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Throwing wrenches

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

I’ve become a master at throwing wrenches.


I joined the Air Force when I was supposed to be settling in Colorado for good. I got married with two-week’s notice to someone I’d only known four months. I had a baby (two and a half years later thank-you-very-much) and separated from active duty. I majored in creative writing. When my husband separated from active duty we were supposed to settle down in Texas for good, but I joined the Air Force Reserve and we moved back to Mississippi.


Then we were going to settle in Mississippi for good -- like “for reals” this time, and I was going to stay at this job until the end of time or retirement, whichever. My family didn’t believe me…because they’re smart. And, of course, I threw another wrench.


In my office there’s a full-time air reserve technician commissioning position that we call the Baby ART slot. The slot opened up and everyone and my mom said I should apply for it. We’d probably have to move again but then we could settle down there for good. Also, if I became an officer I’d make more money, learn to be a better leader, have more opportunities to advance throughout my career and I’d still be able to pursue my passions for photography and writing.


I convinced myself that nothing would really change because, for a while, it wouldn’t. For the first two years of the program I’d basically stay where I was, doing what I was doing except with more rank. I thought it was what I wanted so I applied for it, got accepted, moved into the slot and started to wait for an officer training school start date. I was sure that this was the path I was going to follow…for good.


Then the hurricanes came. So. Many. Hurricanes.


Part of my job is to help manage public affairs for the Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters. When there is a major storm like Harvey or Maria or Irma (or three storms all at once, like this year), national and international media members want to talk to and fly with the Hurricane Hunters. All of them. At about the same time. Preferably while the WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft are actually in the storm. Our phones don’t stop ringing.


Also, because you can’t schedule hurricanes and we had no idea back in January that this would be the 10th-busiest season on record, my public affairs officer was out on a temporary duty assignment on the other side of the world. So, for a while, I was responsible for filling that PAO role.


It was incredibly stressful, but I made it through without burning the place down or generating some kind of media fiasco. The experience made me realize that I almost certainly could be a successful PAO, but that everything would change.


I realized what I truly wanted to do was what I had already been doing as an enlisted public affairs specialist. I thrive on doing the work – writing, posting to social media, and especially the photography.


When I’m doing that work, time and place melt away, and I’m completely absorbed in it. My neurosis disappears and it’s almost like I become completely detached from my body (seriously I do some crazy moves to get a good shot and won’t notice a bruise until hours later). Then if I share the work and it gets a good response, very little else in this world makes me feel more euphoric.


Sure, PAOs get to write stories and take photos, sometimes. But it’s not very often, and good PAOs usually give the best opportunities to their Airmen.


I did get to fly into Harvey before the rest of the shop was able to come in from their civilian jobs to help, and it was incredible. But once they did, it pained me that I had to stay back at the office helping manage everything instead of going back out there into these intense and indescribably beautiful storms. (There was a rainbow inside the eye of one of them, for crying out loud!)


So I went and found another wrench. (Have I mentioned that I’m incredibly lucky to have a husband who can catch wrenches and make sure they don’t break everything around them?)


This wrench was particularly heavy and difficult to throw. I felt like I would disappoint everyone by deciding not to become an officer. I worried everyone would think I was selfish and even worse, that maybe I actually was. What if I was giving up an opportunity that I would have grown to thrive in over time? Also, I couldn’t just go back to my old slot because another fantastic PA was already in it.


Despite how heavy it was and how much uncertainty it’s caused about the future, I know it was the right decision.


I know that we’re often taught that everyone should be a leader and we should always be moving toward that next goal and that next step. But I’m not entirely sure that’s true for everyone exactly the way it’s presented. Maybe some people excel better as followers and doers rather than leaders and strategic thinkers. I know I sure do. Maybe the next logical step isn’t always to climb to the next rung of the ladder. Maybe sometimes it can be to hold on tight right where you are, do the work you’re passionate about, and let your excitement become contagious.