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Dropping the bag... and the attitude

Dropping the bag... and the attitude. (U.S. Air Force Reserve graphic by Senior Airman Madelyn McCullough)

Dropping the bag... and the attitude. (U.S. Air Force Reserve graphic by Senior Airman Madelyn McCullough)

MCCHORD FIELD, Wash -- Nearly 30 anxious girls stumbled out of a bus with a varied collection of clothing and baggage and lined up in their first formation as a flight. They were "greeted" by an almost seven-foot man with a big bushy mustache and a campaign hat who yelled at them before targeting one (because of her huge suitcase) as his first victim.

"Are you scared of me?" He shouted. "Nope," she said, refusing to cower at his attempts to frighten her. Sure enough, that sent him into a rage which worsened every time her fingers failed to keep her suitcase from falling to the ground. He didn't care that the bag was heavy or that the air was hot and humid; she would not drop that bag again! But of course, she did.

He then sent the rest of the girls upstairs to set up their beds while she had the luxury of staying downstairs, alone, as nearly every military training instructor in the squadron took turns dishing out their cruelest threats to her. She was told she would fail and to go home before she'd even begun. But being the stubborn and hard-headed know-it-all she was, the coercion didn't even come close to cracking her and she spent her first weeks of training ignoring everything her MTIs tried to teach her.

That bigheaded girl was me when I went to basic more than a year ago.

Now, when I change into my Air Force uniform each morning, it's almost like changing into a new version of myself. It transforms my character, my expression, and my attitude. I take myself more seriously, I'm tougher, and I walk a little prouder. Those qualities are owed to the experiences I've had in the Air Force since that very first day.

It wasn't until a few weeks into basic training when the same tall man came in to talk to our flight that I finally gained respect for him and my other MTIs. This wasn't because they managed to scare me into it; it was because he told us stories of commitment and sacrifice he'd experienced and seen in his years as an Airman. The amount of emotion he gave to it sent chills through my body and completely turned my perspective around. For the first time, I understood what wearing my uniform meant. I felt a higher regard for how much it takes to earn the stripes on our arms and the insignias on our collars. It was at this point I recognized that my leaders had something to teach me besides rolling rock-hard socks or marching with perfect form; so I started listening to and respecting them.

I realized that complying with them wasn't about superiority or dominance like it had seemed when I first arrived. It wasn't about a fight to avoid losing my dignity and succumbing to those in charge of me either. It was about appreciating that all of them have a lifetime of experiences, stories, and advice to share. It was about taking advantage of the fact that I could learn from them.

Finally, I accepted someone else knew more than my 18-year-old self. What I've learned since then is priceless.

My Air Force leaders have taught me more than just the Air Force core values. They've taught me nearly all of the virtues that make me a better person and a better Airman today. I've learned to never give up, to believe in myself, and to remember my purpose. From my job as a public affairs specialist, I've learned what it means to serve our country from countless points of view.

Everyone has a story to share and a lesson to teach. Ever since I finally pushed away my pride and opened my ears, I've heard the Air Force story. The lessons I've learned while wearing this uniform from the people who wear it with me are more valuable to me than anything I've learned without it. It's made me a better a better person, which in turn makes me a better Airman. So each morning, when I lace up my boots, grab my hat and walk out that door, I'm serious, tough and most assuredly proud.