“I’m sure each and every one of us has a story, wherever we come from in the world,” said Chief Master Sgt. George Anderson, speaking before a group of Airmen and NCOs Feb. 28 at the Vogelweh Military Complex.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa first sergeant shared his story of mentorship and resilience during a joint monthly meeting between two of the Kaiserslautern Military Community’s mentorship clubs — The Huddle and KMC Let’s Connect.
They gave him a microphone, but he rejected it and called for the crowd to come closer around him.
He wasn’t in uniform that evening, and he didn’t bear his rank or position. That night, he came as if he was one of them.
“You come to this point in your life when you join the military for a reason,” he said.
Anderson didn’t sugarcoat his reason for joining the Air Force. Instead of giving the rote answer of wanting to serve the country or fight for freedom, he confessed that his original reason was more personal.
“I was running from stuff,” he said. “It’s not because I wanted to become a better person, go to college or learn a skill set. I wanted to get out of home.”
Anderson grew up in a troubled family in New Orleans, La. Alcohol and domestic abuse were daily realities for him, he explained.
One day his mother left him and his younger sister to their abusive father.
“She basically said ‘deuces,’ and I became the parent in the house,” he narrated. “To protect my younger sister, I used to pick fights with my dad to leave her alone.”
Eventually, Anderson joined the Air Force, claiming the rigors of basic military training were more bearable compared to the abuse he faced at home.
“Getting yelled at by a training instructor was like a welcome break, because he wasn’t hitting me upside the head,” he recalled. “Having to be told what to do was ok.”
But while BMT taught Anderson the basics of the Air Force way of life, he still carried his traits from home. Anderson continued to get into trouble even as an Airman.
“I had some bad habits,” he said. “Early in my career I was a knucklehead Airman, and I relied on some of the bad things I did growing up. In my first year in the Air Force, I could’ve probably wallpapered this place with the amount of paperwork I got.”
Then finally, there was one occasion which stood out to him in such way that he decided to change his way of thinking.
“I was in front of my commander, standing at attention in my blues, which was a very fun place to be, and I felt about this big as he yelled at me,” Anderson narrated sarcastically while holding up his finger and thumb with a small space between. “In my mind and at that point, I made a conscious decision: this is the last time this is going to happen, and it has to start somewhere. So I really wanted to change, but I didn’t know how.
“I wish there were resources like this … a network where I could’ve talked to someone,” he continued, pointing to the crowd of mentors and peers around him.
Anderson found himself at a crossroads with nothing to guide him in the right direction. He added that his experience was not unique, there are many others who find themselves in a similar situation: knowing what to do, but not how to do it.
“That’s kind of where we find ourselves in life,” Anderson said. “We’re faced with adversity and a lot of times we want to get out of it, but we don’t always know how.”
Along the way, Anderson met the person he would describe as the best supervisor he has ever had, Senior Airman Jason Long.
Long met Anderson at his level, and took the time to know him instead of judging him based on his mistakes. Anderson recalled his first conversation with Long as pertaining more to personal matters than his job.
“It had nothing to do with work, and it had nothing to do with the trouble I had been in,” he said. “It was … the small things, and he got to know me as a person. It’s a little investment in time, but it’s worth it. For once, here was someone I could talk to, here was someone I could relate to, and it was so incredible to have that.”
In the course of time, Anderson had more mentors who helped him with other issues he had.
Anderson lambasted the mentality of trying to go through life struggles alone and encouraged Airmen to find people they can trust and confide in. He also stressed the importance for Airmen to face their struggles instead of running from them.
“You learn from your mistakes, you grow, and you overcome it,” he said. “That’s part of resiliency. It’s not letting your mistakes defeat you; it’s not letting adversity defeat you. Sometimes we’re all in unhealthy places where we need a little help.”
“I think the key is that personal connection that we build with each other, where we bond and become stronger together. Nobody succeeds in life by themselves,” he continued.
One individual that night who echoed Anderson’s sentiments was Master Sgt. Erroll Jackson Jr., 86th Force Support Squadron career assistance advisor. Jackson, who also hailed from New Orleans, said he had a similar upbringing to Anderson’s and also the same motive for joining the Air Force.
Jackson noted that although he joined the military to get away from home, his family noticed a positive change in him since he left.
“I went home a few weeks ago, and family members would tell me ‘we’re so glad you left’ … so getting away was a positive thing,” he said. “It (the Air Force), gave me focus and a direction. That’s something I didn’t have before I joined.”
Like Anderson, Jackson encouraged Airmen to seek out mentorship opportunities, such as what The Huddle and KMC Let’s Connect offers. The mentorship clubs offer an environment where Airmen need not fear the presence of individuals who may possess a higher rank when they are on duty.
“It’s all about knowing you as an individual, not what you do in your career,” Jackson explained. “People connect with you at a personal level, and all those walls fall, and you’re much more receptive to what people have to say.”
Anderson credited his success to the people who invested in his life. He also emphasized the need for people to be open-minded and learn from each other, despite their rank and age.
The opportunities to mentor and receive mentorship back from them is what Anderson described as his favorite part of being an Airman, and one of the most difficult things to leave behind when he retires.
“I’m here because of you, that’s the hardest thing about taking off the uniform,” he said. “It’s not the about the job, it’s about you. It’s the people we serve with.”