EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
I don’t like change. I am a creature of habit; I find comfort in the familiar and in establishing routine. For most of my life, I felt like I struggled to make connections with new people and it took a long time for me to grow comfortable in new environments, so I did my best to avoid it. This continued until the day I joined the Air Force.
Having served nearly nine years, family, friends and even strangers are curious about how military service has changed me. It undoubtedly has, but the question of how it has changed me is difficult to answer. I can’t pinpoint a date or single event because it happened over time.
Becoming an Airman
Enduring and then graduating from basic military training is a milestone for every enlisted Airman. It was essentially a crash course of the Air Force lifestyle. I was exposed to new and sometimes unbelievable standards of discipline. My natural tendency to gloss over minor details was thrown out the window and my dislike for seemingly tedious tasks was challenged throughout the eight weeks.
Although it wasn't clear during training, I eventually realized the things we were learning in the classroom, on the drill pad and even in the dormitory were all part of a bigger lesson. The goal was not to teach us the perfect way to fold our sand T-shirts or roll our socks or how to make a perfect hospital corner. The goal was to transform us into Airmen. Immediately after the BMT graduation ceremony ended it felt like someone flipped a switch. I found myself at the finish line and suddenly everything that happened in the previous eight weeks came together in my mind. I was everything I was before, but I was also an Airman.
Finding meaning to my mission
Sometimes, while at home station it is difficult to see how our individual roles affect the mission. I'll be honest, there were many times when I felt the things I was doing didn't matter. I frankly couldn't see how my tiny role could have any real effect on anything; that all changed during my first deployment.
In 2015, I deployed to Southwest Asia. Being a first-time deployer, I had the nerves of a rookie. Preparing to leave felt overwhelming at times. I had a million questions and I had so much training to do and appointments to attend that my days seemed to run together. During the six-month deployment my team and I worked six days a week, nearly 12 hours each day. There was no such thing as private or personal space. We weren't allowed to leave the installation and needless to say, the options on base for food or anything resembling the comforts of home were limited at best.
Even without the luxuries and routines of home, it was the best, most eye-opening experience I've had in the Air Force. The camaraderie in a deployed location is unlike anything in the world. We were all there, working side-by-side, day after day to make our contribution. Seeing the entire installation come together to keep the mission going so seamlessly was incredible. That deployment reshaped my outlook on why we do the things we do, and gave my military service real meaning and value.
Learning my value
Some of the most influential and impactful lessons I've learned in my life I learned from fellow Airmen. I remember one of my first interactions with a chief master sergeant within my first year in the Air Force. As a "one-striper" I was extremely intimidated. He went down the list of questions I had been asked over and over again since arriving on station. He asked where I was from, if I was enjoying being on the base so far, if I planned on staying in the Air Force and making it a career, etc. The conversation went on and eventually the intimidation subsided. By the end of our talk I realized I had shared stories about my family, the culture and environment in my work center, and my career and education goals.
I learned two things from the chief I still carry with me today: Every Airman, regardless of rank, deserves to be treated with respect; and showing that you care about your people goes a long way. These two lessons were important for me to learn, especially at the start of my career, because it showed me that my leaders valued me as a person. My worth was not based on the stripes on my sleeve. I walked away from that conversation with the chief feeling like my thoughts and opinions mattered. That chief continues to serve, in my life, as a shining example of a compassionate leader, one that I was happy to know had my interests and the interests of young Airmen like me in mind.
In such a short time the Air Force has given me many things. It has allowed me to accomplish and experience things I never thought I would, and exposed me to a world I felt would always be out of reach. I’ve made many sacrifices as part of my military service, but I am grateful for what the service has done for me and the wonderful ways it has helped me grow and, despite my best efforts, to change.