I am a veteran. A veteran of many things, one of which happens to be military service. Air Force service, to the tune of 20 years. What does it mean to me to be a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?
When I looked into the military ‘lo these many years ago, I had no grand ambitions to be a hero, or go to war, or even stay longer than the minimum time allowed by law. In 1998, I was a video store clerk, getting paid cash at the end of my shift. I was the stereotypical, military or jail type of guy. Though they didn’t offer that particular “incentive” at the time, I understood it was my best option.
I was not a poster child for how to live your life. I had been in and out of trouble with the law, and had burned so many bridges I didn’t have to pay for heating anymore. I had a wife, a son, and absolutely no way to care for either of them. The final straw dropped when one of my friends was indicted for killing another of my friends. One of his best friends, in fact. If that could happen, what fresh hell was waiting for me if things did not change?
In the Navy?
In my pre-Air Force haze, I figured the Navy would be the best option for me. They have a world-class electronics school, and I already had a cousin in the Navy. Another cousin was going into the Army, and I had already run PT with them during delayed enlistment and wanted nothing to do with that kind of crap! Where you gonna run on a ship, huh?
The Navy recruiter was nice, even telling me how to beat the drug test, should I need guidance in that area. I knew then that something was hinky, but figured the Navy knows how to party! They also know how to separate families, I found out from people in that new subdivision, the world wide web. HOW many months at sea?!? But, my recruiter told me I’d be based on the coast, stateside, and would rarely EVER have to actually go to sea. Wait a minute; what does the Air Force do?
The Air Force does not have to work hard to meet recruiting goals. Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Jones made me understand that joining did not mean being paid to party. He showed me how my past was sure as hell going to affect my future, but also showed me he was willing to help me overcome the obstacles I had placed in my own way. His was the very first example of airmanship I ever saw, and I thank him to this day for making time in his schedule to hold my hand through the process.
Airman for Life!
After basic training and tech school, and a couple of years at my first duty location, a group of terrorists murdered 2,977 people. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m washing a load of clothes in a tent on Diego Garcia. “Brian?” I hear behind me. Not used to hearing my first name, it did not register at first. Then I heard it again, and the voice sounded familiar. I turned around, and there stood Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Jones (yes, that really was his name).
He held his hands up and said “Don’t hit me,” but I was just dumbfounded. How in the hell was my recruiter, whom I’d last seen standing in the video store three years ago, now crunching over crushed coral to say hi? Turns out, he was there to catch and turn the B-2s that were returning from bombing runs over Afghanistan. Only there for a few days, he would be leaving that night. Just a few days before, I had helped unload the jet that had brought him there.
We talked for a while, catching up. He had become a regular part of my life while in the recruiting phase, and asked about my wife and son. I told him about my daughter, born the year before, and he told me about his daughters being close to graduation (I think; it was a long time ago). He told me he had some things for me to make deployment better, if I wanted them. I still have the self-inflating air mattress he gave me. Made that cot a LOT more comfortable, I’ll tell you.
Since I had to go to work, I wasn’t able to see him off. He came by my tent and dropped off the stuff he had, plus a hand-written note. I’m pretty sure I still have that note somewhere, too. His note told me he was proud of the way things had worked out for me. He gave me credit for doing the right things to get myself out of the morass I was stuck in in Nashville. He gave credit to God for putting me in his path.
Reflections of a (Former) Young Punk
I didn’t join to make the world a better place, fight terrorism, or even go to school. I joined to make life better for my wife and son. I joined to stop myself from becoming an alcoholic, junkie, or worse. I joined because it was the best option I had at the time. I stayed because of people like TSgt Jones. He was an Air Force veteran when we met, and his example led me to where I am right now, writing this piece for you to read.
I have counseled many Airmen through the years on whether the Air Force was the right fit for them. Usually, it was, but sometimes it wasn’t. Some of those guys separated and went on to become professionals in their own right, becoming beacons of veteran ingenuity and resourcefulness. Some work for major defense contractors, while others teach, build, or repair. Some stayed in for 20 years, moving up through the ranks, becoming supervisors and mentors.
If I’m not in my truck with the DV plates on it, you probably wouldn’t know I’m a veteran. I don’t have Air Force tattoos, I don’t wear Air Force veteran t-shirts, and the only bumper sticker I ever had was for my daughter’s high school band. I don’t broadcast my “status” at all. I do, however, talk to anyone who asks about my service. I lay out the good and the bad of being in the Air Force. I happily tell my kids’ friends whether I think the military is right for them.
I do not define myself by my military service. It was the longest job I’ve ever held, with some of the proudest and most horrible moments I’ve ever had. It did bring me out of the hole I had dug for myself as a teenager. It gave me the footing to build the life I have now. The life WE have now, because my wife and kids were there through it all.
Was I proud of my military service? Mostly, yes. Would I do it all over again? Yup, with a few minor changes. Would I go back now? Not on your life! To me, being a veteran means I’ve been there and done that. I have helped others be there and do that, as well. Being a veteran means I have experienced the good and the bad, and chose to go on.
The military machine grinds on and on, and will until there is no more Enemy. I was a single cog in that machine for 20 years; interchangeable, maybe, but still an integral part. That is what being a veteran means to me.