It was 3:30 a.m. and the temperature outside my armored truck was zero degrees Fahrenheit and the snow was coming down hard. I watched a figure on my thermal imager walk across the Polish-controlled forward operating base Ghazni, Afghanistan, and I thought to myself, “Who would be crazy enough to be out for a stroll at this time and in this weather?” I had a reason. My team was linking up for a mission at 4 a.m. for a planned operation with a Polish unit.
Then there was the time I found myself jumping out of the back of a hovering Mi-17 helicopter into knee deep snow at an elevation of 9,000 feet. I plunged into the snow and was pushed face first into the ground by the rotor wash and the weight of my 60-pound pack. After recovering myself and moving far enough away from the rotor wash, I realized I had a 400-meter treck to the nearest cover. I picked myself up and moved out. Thirty seconds into relocating myself, my lungs burned and every muscle in my body was exhausted. I just wanted to lie down and go to sleep, but I told myself, “I must keep going.” Fast forward to the mission being complete and me sitting on the extraction helicopter. I found myself grinning from ear to ear and wondering what was for lunch back at the F.O.B.
These experiences are vividly etched into my memory today even though they feel like they occurred a lifetime ago. They are just a small sample of the experiences that have formed the NCO I am today. My experiences may not be glorious and full of valor as the movie industry loves to portray, but they were real, and they challenged me in ways I never thought possible. They are the reason I push myself as hard as I can when the opportunity arises. They are also the reason I expect my fellow Airmen to push themselves as hard as they can. Experience for me has been the true key to understanding the Air Force’s core values — integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.
Without experience, I believe the Air Force’s core values are merely words on paper for philosophical debate. There are a couple ways I believe one can garner experience. One can go out into the world and seek it, or one can train for it. We do not always have the opportunity to go out and seek character-building experiences, but we sure can train for them.
The night I spent hiking into a village aided by night-vision goggles to destroy an explosive cache, I remember telling myself, “I’ve done this before, training back at home.”
Quickly rebuilding the inside of our replacement vehicle to be mission capable because the only other mission capable vehicle was blown up, my team and I were intimately familiar with it from countless hours training in it.
Four wheeling down the side of a mountain while covering my sector of fire and giving status reports as the enemy tried to walk mortars in on us, I stayed calm. I knew what I had to do, from training.
With all the hot spots flaring up around the world, Airmen never know where they will find themselves waking up tomorrow. So it is more important today to build up your skills through training and build your character. Implement the core values into your training, and you will be ready to overcome the challenges that await you down the road.