While unpacking from another permanent change of station, I came across a folder filled with clippings I have been carrying around with me since my early days in the Air Force. Flipping through it, I stopped on one of my favorites, a commentary written 18 years ago by Army Col. Mark Blum. In the piece entitled “Important vs. Urgent,” Blum reflects on his career and offers what he would do differently, if he had to do it all over again.
Approaching 22 years in the Air Force myself and having recently watched my youngest of three children start college, I reread the article and for the first time ever, I found myself reflecting on my own career. Knowing for certain I have fewer years in the Air Force ahead of me than I do behind me, I was inspired to come up with my own list of desired do-overs. Sadly, and despite having Colonel Blum’s advice at my fingertips for years, there was much in common with his.
I too would not have missed as much time with my family as I did. From school activities to sporting events, dinners at home and trips near and far, I missed more than my share. Of course, there were instances when that was unavoidable; however, far too many times I simply chose to tend to work “commitments,” because I thought I was doing what was expected of me. I thought I was putting service before self.
I would have tried harder to leave my work at work. I so often carried with me bottled-up stress from the office allowing it to detract from what should have been enjoyable times with my family.
I would have been more patient and understanding with those closest to me. Why I found it easier to accept last-minute changes, minor mistakes and oversights, and personal inconveniences at work than at home is equally incomprehensible and indefensible.
I would have made better use of the leave afforded me choosing to travel back home to see family more regularly instead of hastily planning leave as every Sept. 30 approached simply to avoid losing it.
I would have asked for help when I needed it.
Our middle child has struggled for years with severe mental illness which at its worst threatened my marriage, the well-being of my family, and my child’s very own life. Those are words that to this day I have not spoken out loud outside of familial circles. Like others who have had their priorities wrong, I made the situation about me internalizing how it would make me look as a parent and as an officer. We talk a great deal about Comprehensive Airman Fitness, about taking care of ourselves and seeking help when we need it. During that time, I would have practiced what I so often preached.
Finally, I would not have made my wife wait 20 years for me to take her to ballroom dance lessons. Year after year, I had an excuse and year after year she pretended to understand. Eventually I relented. Who knew I would have liked it so much, let alone be so darn good at it.
The demands placed on us by virtue of our service are many, and they are great, and they are such that we must never allow personal desires, agendas and comforts to take priority over accomplishing our assigned mission or the needs of those under our charge. However, service before self does not mean forsaking our responsibilities as spouses, parents, friends, siblings, sons and daughters and contributing members of society. Far too many times, I have lost sight of that.
I have been carrying Colonel Blum’s words around with me for more than 18 years. If I had it all to do over again, I would have referred to them more often.
As he so artfully said, “The object for all of us is to make sure we run out of career, before we run out of family.” So put in your leave paperwork, surround yourself with friends and family, leave your work at work, take a trip or maybe go dancing, and for goodness sake do not wait until next September to do it.
*You only live once