JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — In the early hours the morning of Dec. 20, 1989, when most living within Panama City were sleeping, a 10-year-old boy and his family were awakened by explosions and helicopters overhead. The family exited their home, only to witness pandemonium; buildings burning down, people running, screaming.
War was reality for Arjune Haynes and many other Panamanian citizens during Operation Just Cause – the U.S. invasion of Panama to overthrow military dictator, Manuel Noriega.
“My mom woke me up and I could hear the fire fights,” Haynes recalled. “All I could see were buildings burning and falling apart. I was scared.”
In the confusion of the incursion, Haynes said all he could do was cry.
After sleeping at a family friend’s home, Haynes said he remembers witnessing troops and tanks patrolling the streets as criminals looted nearby stores.
A couple of days later, Haynes and his family returned to see what was left of their home. He recalled his fear of peering at the smoldering rubble of what used to be his neighborhood. His mom left for a moment to visit the families of loved ones they lost in the midst of the chaos.
Standing on a curb alone and upset, Haynes said he noticed an unlikely companion walking toward him.
“I was crying and scared, and that’s when one of the [U.S.] Soldiers came up to me and said, ‘Are you alright?’
“I was just looking at him and I didn’t say anything. He gave me a Baby Ruth, I’ll never forget,” Haynes continued. “He said, ‘Everything’s going to be alright. Don’t worry; it’s going to be alright.’”
Haynes said the small gesture of the sweet, snack-size candy bar – something most would consider insignificant – was just enough to ease the nervous tension of the young boy and leave an impression incomparable in magnitude.
“[The Soldier] impacted my life in such a great way,” Haynes said. “After that instance, I knew I just wanted to wear the uniform; I didn’t know if it was Air Force or Army, I just knew it was the United States Armed Forces and that’s all I wanted to be.”
Days later, Haynes spoke to his father, a Panama Canal worker, about his interest in the U.S. military.
“As I got older, I realized I wanted to join the Air Force – mostly because of the planes,” Haynes said. “After a little more research, I told my dad my dreams and he immediately enrolled me in a bilingual [elementary] school. At the time I didn’t know what was going on, but he was setting me up for [the U.S. military].”
Haynes continued attending bilingual schools, learning English throughout middle and high school. He eventually enrolled in college, still hopeful of a chance to go to the United States and join the Air Force.
One day in 2000, Haynes’ father returned from a long day’s work at the Panama Canal with an opportunity Haynes couldn’t pass up. His father, who had worked for the United States for more than 20 years before the canal’s control was transferred to Panama, was offered the opportunity to move to the United States. This move meant Haynes could finally fulfill his dream of joining the Air Force, and although his parents denied the offer, Haynes left with no hesitation.
“Though I knew I would miss my family and friends, I couldn’t let the opportunity slip through my fingers,” he said. “I was going to make something of myself; make my family proud; and change someone else’s life for the better, just as mine was.”
The day Haynes first set foot in the United States, Dec. 20, 2000, he visited a recruiter’s office in hopes of being accepted into the Air Force.
“I was nervous but I had wanted this for so long, the nervousness was overpowered by anticipation,” he said. “This was it; this was my chance to accomplish my dream.”
Not knowing what to expect of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery pre-test, the Air Force-hopeful failed the exam. After retaking it and passing, Haynes unsuccessfully attempted the ASVAB, realizing he could use more time to study.
“I wasn’t as prepared as I had first thought walking into the recruiter’s office,” he recalled. “I tried not to allow the failed attempts to deter me from trying again, so I took a few more months to study.”
Haynes took the ASVAB for a second time and passed. He was another step closer.
So he thought.
“When I was doing my physical, I got disqualified because apparently I had a heart murmur,” Haynes said, remembering the heartbreak he felt being denied once again. “My dreams were shut down, so I put that on hold and found a civilian job at a hospital in Staten Island, New York.”
Haynes said the hustle of working to provide for him seemed to make days and nights blur together, and before he knew it, six years had passed.
When Haynes’ best friend came to visit from Panama, he gave Haynes the awakening he needed to try his hand again at bringing greater significance to not only his life, but now, with a 2-year-old daughter, his family’s life through the Air Force.
The friend asked, “What are you doing?” Haynes recalled. “Your entire life you’ve said you wanted to join the Air Force. You left your family; you left your friends because you were seeking your dream and you’re sitting here doing something that’s not what you wanted. Go back and take the physical again.”
“He was right,” Haynes said. “I couldn’t let my father’s hard work in getting me here be in vain. I wanted to make my family proud; I wanted to do for someone else what that Soldier had done for me and the only way I was going to accomplish that was by getting back up and trying again.”
With his renewed drive, Haynes re-entered the process of enlistment. This time he took the ASVAB and physical and passed.
The words he said he had been longing to say finally flowed from his lips as he recited the Oath of Enlistment Sept. 19, 2006.
“The moment I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, I let out a sigh of relief,” Haynes said. “Now all I had to do was make it through [Air Force Basic Military Training]. If I could make it through years of trying to get into the Air Force, I knew I could make it over one more obstacle.”
After graduating BMT, Haynes returned home to Panama to visit family, friends and his old high school.
“Everyone was super proud. I can’t find the words to describe how good it felt,” Haynes recalled as he looked up at the ceiling, smiling as if he were brought back to that day. “That was a way of life telling me to never take no for an answer. I was shut down so many times. This was the best decision I’ve made in my life for so many reasons.”
Haynes said he was reassured that fulfilling his dream proved he truly had made the right choice.
Now U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Arjune Haynes, 633rd Medical Operations Squadron cardiopulmonary assistant noncommissioned officer in charge, often reminisces on the eight years he has spent in the Air Force and how a childhood dream had flourished into a dream come true. When he deployed in 2009, Haynes said he felt he fulfilled the second half of his goal – impacting lives one small act of kindness at a time, just as his was.
“I deployed to Bagram Airfield, [Afghanistan,] in 2009, and had an extraordinary experience,” he recalled. “This was the best experience knowing that I was taking care of those who are wearing the uniform outside the wire. I had no problem working 12-hour shifts every single day just knowing I was going to take care of someone and do my best to make sure that person returned home safe.”
In an effort to continue his work of positively impacting lives through his military service, Haynes said he always makes sure to give the Airmen around him one specific piece of advice.
“Find your ‘why,’” he said. “There’s a [reason] for whatever you want to become or whatever you want to do. If you focus yourself on the ‘why,’ you’ll get there no matter what. My ‘why’ was to impact someone’s life and the only way I was going to do that was to wear the uniform and do the same thing that Soldier did for me.”
Sometimes a dream can form from a grand revelation or epiphany, but other times a dream can begin as a snack-sized candy bar – insignificant to most, but a source of hope and reassurance to those who need it the most.