Paying it Forward: Military Edition

Paying it Forward: Military Edition

soldier-saluting-child-CC-Halud

Almost fifteen years ago, I left the only life I had ever known in pursuit of something different… something better. I took my first real leap of faith and joined the Air Force. I knew I wasn’t military material, but I made the choice after my mother kicked me out of her life and hear. After a few months of trying to figure out how exactly to create a living, I decided the military was my best option.

I mean, at 19, how on earth can someone be expected to figure their life out?

I certainly tried. I worked at a dental office during that time and thought about pursuing a career path in that field. I even found a cute little apartment in Bristol, CT. However, when I looked around that apartment, I couldn’t help but think, “This is it. This will be my life. I won’t ever go anywhere or do anything. I will be stuck in this little life forever.” Visions of a dead-end job, an even more dead-end boyfriend and children I wasn’t ready to have flooded my consciousness. I didn’t want that life. I knew there was something better in store for me and though I knew the Air Force would never be a career choice, it was a ticket out of the dead-end I was living in. It was a ticket into the unknown; a wild card for my future.

Within 24 hours, I was sitting with an Air Force recruiter discussing my options for a better life. Within weeks, I was sitting in the MEPS office (in Massachusetts) fighting tears from spilling out of my eyes as I listened through the phone for the last time to my mother expressing frustration about my existence. She called me an idiot as we said good-bye and I headed for a bus which would take me to the airport, which would then take me to Basic Training.contemplation-view-sunset-old-couple-CC- dominique_cappronnier

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During that phone call, the flood gates did open and I couldn’t help but cry. I mean, I was making a big choice and the one person who is kind of always supposed to be unconditionally supportive was the one person who took the opportunity to kick me while I was down. I felt alone, scared, confused and generally awful about myself, so the flood gates did open wide and I cried the ugliest cry (you know, the one with all sorts of unnatural twisty faces and boogers… and enough tears to stop a drought).

When I hung up the phone, I suddenly felt assaulted by the bright fluorescent lights which shone brightly everywhere. I felt like a deer in headlights as I looked around the official military office I was sitting in, with a maze of gray furniture, filing cabinets and random files of young men and women strewn about as if we were not real people, but merely disposable and replaceable pieces of paper….. I know I surely felt disposed of already, even before the new adventure would officially begin. I looked around and saw several men walking through the office in perfectly pressed uniforms trying to avoid eye contact with me. I was simply frozen. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to exist. I remained frozen until one of the men probably realized I wasn’t simply going to walk away. I watched him as his body language remained cold and professional, but his eyes were filled with warmth and concern as he said, “It’s okay. Here, take a Kleenex…. well, take the whole box. Why don’t you walk away for a minute… or however long you need and come back when you feel ready. Okay?”

I did walk away. I caught my breath. I stuffed my feelings as far as they would go, until all that was left were a few pesky sniffles and tears that refused to go away. When I realized that weepy was the best I would be able to present to the world, I walked back into the office. We finished whatever paper work was lingering and I was officially sworn in to The United States Air Force along with five young men (It was a small ceremony, with only the six of us because not many people leave for basic training right after Christmas).

I gathered my belongings and boarded the bus which waited to take me to a new life. As the six of us sat on the super large coach bus which would deposit us at the airport, I was still struggling with being weepy. The other guys did take notice and didn’t ask why… which is good because I wouldn’t have known how to answer them. One of the guys simply said, “It’s alright. It’s only six weeks (basic training). Don’t be scared.” I told him I wasn’t scared. I didn’t tell him that I was sad because I was alone, no one seemed to care about me and I was mourning the loss of a life I never got to have…

As time passed, my sniffles subsided. The six of us made small talk until our plans to get to Lackland, Airbase in San Antonio, Texas got derailed by a huge snowstorm in Missouri and we had to start talking more so we could figure out what we were supposed to do since our flight got cancelled.

the road leads ever onAs we figured stuff out, the six of us simply had fun walking around the airport talking and laughing about how funny it was that we were going to be late to basic training. I mean, the beginning of the whole ordeal is supposed to be pretty scary as you arrive in the middle of the night with all sorts of yelling and culture shock and what not…. and we were going to be casually late.

The government eventually approved us to get a hotel room and as we walked into the room, it suddenly dawned on us: Five guys. One girl. Two beds. Tiny room. I was informed by our “leader” (before you leave MEPS, the oldest of the group is officially appointed “leader” until you get to your final destination), that I would have one bed and everyone else would figure it out. I actually did protest at that because I knew how tired everyone was. I mean, the whole military intake process is a long, invasive, boring and often sleep deprived experience, so I assured them that I was okay to share a bed.

