Tech. Sgt. Reuben McClendon had everything going for him when he began his Air Force career in the security forces field.
As a young Airman many years ago, he excelled in his duties, gained a wealth of experience from deployments, won awards left and right, and received accolades from his colleagues.
McClendon felt even more unstoppable when he first became a non-commissioned officer at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.
“When I graduated from Airman Leadership School, I won the Academic Achievement and Commandant Awards,” he said. “My head started bloating up: I was young and invincible, I deployed several times, I gained all this recognition from my leadership, and they offered me a job in a staff sergeant position.”
The freshly-promoted NCO wasted no time excelling in his new job.
One day however, something happened that changed the course of McClendon’s life and career: he was caught in an unprofessional relationship and promptly apprehended.
Before McClendon knew it, he was standing before his commander who dished out his punishment.
“He demoted me right there on the spot,” McClendon said. “Everything I worked for in my life was gone … and it destroyed me on the inside. So I did what many people would do; drink excessively and blame everyone.
“I was constantly thinking about how I let my family down,” he added.
Thus began a low point in McClendon’s life, as well as a series of drunk nights and finger-pointing. The demoted Airman spent hours rationalizing his downfall.
“There I was sitting in my room, intoxicated and wallowing in self-pity,” McClendon recalled. “I was blaming everybody but myself.”
But not all hope was lost for McClendon, a good samaritan came into his life — almost by chance — who would help him onto the road to recovery.
McClendon took his uniform to the local dry-cleaning business to get his NCO stripes replaced. He broke into tears as he saw his staff sergeant stripes being torn off.
“I was standing there crying, and there was a man standing behind me asking what’s going on,” McClendon said. “Little did I know how that interaction would change my life.”
McClendon identified the man as now-retired Chief Master Sergeant Avery Jones.
He told Jones that he was just recently demoted. The chief then told McClendon to visit him in his office the next day.
As McClendon walked into Jones’ office, he noticed a plaque hanging on the back of the chief’s door. It contained three sets of stripes symbolizing ranks in the junior enlisted tier: Airman, Airman 1st Class, and Senior Airman.
“I asked him about it and he said, ‘I put it there so I never forget where I came from,’” McClendon recalled. “That was the first lesson that I learned, because I realized how easy it was to go from being an NCO back to a junior Airman.”
Jones gave him a roadmap to recovery: first, he would take classes to finish his college education — although McClendon would have to pay out of pocket since he lost tuition assistance privileges. Second, he would return to the ALS from which he graduated and tell them what happened. The intent of this was to share his story and hopefully provide a blueprint for ALS students on how to be an effective NCO.
The last piece of instruction the chief gave McClendon that day was to go home to forget about his demotion.
“He told me to stay above the stigma of losing a stripe,” McClendon said. “I had to ignore the awkward stares and secret conversations. I was to focus on my goals and my future.”
The journey was not easy, but McClendon said he did his best to keep his eyes forward and take back his career.
Over time, and with the mercy of his commander, he gained his stripes back and eventually moved on to a new assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where he said the healing truly began. There, McClendon found himself giving inspirational speeches, mentoring new Airmen, and leading resiliency programs.
One instance, which McClendon said he remembers well, was during one of the base’s Wingman Days, when he was told to share his story before his colleagues. When he arrived at the venue for his speech, he was surprised to see an audience of more than two thousand people.
He asked his commander for encouragement.
“Most people might not pay attention, and their minds will wander somewhere else,” McClendon remembered the commander saying. “But maybe one person will hear you — and your message will change that person’s life.”
At that, the Airman summoned his courage and told his story.
McClendon now serves as assistant NCO in charge of training for the 86th Security Forces Squadron at Ramstein Air Base. He continues to work hard building his career and helps Airmen build theirs. McClendon says he takes advantage of every mentorship opportunity that comes his way, telling his story to others as a way to encourage them in difficult times and also as a warning not to repeat his mistakes.
He also went on to develop the Air Force resilience curriculum and teach more than 2,000 students.
McClendon said that although he has come a long way in his journey, he never forgets where he came from. He added that the lessons he learned in the past helped mold him into the man he is now: not just as an NCO and an Airman, but as a husband, a father, a leader, a mentor, and a friend.
“It’s humbling to be able to tell my story and share all the lessons I learned with other people,” he said. “When people go through difficult chapters in their career, I can emphasize with them because I’ve been there. I can relate to their fears, emotions, and doubts — because I’ve felt those same things many years ago.”
For his success in overcoming adversity, McClendon credited the old chief who met him where he was at — and helped him turn his mess into a message.