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A snowstorm, a shovel and a lesson

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Zach Anderson
  • 931st Air Refueling Group Public Affairs
"This is a one big mess."

Those were my thoughts as I peered out the window of my second floor apartment at a vast blanket of white covering the ground. The sidewalks, steps, and parking lot of the complex were buried under more than 14 inches of snow, dumped on the area courtesy of the second-largest snowstorm on record for Wichita.

Having relocated to the Midwest after more than two years in Southern California, I had been spoiled by living in the mild weather of the "endless summer." I now despised the bitter cold of the annual Kansas snowstorms. Since our move from the west coast, my wife and I had taken our coats and other winter clothes out of storage, but we'd neglected to make one essential purchase: A snow shovel. I now dreaded wading out into the drifts armed with nothing but a piece of cardboard to excavate a path to our vehicles.

As the last few flurries fell from the sky, I heard a strange, scraping sound coming from below. I looked down and saw an individual bundled in cold weather gear attacking the sidewalks with a shovel, slowly making progress in carving a route through the snow. As I watched, he worked his way down the sidewalk and began clearing the steps of the apartment buildings.

I was extremely impressed.

"Hey, check this out," I said to my wife. "It literally just stopped snowing and the maintenance guys are already out clearing the sidewalks and the steps!"

Due to the weather, I had been instructed not to report to the base that day. I had ambitious plans to spend the morning on the couch in my pajamas, drinking coffee and watching reruns. My wife, however, had other plans for me. Her employer had not yet closed for the day, and she informed me that she fully intended to try to make it to work despite the massive snowfall.

Being the supportive husband that I am, I dutifully donned my coat and stepped outside to warm up her car and see if I could possibly dig it out of the snow. I figured it was the least I could do considering she was planning to go to work and I was staying home.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the "maintenance guy" had not only cleared the sidewalks and steps, but also had made a pathway through the snow to the parking lot, giving me easy access to her car without having to plod through the snow banks.

"These maintenance guys are awesome," I thought as I set about the task of chipping away at the ice encasing the windshield.

As I worked, I noticed the "maintenance guy" was now in the parking lot and working to dig a vehicle out of the snow, making his way to the bare pavement one shovelful at a time.

I decided to thank him for clearing the sidewalks off so quickly after the storm. I walked toward where he was working, and that's when I noticed his boots.

Green suede leather. Air Force issue. The same type of boots I was wearing to protect my feet from the snow.

"Are you in the Air Force?," I asked, a bit confused as I still thought this guy was a part of the apartment maintenance team.

"Yeah," he replied. "I'm a crew chief at McConnell."

"So you don't work for the apartments?," I asked, still not quite understanding why he was shoveling snow.

"No," he said. "I just live here."

"So why did you shovel the sidewalks and clear the way to the parking lot?," I asked, genuinely curious.

He smiled.

"Well, I had a snow shovel and I figured people would need to get out to their cars, so I just thought I'd go ahead and take care of it," he said.

He then noticed that I had been trying to dig my wife's car out without a shovel.

"Hey," he said, "Do you want some help with getting your car out of the snow?"

I was impressed, inspired and humbled all in the same moment. In my Air Force career, I've heard my share of inspirational Air Force stories and been schooled in Air Force heritage, history and doctrine. I've listened as senior leaders lectured on the meaning of our core values and what it means to be an Airman. And yet here, right in front of me, holding a shovel and standing in a foot of snow, was a simple, yet poignant example of service before self that resonated with me like many lessons of the past never had.

Over the next couple of days, I managed to track down the snow shoveling Airman. As it turns out, Senior Airman Ryan McPartland is an Air Reserve Technician here, a member of the 931st Maintenance Squadron. When I had the opportunity to speak to him again, I asked him why he had taken the initiative to do what he had done.

"When I saw all the snow blocking the pathways and parking lots, I thought about the older individuals who live in the apartments and some of the families that have small children," he said. "I didn't want anyone to slip and fall out there, and once I had cleared the sidewalks I just decided to go ahead and start shoveling out near the cars and help whoever might need it out there. I was brought up to help others without wanting or expecting anything in return."

Helping others without wanting or expecting anything in return.  If that isn't the definition of service before self, I don't know what is.

Airman McPartland's example, while not an act of valor on the battlefield or a tremendous, life-altering feat, definitely taught me an important lesson. And ultimately, it drove home what service before self is really all about.

It's not about huge, force-wide undertakings of volunteerism. It's not about "being a good wingman" or any other catch phrase. It's simply about being willing, each day, to take the time to put the needs of others, the needs of the mission, ahead of your own. It's being willing to sacrifice for the greater good of all.

It's being willing to spend hours in the cold, shoveling snow so others won't have to.

I learned a lot on that messy, snowy morning ... and I'll never look at a Kansas snowstorm quite the same way.