I was vetoed. I slept alone.

We did have fun though. We stayed up watching TV and laughing for a long time.

The next day, I was sort of spoiled again. Since we had to squeeze into a flight leaving the next day and there wasn’t enough room, someone had to be bumped to first class. Again, our leader chose me. I didn’t exactly protest this time…

As I gratefully cozied into the roomier seat with the warm blanket and smiled hello to the person sitting next to me, I thought for sure I might actually get some good rest before I arrived to the inevitable stress awaiting me in Texas. I was wrong. My neighbor wanted to talk. I guess after a week of very little sleep and lots of stress, my exhaustion was obvious. Maybe the clothes which I had been wearing for too long smelled more than they should have… or maybe my sweet naivety mixed with the exhaustion and dirty clothes made my neighbor intrigued about this little mess of a person sitting beside her in first class. She wanted to know my story.

Airtran airplaneI was too tired to wear a social mask, so I shared how I came to be sitting next to her that very snowy day to fly from St. Louis to San Antonio. I told her the heart-breaking tale of the day my drunk of a mother kicked me out. I told her about the apartment I found and how I didn’t want that to be my life. I told her about the supremely ungraceful day before in the MEPS station weepily being sworn in to the Air Force…. As she watched my terribly young and tired face tell the story, I watched her jaw drop. “Surely you have other options… What about family?” I told her that my whole family really was quite dysfunctional and that as my personal choice did not want help from my biological family, if any of them really could help anyway. I didn’t see how anyone I was related to could actually help me up….. I saw my family as people willing to help me down and hold me there, but not as a valuable support system in any way. My first class neighbor said, “I’m sorry.” It’s okay, I told her. It really was. Though I knew my life was a mess, it was my mess and even as a very young person, I understood that.

We didn’t talk for a while. I figured I had creeped her out by being so honest, which was okay… I wasn’t surprised. Then my neighbor turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to do this. I can help you.” I assured her that I had been sworn in to the military and I was officially government property and there was no way to change that. She went on to tell me that she could… or at the very least that she really wanted to help me out of the military and help me build a different life for myself. I assured her that I would be okay. I was honest and told her that I didn’t like the idea of the military, but the decision had been made and I signed on the dotted line already and again that I would be okay.

We sat in silence until our descent into San Antonio. As we got closer to touching ground, discomfort bubbled in my stomach, but I tried to hide it. My neighbor told me that since she couldn’t help me out of my situation, that she wanted to give me money. I refused. Again, I assured her that I wouldn’t need any in basic training and after that, I would have a government paycheck and a roof over my head, so money would not be needed. I would be okay. As I told her I couldn’t take her money, she told me a little about herself. “Please don’t refuse me. I’m not going to let you. I am a brain surgeon, trust me, helping you, if even a little does not hurt me.” She handed me some cash and her address. She asked that I write to her if I ever felt scared.

As I waited for the other five to my San Antonio six, I felt strangely peaceful. It wasn’t the money, I think it was the interaction I had shared with that woman. For the first time since I chose to join the military, someone- a strong female figure- truly cared. She didn’t want to see me tossed out. She believed in me. She cared what my future held. Though I didn’t know her and I wouldn’t see her again, I suddenly didn’t feel like I was embarking on the unknown quite so alone anymore. I mattered to someone… Someone who didn’t need to have any sort of attachment to my well-being simply cared and listened with an open heart.

I do remember that I wrote her one letter at the height of my stress, but I honestly can’t remember if I sent it. At any rate, I did hold on to her address until the end of basic. It was a nice reminder every time I opened my teeny tiny drawer of personal belongings that I was not alone and I like to think that I have paid that random act of loving kindness forward in many ways.

I wonder if she remembers me.

I actually do wish that someday, somewhere in this life that there will be a twisty turn of fate which crosses our paths again so that I can tell her I was and am okay. I want to thank her for planting a seed for me to never stop believing that there will always be support in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times to help me remember that I am never alone and just when I think life has handed me far too many lemons that there will always be a tall, sweet pitcher of lemonade waiting just around the corner.

Please remember that everyone you come in contact with has a story and one small act of love really can turn someone’s outlook on life around completely. Be kind to everyone. You never know how you can plant a seed of hope in the life of others.

Top Photo by Harud, CC