I spent four years in the U.S. Air Force after high school. The reason I joined are somewhat layered, but for simplicity’s sake, I did it to get away from home and because I wasn’t quite sure how to make college a reality.
During my first year on active duty, I was tasked to a training exercise in Ft. Polk, Louisiana. That’s an Army base and home to a very robust training facility. We were there for an joint exercise with the Army and at the time, I was one of three people from my unit participating.
The experience was trying and the food was horrible. Still, I learned to make the best of it. There wasn’t any getting out of it at that moment, so you had to learn pretty quickly to adapt. For whatever reason, the senior leaders I encountered were always nice to me and saw something in me. As a result, I was often put in situations to succeed and my wins were celebrated loudly.
However, the story I cite as the circumstance that propelled me to college happened during this exercise at 3am. I’d been up for about 30 hours or so, I was 19 years old and I’d decided to sleep outside because the tent was too hot in the Louisiana summer where even at night it didn’t get very cold. I was sleeping on a field hospital stretcher in lieu of a bed and my sleeping bag was too hot to sleep in. Just as I started to doze off, I was woken up by the Sergeant from another unit I was working with.
You see, while my “day job” was as a network administrator and help desk guy, my actual job was as a Radio Communications Systems Operator. Not only were we tasked with communicating sensitive information via radios, we had to know how to setup field antennas and break them down. It’s interesting and mind-numbing stuff all at once.
Anyway, the Sergeant wakes me up and tells me that the antenna broke and we had to fix it. So we’re sitting in the dark, with a flashlight both of us with barely any sleep at all trying to figure out whatever this problem is. Secret is, the problem wasn’t a real problem at all but one invented by the training cadre to test our patience. They knew we were working on barely any sleep and it was the middle to the end of the exercise. It was all part of the test.
We eventually fix the antenna and I go back to my little spot to get a bit more sleep. Only to be woken up a few minutes later by a real helicopter touching down to pick up “patients” as part of the exercise.
It was at this moment that I decided, “If I can do this, I can go to college.” I eventually did just that and graduated a few years after my enlistment ended. There’s a reason that story resonates over the years. It’s not just because it’s sort of a ridiculous situation — people who travel to real warzone surely have more traumatic and poignant stories of real triumph — but I relate my situation to the workplace and how there are moments when things are less than convenient or ease to manage and require us to dig deeper than we were expecting. Whether it’s a tight deadline you weren’t anticipating or trying to make sense of a difficult project without much direction. These situations are no comparison for life or death, but they’re still a chance to test where we are and how we’re going to react.
In so many life situations, I’ve found myself facing what I can see as a legitimate crossroads. I might have forgotten how I respond in those situations when I don’t deal with them as much as I once did, but all it takes is a moment’s notice to retreat back to being the person you know you have the strength and fortitude to be.
We can’t always go at 100mph. We just have to know when it comes time to overclock our internal engines that we can muster the drive to accelerate to where we need to be.