U.S. Air Forces in Europe recently gained more than 70 master resilience trainers; I count myself lucky to be one of them. However, some people would say the Air Force is lucky to count me as one of its MRTs.
The people who know my personal Air Force history have referred to me as the epitome of resilience. I don’t know about that myself, but let me share my history with you.
I enlisted in the Air Force in 2010 after graduating college with my bachelor’s degree in physics. In basic military training, I had one goal: to leave with my military training instructor not knowing my name. I failed, as I was picked to be an element leader shortly after getting there, and I finished BMT as an honor graduate.
I then proceeded to technical training at Fort Meade, Maryland, where I was one of the top students but fell just short of distinguished graduate. I arrived at my first duty station, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, where I won two wing staff agencies’ Airman of the quarter awards while staying active in my community as a volunteer lead and pursuing the few credits my bachelor’s didn’t cover for my Community College of the Air Force degree.
All of these things played a part in me being awarded the rank of senior airman early, under the Below-the-Zone program, which in turn allowed me to test for staff sergeant a year earlier than I normally would have. I found out I made staff sergeant shortly before finding out I would be making a permanent change of station to Ramstein, arguably one of the best assignments in the Air Force, but I wasn’t really happy about either one.
I’m not one of those people that want to rush to rank. Yes, more money and more opportunities come with it but so does more responsibility, and that was the focus of my mind. I wasn’t sure I was ready to lead and be in charge of someone else’s career, even though my superintendent at the time told me I was being groomed to be a chief master sergeant.
Additionally, I got picked up for Ramstein because it was still on my selection sheet from when I was engaged to a French woman, who I broke up with two years prior, because it was the closest the Air Force could get me to the part of France where her family lived without being assigned to a consulate. I also had to let another relationship go because Ramstein placed distance between us.
So, I wasn’t thrilled about either aspect as they brought up questions I wasn’t really ready to deal with: Am I ready to be an NCO? How am I going to deal with being in a location that brings up a moment, in my mind at least, when I failed?
But I pushed on as expected, and I only brought up my reservations about being an NCO to my new leaders at Ramstein before I headed to Airman Leadership School, where again I excelled as I graduated at the top of my class as the John L. Levitow Award winner.
Things were looking to continue onward and upward for my career, until I made a mistake. The very same night I graduated ALS as the Levitow award winner was the same night I was charged with driving while intoxicated. It was April 1, 2014, one heck of a buildup to an April Fools’ joke on my career. It was even crueler as both my first sergeant and my supervisor, who only hours earlier saw me win a distinguished award, had to pick me up from a police station.
I sometimes still feel the sad pat on my back my first sergeant gave me as my supervisor walked me out of the station to head home, and that honestly hurt more than the actual punishment I got from getting a DWI.
The first few days were rough. I went through a cycle of grief. I denied it happened, but my car missing from my driveway said otherwise. I got angry at myself for being stupid. I barely ate or got out of bed. I even laid down once and asked God to just let me make it through this without being kicked out of the Air Force. Then, I finally accepted that if I didn’t get kicked out I would do my best to leave the Air Force on my terms. At least, I thought I had accepted it.
My blood alcohol level wasn’t high enough to warrant a more severe punishment, so my commander gave me a letter of reprimand and took away my line number for staff sergeant, a guarantee to a referral enlisted performance report and a warning that I had put myself on the chopping block should a force reduction require it.
The situation was not ideal, but I was still in the Air Force at the moment and still able to work toward being better. However, this was harder than I thought.
I had to make some personal changes to better suit my unit, but I definitely didn’t get a warm fuzzy feeling from them. Many of my co-workers, both Airmen and NCOs I thought I had formed bonds with, quickly distanced themselves from me. Even some of the people I considered friends from Davis-Monthan stopped talking to me. I wasn’t being tasked with any job. Most people didn’t even look me in the eyes.
I felt as if I had been put off to the side as if to say, “He’ll be out of here soon. Let’s just make sure he doesn’t do any more damage to our reputation.” No one actually said this, and I don’t think I would have blamed them if they had, but actions can often speak louder than words.
Initially, I had to find things to do. Some people took notice of my initiative and started tasking me again. The first person was actually another senior airman who needed help covering a story for the base paper. Then, the person who would eventually become my new supervisor had a conversation with me.
She asked me how I was doing, made sure I wasn’t planning to hurt myself or give up. Then, she said she was proud of me for not giving up because she had seen other Airmen, even some in our shop, who would have had they been in my shoes. She also encouraged me to keep going and to be an example to other Airmen. I’m just now realizing that was the moment I gave up most of my reservations about being an NCO.
So, I kept plugging along doing what I could to show that incident wasn’t indicative of the person I am and strive to be. I had to admit some things to myself. I had fallen, my relationship issues were bigger to me than I realized, those fears of being an NCO were part of the underlying cause to my heavier drinking and reckless behavior, and it hurt to be shunned.
My referral EPR came as expected, but due to the change to a static closeout date for EPRs, I received another one in six months. This allowed me to test for staff sergeant again in 2015. Spoiler alert: I made it again.
Making staff sergeant wasn’t the highlight of 2015 for me. I met a wonderful woman at the end of 2014, who I made my wife and with whom I now have a beautiful daughter. I kept pushing forward. I got involved with my community again, and I took steps to start working toward my master’s degree.
I kept moving forward in work as well. I became a self-aid and buddy care instructor. I also became a resilience training assistant, which eventually led to me being selected for the MRT course.
During the MRT course, I heard many people share intimate moments in their lives, which they had to overcome. One particular story hit close as another NCO shared how he had been demoted.
I had been asked to share my story. Again, some people saw me as the epitome of resilience, but I just couldn’t find it in myself to do it. I didn’t know why until I heard him tell his story in conjunction with the lesson we were learning.
I had never really accepted it and moved on. I had never even told my family back home because I didn’t want to disappoint them. Almost two years had passed, and I had kept it away from them.
So, that’s what I did, and they responded with, “Everything happens for a reason. … Look at you now,” “We’re still proud of you,” and “We love you.”
Now, I don’t know if I’ll share this story often. I still don’t think it’s indicative of who I am. I still don’t think I’m an epitome of resilience, but I have some resilient qualities for sure. What I do know is I’m lucky to have the support I do, and I’m lucky to be an MRT because now I get to teach others how to make it through those difficult situations.