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An Airman's journey: The longest year

Kristen Pittman performs the oath of enlistment at the Air Force Reserve recruiting office in Hattiesburg, Miss., January 30, 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Kristen Pittman performs the oath of enlistment at the Air Force Reserve recruiting office in Hattiesburg, Miss., January 30, 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Airman 1st Class Kristen Pittman poses for a photo with her father, Jody Pittman, and her brother, Conner Pittman, after the Airman's coin ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas January 18, 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Airman 1st Class Kristen Pittman poses for a photo with her father, Jody Pittman, and her brother, Conner Pittman, after the Airman's coin ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas January 18, 2018. (Courtesy photo)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Traditionally … and scientifically … and all of the adverbs … a year consists of 365 days, but in the case of my operational Air Force career, I would say my first year took approximately 1,500 days to complete.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Most importantly, it was the most rewarding of times.

It started in 2015; the year I graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with an English degree, con una concentración en español y (a minor in Spanish) and zero plans. So there I was, 22 years old, flailing in the sometimes hurricane force winds of adulthood with no clue what to do.

 

Insert Air Force recruiter.

Out of curiosity I filled out a questionnaire online and was soon contacted by an active duty recruiter who asked if I would like to come in and talk and, while I was not entirely gung-ho about the idea, considering I had no other options or prospects, I acquiesced.

In August 2015, I found myself at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Jackson, Mississippi, taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, then the Defense Language Aptitude Battery test, and doing that humbling duck walk … military members know the one. The next thing I know, my liaison is slotting me for ground and airborne linguist positions and herding me to the room where I made my first oath of enlistment. Then I called my clueless to the entire ordeal parents and told them what was happening.

Now, a few factors should immediately tip you off to the fact that something went awry with this plan. One clue being under the title of this story: “By Senior Airman Kristen Pittman, 403rd Wing Public Affairs.”

 

I did not fulfill my commitment.

The decision to de-commit while I was still in the delayed entry program was, at the time, one of the toughest I had ever made. There was the fear of disappointing my parents. I also was not looking forward to any scrutiny from coworkers and friends around me. My biggest fear though was the thought of not being able to change my mind one day, which heightened after my recruiter told me that I would never be able to get another recruiter to talk to me again.

What I was not afraid of was making that commitment to serve. Something just did not feel right for me and the job in the linguist field, so I decided to wait for something better.

Fast-forward to something better sometime in the fall of 2016 which came to fruition via a phone call. I always answer strange numbers in case it is a job opportunity and for the first time among, by my very calculated estimations, a billion robo-calls, it was indeed a job opportunity.

Tech. Sgt. David Rau was the Air Force Reserve recruiter on the other end of the phone call, and he had come across my file and wondered if I was still interested in serving. I absolutely was. I just refrained from contacting anyone because those words of inopportunity had been etched in my mind. Also, I had no idea what the Air Force Reserve was.

Before you could say Jackie Robinson, I was in his office with three packets in front of me, each describing an available job. Those choices were radio frequency transmissions (whatever that is), aeromedical evacuation something or other (handling blood? Alexa play, “Thank U, Next”), and photojournalist.

 

Photojournalist?

Seeing that, I reverted to my 10-year-old self who would, while everyone else had internet and was playing Neopets, sit at the archaic Dell monitor connected to a clunky three-dimensional rectangle that barely qualified as a modem making fake newspapers using Microsoft Word’s newsletter templates. I vaguely remember an investigative series involving the “Guppie Gang” terrorizing the aquatic residents of the Pascagoula River.

 

Photojournalist. I want to do that.

Jan. 30, 2017: Oath of enlistment number two. This time I invited my parents. That is how you know it was real.

It was real, alright, but it was not real fast. For months I waited, not for basic military training, but for word of my basic military training date. What I had not realized was, I was joining one of the smallest career-fields in the Air Force, so technical school availability was a little harder to come by. Six months after I enlisted – again – I finally got word of my ship date: Oct. 31, 2017 (insert ghost and pumpkin emojis and chainsaw sound effects).

Staying in tune with the rest of my experience with the Air Force, another wrench was thrown. Oct. 12, 2017 my phone rings. It was Sergeant Rau informing me my ship date had been moved up two weeks to Oct. 17. As in five days from that phone call, 17th.

I have not yet donned a uniformed, or even had the privilege of being mowed down by a military training instructor via impressively amplified words accompanied by a knife hand, and I am already stressed out. Not to discount the experience of the 18-year-olds who join the military, but, I imagine it is a little more complicated to prepare for a sooner-than-expected leave of absence from normal life when you are 24.

My parents and the people around me kept me calm and made the process easy, though, and on Oct. 17, I had only one thing on my mind: “Don’t wet yourself -- with tears -- when someone yells at you.”

Insert myself at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, home of the Air Force’s basic training. Obviously, to a certain extent and in its own special ways, this place and period of everyone’s Air Force career is challenging. Some of us, though, are blessed with a more unique challenge than others: med-hold.

Now, a quick background for reference, I played 14 years of soccer, including two years in college. Physical fitness has never been a problem for me, except for maybe the beep test, so this tidbit might make what was my bewilderment more understandable when I tell you that in week two of training I was pulled out of my flight due to anemia, something I was not aware I had because of, in my case, its asymptomatic nature.

This was one of those “worst of times” I was talking about, but also the first significant rewarding time. I do not know if I can call it lucky, but one of my fellow flight mates received the same news, and we trudged together, in step of course, me in tears, across the bridge to, what I liken to Stranger Things’ the upside down, the med-hold flight.

