In 1999, I enlisted in the Air Force to be an Avionics Technician. Upon completion of basic training and technical school, I was assigned to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. I married into what can be called an "instant family" with a pregnant woman and her first son in 2000. I did not foresee this as a problem until later. During this time, I was having training issues as well. In order to continue a career in the military, it is required to become proficient in that particular field of expertise. This includes testing into higher levels, but no matter how hard I studied, I could not pass the tests to be considered proficient. I also had a bad attitude at the time. I became what people called a "dirt-bag Airman"- someone that cannot or will not hold his/her own weight in daily duties. I blamed my shortfalls on the training I received or on other people. I would report to work in a unkempt uniform and no haircut. I would refuse to do my assigned duties and was extremely disrespectful to my peers and supervision.
My world was falling apart. I was not able to progress in my career; my wife had become adulterous and was destroying our financial standings. I was on the verge of losing it all. Then, I reached the breaking point. I was assigned to the tool and supply shop. Our duties included supplying tools and equipment to the other sections. We also conducted inspections of these tools, packed them for deployments, and moved heavier equipment during exercises by way of forklift. I had just failed my second test for progression. Usually, this means dismissal from the Air Force and the squadron commander was looking forward to sending me on my way. With the fact that I could not progress my training, show financial responsibility, and displayed conduct that would make any supervisor cringe, he had all the justification he needed to sign the forms without hesitation. This was on a Monday. On Tuesday, while at home, I received a phone call from command. I was instructed to report to the base commander Wednesday morning, and I had better look sharp. The next morning, I arrived at the Commander's office with a fresh haircut and clean pressed uniform. I looked like I had just left basic training; my hair was short and within standards, I was clean shaven, my uniform was starched and pressed and my boots were shined to a mirrored gloss. For twenty minutes, I waited nervously for him to call me into his office. I was so nervous, I could not stop shaking. I knew I did not want out of the Air Force, but I had made such a mess of my career, I did not think there was any way for it to be saved . . . I was wrong.
The commander, a gaunt, middle-aged man with graying hair, beckoned me to his office. As I approached I was greeted with a smile and an apology for taking so long to call on me. His office was well lit with decorations and awards from his time as a pilot and commander of various commands and old aircraft parts mounted to plaques, displaying people's thanks for his leadership. Flags from various countries he visited or served in were displayed proudly along with the plaques and various other displays. His desk was u-shaped and made of solid oak. Strewn along one side of it were records. These records were mine. Apparently, he had been reviewing them before he called me into his office. The meeting was short as only a few questions were asked. One portion of the conversation I distinctly remember is, "I have reviewed your records. With how your test scores are, how in the world did you fail that test twice?!" I could not answer his question. The commander then made a comment that will change my life forever. "I'm going to hold onto your separation package until Monday. You have the rest of this week and the weekend to come to a decision. Take this decision seriously as I am laying a lot on the line. Do you or do you not want to continue to serve in the Air Force? Let me know of your decision Monday morning, and we will go from there." I was shocked!
The rest of the week was a blur. All I remember was discussing the decision with my father and my wife. It was not a hard decision to make since I did not want to leave the Air Force like this. Come Monday morning, I promptly called the commander and gave him my answer to stay. "Okay," he stated, "For the next six months, you are hereby placed on probation. At the end of the six months, your conduct will be evaluated. Should you be found as a promising airman, you will be reassigned to a new profession. Good luck and if you will excuse me I have some other phone calls to make." With that, I bid him a good day and hung up the phone. My crumbling world had just been thrown a lifeline.
My supervision decided to keep me at the tool shop. As I could not lay hands on aircraft, it seemed the most logical place to go. Glen, the assistant flight chief for the tool shop become my mentor. He knew what it was like to reach rock bottom and be able to recover from his mistakes so he helped guide me in not only my duties, but my personal mistakes as well. I made the decision to file for divorce and say goodbye to our failed relationship. Glen offered his home to me, giving me the opportunity to recover, both mentally and financially. Over the time span of the six months, I had become an exemplary Airman. With Glen's help and a few others, I had rebuilt my world. A year later, I was awarded the right to a new profession, and I became a Knowledge Operator. I met my current wife and, ten years later, I am still happily married with three boys, an accomplished career, and the memory of that day when someone saw potential in me and gave me the push I needed to release it.
By Andrew Way
A parent of three boys who enjoys games and carpentry.