Airman’s 20-year path to service epitome of resilience

Sometimes the best things in life are worth waiting for. Others are worth fighting for.

The combination of the two, however, requires a deeper commitment and focus that is unwavering and resolute. A certain resiliency in pursuit of a goal is often what separates good from great.

Senior Airman Michael McCullough is an example of that dogged mentality and his desire to don the Air Force blue and serve his country. His story is the epitome of the type of resiliency the Air Force encourages. From fighting weight issues to single-parenthood to a serious medical condition and Father Time working against him, his glide path to military service has been turbulent, to say the least.

Now-Senior Airman Michael McCullough poses in this photo from more than 20 years ago. McCullough’s desire to serve in the Air Force took him on a 20-year-journey of determination and resiliency, which resulted in his graduation from the 365th Training Squadron’s bomber/special avionics surveillance course and an ACE award for scoring 100 percent in each block of instruction. (Courtesy photo)

“The ‘nevers’ and ‘always’ and ‘give ups’ were echoed a lot from other people,” he said, adding some would throw in the obligatory comment that at least he had tried. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s good enough … You can’t just stop because something gets hard or something is impossible. If it’s right and something that’s meaningful and you can make a difference doing it, then you’ve got to just keep going.”

McCullough, now an avionics Airman with the 513th Maintenance Squadron at Tinker AFB, Okla., began his resilient quest to conquer obstacles in his way more than 20 years ago with the terror attacks on the United States. As a music major in college, he and friends were watching events unfold on a television, much like many other Americans that day. He had been in New York roughly a month before.

He said it was difficult to comprehend what was happening at the time. Then the emotions of what to do began to swirl. Doing nothing didn’t seem like the right thing, so he and some friends decided they were going to join the military.

But, there was a problem. A big one. McCullough was overweight, and not by just a little. He said he stopped weighing himself in college when he hit 377 pounds.

“I was obviously not in top shape at all to even qualify to go,” he said. “They looked into it and tried, and they said there was no way unless — I mean, I would have to be half the person I was just health-wise.”

And so, his lengthy journey to serve began. He said his grandfather and uncles served, and he had a desire to follow in their footsteps, but it required a lifestyle change and a commitment to something greater than himself.

Like any commitment to do something challenging, ups and downs, twists and turns and a variety of roadblocks littered his path to blue. He said he spent the better part of a decade trying to get his weight down by using natural techniques instead of surgeries. Fifteen years after 9/11, McCullough was healthy to serve, married and had a daughter. But a divorce put him on full-time single-parent duty.

It seemed as though his dream of serving was nearing an end because he couldn’t — wouldn’t — leave his daughter, Gabrielle.

Then he met his current wife, Julie, who encouraged him to continue his pursuit. The couple married Nov. 17, 2018.

The naysayers? That was a different story. But it wasn’t unfamiliar and he had heard the comments throughout his life. McCullough said he has a stubborn streak in him — always has.

“My whole life, I take those struggles and obstacles and change them into opportunities. As a teacher, that’s what I teach my students, because we’re always going to have those struggles,” said the band director at Capitol Hill Middle School in Oklahoma City. “But they don’t have to be struggles. You can use them as a platform to go someplace.”

That someplace for then-39-year-old McCullough was Air Force basic military training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, on June 15, 2020.

McCullough recalled his first couple weeks of BMT, including the constant movements of running and physical fitness, going to appointments, tasks to complete, etc. He noticed he was getting tired more often, but thought it was because he was approaching 40 years old. He said he didn’t stop and continued to push himself to persevere, even as those half his age had to bow out.

The Napa, California-born Oklahoma transplant said he was summoned to the medical clinic more than three weeks into BMT to re-do some blood work that came back questionable. McCullough said the doctor at the clinic asked him about his physical training and if he was passing out, to which he replied, “No.”

McCullough’s iron levels were extremely low, prompting an emergency blood transfusion and hospital stay for a few days. He said he was released back to his squadron, but after just one night back, he was put on medical hold. He said he didn’t want to be in medical hold because that typically means someone is going home.

“I didn’t want to go home,” he said. “I wanted to be an Airman.”

He fought for about two months to remain in the military as he was treated for his iron deficiency and did his own research into healthier living to further improve his condition. In the meantime, the waiver process was moving forward.

Although he felt better and his lab values were improving, he received word that his waiver had been denied. He was sent home on Aug. 4, 2020.

He was also informed that he was two months away from aging out of being able to enlist in the Air Force, and it would take six months to a year for his iron levels to get to where they needed to be. What his stubborn ears heard, though, was he had two months to get his body and blood levels right to continue his journey, and he was up to the challenge.

McCullough said he continued a strict diet and physical fitness to continue improving, but a request to the Air Force Surgeon General was denied.

He said it was a difficult period for him because his mind and body was ready to go, but the medical waiver process was presenting another obstacle. He was also approaching his 40th birthday.

Julie provided comfort, he said, telling him that it was “okay” to stop his pursuit and that he had done more than anyone else would’ve done.

“I was like, ‘I can’t stop!’” he said. “There’s a way and there’s still a little bit of time and I’m not dead. You know, if you’re still breathing, you’ve got to keep kicking forward.”

Despite his persistent nature, the denials kept coming in — five, to be exact. He was encouraged to check into other military branches, he said, but he wanted to be an Airman in the Air Force.

Good news finally arrived in late October 2020 — just after his 40th birthday — that his medical waiver had been approved. But, he had technically aged out of enlisting. He said his recruiter at the time said an age waiver wasn’t going to happen.

Where there’s a will, though, there’s a way.

McCullough said he was able to use his brief BMT experience as part of his age waiver package, and was ultimately given the green light for military service. His second round of basic military training began April 20, 2021.

The resilient Airman graduated technical training from the 365th Training Squadron in September 2021, realizing his goal of becoming a productive Airman in the Air Force Reserves. He didn’t just graduate, though. He “aced” the bomber/special avionics surveillance course, scoring 100 percent in all blocks of instruction.
McCullough encouraged others to not give up when faced with adversity. Push through and fight to attain goals.

“You’ve got to do your best in whatever you do,” he said. “You’ve got to help other people around you be their best. You’ve got to put that effort in.”

For information about the Air Force Resilience program, visit www.resilience.af.mil.

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