I could pen a dissertation on the vacillating emotions I experienced and the attitudes I observed that month, but ultimately what I came out of there with was a realization of just how resilient I could be and just how much I wanted to be an Airman.

After weeks of military purgatory, I was back in training and more motivated than I had ever been. I was lucky enough to be placed in a flight with a group of women who emulated to a tee the idea of what a Wingman is. Also, I would be remiss not to recognize the encouraging words and support from my former flight mates who I sometimes encountered in passing before they graduated early December.

Ultimately I ended up spending Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s as a trainee at Lackland. While the thought of spending that many holidays away from family could seem like another of those “worst of times,” I leaned on the notion that there were 48 other girls in the same room missing out just like I was, and sulking was not going to make anything better for myself or anyone around me.

In basic training, my biggest takeaways were that I became a little more selfless and a lot more appreciative and aware of the impact other people can have on both an individual and an entire group. It took me 14 weeks to complete an 8-week course, but I finally received my Airman’s coin Jan. 18, 2018 and was off to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland for technical school.

Since I graduated BMT a month after I was originally supposed to, I missed the start date for the photojournalist course I was supposed to be a part of, so I found myself waiting again, this time for the next available class.

This proved to be a tough time as, while all of the Airmen I shared a detachment with were at school learning their jobs, I was stuck in a 4-by-8 foot space, eight hours a day, as the entry control monitor for the building. There are not enough books and crossword puzzles in the world for this type of isolation, so far from home and anyone you know. Couple this period with the break-up of a two-year relationship I had going on back home, and this was another one of those worst of times.

Once again, though, wingmanship prevailed.

 

Insert Basic Photojournalist Course 030-18.

BPJC 030-18 is the name of the class of 23 Airmen I was a part of at the Defense Information School. I think people suspect I am speaking ironically when I say that my time in Maryland with this group of students and our instructors was the best time of my life, but I am being very sincere because of both the experiences had and the lessons learned.

Between March and July 2018 life had a few more curveballs to send my way including the photojournalist course itself. Using your knowledge of the fact that I have an English degree paired with this so-far brilliantly written commentary you are reading, you can guess which half of photojournalism I had no problems with and which half was the exact opposite.

Compound the rather poor classroom performance when it came to photography with a serious aversion to social interactions heavily required to complete photo assignments, and I was struggling.

Multiple times, as my classmates and I were sent out to fulfill an assignment, I found myself with my palms sweaty, knees weak and arms heavy. I was miles from my comfort zone. Once again, though, my wingmen were there to pick me up. Every assignment was a trial, and still is, but absorbing words of encouragement from my Air Force family and employing enough tactical breathing to fill a zeppelin, I persevered and passed.

Schoolwork was not the only trial this period provided, though. Life tested my integrity and the ability to do the right thing with the unsolicited information provided to me by a fellow Airman. For reasons I still cannot figure out or understand, this individual revealed to me wrongdoings he was partaking in that we both knew were unacceptable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

My immediate reaction was to ask if he was okay, but I knew it was my responsibility to consider both his well-being and the safety of those living in the detachment and to take action. I knew I had to report the behavior even if it proved to be highly detrimental to that person’s career. It is safe to say I ran the gamut of emotions up to and after reporting.

A year and a half later, the whole ordeal still haunts me because I feel responsible for what indeed ended up in someone being discharged, but, ultimately, your path is a result of your own actions. I caught grief from some of my peers and it put strain on a relationship I highly valued at the time, but nine times out of ten, doing the right thing is not easy, and I was fortunate to have support from student and military training leaders.

School woes and moral conflicts aside, my nearly six months at Fort Meade taught me a lot and gifted me even more, so when I boarded the plane to leave Maryland July 14, 2018 I was gutted to turn the page on that chapter but excited to FINALLY begin my career and contribute however I could to the 403rd Wing.

Of course, because nothing else so far had gone according to my expectations, why would the beginning of my first operational year?

Day one was the epitome of what a public affairs Reserve Airman could expect during any given unit training assembly. My tasks were to photograph a commander’s call and write up an article for a change of command. Simple enough.

Day two and the ensuing week were quite the opposite. On my second day of being operational, I found myself in a WC-130J Super Hercules with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron en route to Savannah, Georgia to learn the ins and outs of escorting media on Hurricane Hunters’ missions. On day three, I was looking out of the window of an aircraft at the blue sky above, the torrential Atlantic below and the encompassing clouds that outlined the eye of Hurricane Florence.

That week, after four flights into the storm, everything I had gained from my Air Force experience so far had come full circle. I could easily have panicked at the demands of the schedule including coordinating with the U.S. Naval Academy students and instructors for my first big (to me) story, but instead I kept calm and leaned on the leadership around me for guidance--and tried to sleep whenever possible.

Since that week, the rest of my time this past year has been relatively smooth. There are definitely times where I fall short on confidence and life is still constantly putting me through the gauntlet, but the support I receive from those around me and the opportunities this career regularly affords me persist making a world of difference.

During the resiliency tactical pause in September, coincidentally 365 days after my first day with the wing, the guest speaker reiterated the idea over and over that there is power in community, and I agree. I believe everything happens for a reason. Had I not reacted to my gut in 2015, these experiences could not have been shared. What I hope to convey by sharing my story is that people are the answer and your wingmen are there to see you thrive and vice versa. Nobody’s journey is without detours and pitfalls and we have to be there to support and pick each other up as well as reach out when we are facing our own adversity.

I am eternally grateful for each-and-every experience I had and person I met during the 1,500-day year, and I look forward to whatever is next.