed, in the weeks leading up to a PFT, I would run my heart out and put out passing times. As soon as the actual test came, though, I wouldn't come close to making time; the only time in my life I've had test anxiety. One memorable failure came on 9/11; after I came home from the PFT, I watched the towers fall on TV. A couple weeks later, I passed just by the skin of my teeth. After that, they relaxed the standards enough to where I wasn't always in danger of failing.
In ROTC, there were very few people I actually liked; Dee was one of the few. I never felt like I fit in especially with the pilot candidates. I was never that comfortable with all the male (and female) bravado or the emphasis on physicality. Since I wasn't a strong runner, I was a second-class citizen much of the time. I was also in Alabama, the heart of conservative America, and almost all of my friends were very Republican. The stress of the contract was also on everyone's minds especially our freshman year; the rate of attrition that year was incredible. There were always rumors about who had been enlisted, but I never heard anything definitive about fellow cadets that disappeared.
The summer after my sophomore year, I went to Field Training (bootcamp) at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, FL. For most ROTC cadets, this was 4 weeks of training that heavily determined the following two years before graduation. 4 weeks doesn't sound like much, but we got up at 4:30 or earlier every morning with lights out at 10:00 every night. In between, we ran, did push-ups, solved puzzles and got yelled at. Every prior-enlisted member of my flight said it was way more difficult than the 6 or 8 week regular boot camp. The biggest difference was all the mental games; we weren't there to learn how to follow orders. We were supposed to learn to be leaders. If I learned one thing in ROTC, it was that leaders are born and managers are taught. If you weren't a leader before, you never would be. I don't think I ever was; I did learn a lot of management techniques, though. I graduated in the top 20%.
That didn't mean much by the time I got back to Auburn. The fall of my junior year, I went abroad to Japan. This was rare for a contract cadet; I'm not sure if it had ever been done before. Luckily, I had a lot of help from our commander, Colonel Doughtery. He really admired my experiences in Japan and was instrumental in my first assignment.
Luckily, I missed all the increase in bravado the first semester after Field Training. By the time I got back from Japan, most of my classmates had settled down and really matured into adults (for the most part). It was pretty difficult coming back, though. Most of my friends had moved on and seemingly forgotten about me; I didn't even make the yearbook photo. I had to almost start all over, and many of my friendships were never the same. It was worth it, though. I'll never forget that semester in Japan, and I think it had just as much impact on me as all four years of ROTC.
Spending a semester in Japan didn't help me graduate on time, but I managed with summer classes and heavy semester loads. Two days before graduation, I remember they sat us down around a conference table to finalize who would actually be graduating and become a commissioned officer. My graduating class had shrunk from a couple dozen to about half a dozen. We hadn't seen our grades yet, and I was honestly a nervous wreck. Miraculously, I passed and fulfilled my contract. In a small ceremony, my classmates and I were commissioned as officers. The next day, we had a joint ceremony with the other branches, then ran to graduation. I don't remember much from that day except running across campus in my uniform while changing into my cap and gown.
I was commissioned as a Communications and Information officer to my great disappointment. I had always dreamed of going Intelligence, but the AF needed Comm officers; with my degree in computer science, I really didn't have a chance of going anywhere else. My first assignment was Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. It was somewhat rare for a new Lieutenant to go overseas first off, but I had a lot of help from Col. Doughtery. Honestly, Okinawa wasn't even on my list of choices because I wanted to go back to mainland Japan, and I had such a prejudice against Okinawa just from things I had heard.
Getting used to the military lifestyle and settling in by myself overseas took a while, but I eventually loved it. Living in Okinawa was amazing; it is a subtropical island in the Pacific after all. I was always lonely, though. I probably flew back and forth between the States and Okinawa a dozen times for training, holidays, and family events.
I hated my first job; I was a project manager in the Plans & Projects Flight of the 18th Communications Squadron. I didn't really do anything but push papers around. Just as one of my projects was about to show something, I got pulled to do something else. It was really my adjustment phase into the work force.
I loved my second job; I worked as a Crew Commander in the Network Control Center (NCC) in the 18th CS. I was basically in charge of all the email for a couple thousand people on the base plus other duties. I directly supervised about 30 enlisted personnel, some of which had been active duty longer than I had been alive. I didn't so much like being on the technical support side, but that wasn't really my job. I was more management and liaison to the rest of the base. You've never seen a shitstorm like when a 1-star general's email goes down.
I probably learned more from my year in the NCC than all four years of ROTC. I also made quite a few lasting friendships. I look back on it as the best job I ever had. But, after two years, it was time for me to rotate back to the States. I tried like hell to stay overseas, but I knew I was just being greedy.
Choosing my second assignment was tricky because of a woman. I tried to stay overseas for my own benefit, and I'm glad I did, but I also listened to her wishes and ended up in San Antonio, Texas.
Everything at Lackland Air Force Base was different from Kadena. There was no sense of camaraderie or mission; it was just another 7:30-4:30 job for the people I worked with there - no leadership, no purpose. From that, I learned that I need to feel useful, like I make a difference to be happy. I was never happy at Lackland because I never felt like what I was doing was important. The friends I made there and I would literally come in 2 hours late, spend our time in the vault bullshitting and complaining, take a 2-hour lunch, then leave 2 hours early. We had no reason to be there or respect any discipline.
When the AF decided to downsize, I took the chance to jump ship. What they called Force Shaping was just a response to making too many officers in some career fields then politely asking them to leave. Of course, they had way too many Comm officers, so I had free reign to leave. It was a very difficult decision to make because I had to learn that sometimes my life is not going to follow the plan I laid out. I always imagined getting out just not that soon. I felt like a quitter, but I was so miserable in Texas I didn't see any alternative.
I decided to go back to school and transition to the Inactive Ready Reserve for the duration of my service commitment. I tried to get a job in the Reserves or Guard, but the Force Shaping had narrowed that field of opportunity. So, I became a civilian again and moved back home to lick my wounds and drastically change careers. I received a late promotion to Captain, but I always think of myself as a Lieutenant; that's all anyone ever called me.
My military service is my single proudest accomplishment. That may sound strange since it was such a short period of my life, but it was the most important. The amount of effort, both mental and physical, it took to achieve my goals have shaped the man I am today. I am who I am today because of my parents and my time in the military: committed, dependable, honorable, dedicated, honest, physically fit, disciplined, and OCD.
As corny as they are, I still try to live my life by the AF core values: integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do. To me, they mean to be the man that can look himself in the mirror every day; always put others first; do your best every single day, in every single task. This is what service means to me.
I have no regrets about not following my life plan or how things have turned out. My biggest regret, however, is not doing my part during wartime. I am now the lame "non-combat veteran." All my active duty friends have been deployed at least once to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. This is one of, if not the, biggest regrets in my life. I have a Veteran license plate, and I collect VA benefits, but I feel guilty. Dee's death re-sparked my guilt at barely having served yet calling myself a veteran. I am ashamed of myself more often than proud.