Humble beginnings breed resilient Airmen

Story and photo by Airman 1st Class D. Blake Browning
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Posted behind the warming lights and food pans at the dining facility on Kapaun stands Airman 1st Class John Michael Stewart, 786th Force Support Squadron services journeyman, armed with a spoon and a bright smile, happy to serve the world’s greatest Airmen.

Airman 1st Class John Michael Stewart, 786th Force Support Squadron services journeyman, calls for more food July 28 at the Lindberg Hof Dining Facility on Kapaun. On assignment in Germany, Stewart’s primary duties as a services journeyman mirror that of a culinary artist.

Stewart’s positive demeanor comes from the pride he takes in his career.

“I guess it is the whole job versus career aspect,” Stewart said. “A job is something that you go and do every day, not necessarily because you want to but because it pays the bills, while a career is something you enjoy doing.”

Stewart hasn’t always been as cheerful. In fact, for a significant portion of his life, Stewart has battled food.

Early in life, Stewart found himself unable to deal with the problems he faced at home. He struggled with anorexia and bulimia and living up to other people’s expectations. Eventually, it put him in a downward spiral socially, especially with his stepmother.

“It felt like neglect at first,” Stewart said. “But looking back now, it’s more like their inexperience. They were really young, especially my step-mother.”

It just wasn’t the best place to be, Stewart said. He was constantly fighting with his stepmother, which led to his siblings getting involved, and that was causing fights between her and his father, who were considering divorce.

In an effort to keep whatever peace was left in the household, Stewart said he decided to take the high road and just leave.

“I ran away from home,” Stewart said. “I had about $360 in my pocket and all of my stuff in my trunk and across the back of my car. When I started living out of my car, I actually had to bum it in the school parking lot.”

With a red hood, blue fender and a pink spoiler, Stewart’s quad-colored 1996 Plymouth Neon doubled as his domicile and means of transportation as he embarked on his journey.

A small-town native, Stewart grew up in an area that had two gas stations competing right beside each other all the time. There weren’t any traffic signals and, from memory, only one stop sign.

“It was hard most nights, especially on nights when I couldn’t eat and all I wanted to do was sleep, but sometimes it was just too cold to sleep,” Stewart said. “On the nights I could eat, it was always fast food and always the spicy chicken sandwich. It was probably $1.20, and I preferred the spicy sauce over the regular sandwich because it made me feel like it was an actual meal. It made me feel like I actually had a choice, even though it was 20 cents more.”

With a limited budget and no income, Stewart needed to think on his feet if he was going to survive, so he started applying for jobs at local restaurants.

“When fast food restaurants start turning you away, you start thinking badly about yourself,” Stewart said. “But even though I felt so crappy, there was a feeling in my gut that I was finally free.”

There was one week Stewart said he didn’t have any money to pay for gas and his car bottomed out on him.

“That was probably the hardest week I had to endure,” Stewart said. “But the radio was my best friend. That’s what helped me get through. As long as my car battery worked, the radio was working, and it didn’t matter if I had gas or not.”

Provoked by his living situation, Stewart took to extracurricular activities to fill the time between the end of school and returning to his car.

Idolizing his wrestling coach at that time, Stewart said he followed his coach’s guidance and decided to drop down to the 103 weight class. Then weighing 128 pounds, Stewart lost weight by any means necessary.

“I would starve and dehydrate myself to the point where I would black out,” Stewart said. “Next thing I know, my face would be in dish water or the bath tub, and I would be sucking on the water.”

The spiraling lack of control in his life, Stewart said, pushed him into an arena where the only way he felt he could regain any command of his life would be through his eating disorders.

“It was something I was able to control,” Stewart said. “I could control losing weight, although I couldn’t control what happens when I lose the weight.”

Luckily, toward the end of his high school career, Stewart had found a job working at the local Young Men’s Christian Association in his community.

“Once I got that YMCA job, it opened up networks, and that’s how I got my connection with the recruiter,” Stewart said. “I had a part-time job working as a referee for little kids’ soccer at the YMCA, and once I developed my people skills, I was able to work with the older group of kids. It’s how I made my living.”

Stewart spent most of his time at the YMCA, showering, working out, talking to older people and networking. Over time he spoke with a group of veterans who were able to give him a lot of information and insight on the different branches of service.

Eager to make a change in his life, Stewart first looked toward service in the United States Army but ended up speaking to an Air Force recruiter.

“I just want to be able to help others the way that I wish I would’ve been helped,” Stewart said.

Stewart decided to pursue a career as an Air Force pararescueman. He told his family and friends of his decision, and few days later, the recruiters told him he would leave for basic military training in two weeks.

Like many, the first stop on a serviceman’s journey through the Air Force is the venture through BMT.

“BMT was the most amazing thing to ever happen in my life,” Stewart said. “After that moment, it’s only been uphill.

Stewart washed out of his technical school but did not allow failing pararescue training to consume him. Instead, he chose to view it through a different perspective.

“At first, it felt like a huge step back,” Stewart said. “It took a while to realize it was more of a second chance.”

Stewart was re-classed into the services career field.

“I would definitely say that being in services I’ve been able to see the overall goal, the overall mission better here,” Stewart said.

Since joining the military, Stewart has been able to face a lot of the troubles that plagued his life.

“Being in the military is what helped me conquer my eating disorders,” Stewart said.

Between the meals in the dining facility and routine workouts, Stewart said he’s gained 21 pounds since enlisting.

Through a volley of emotions and experiences, Stewart has now conquered the same demon that plagued him the majority of his life. It’s fitting he can now serve it to his fellow service members as fuel to complete the mission.

“I have a lot more self-confidence,” Stewart said. “I’m happily married. The Air Force has helped me grow by expanding my knowledge and my desires. … What makes this a career to me is the people I get to meet. One person can change your life, and I choose to let each person I meet change my life for the better.”