My final year in the Air Force–though I didn’t realize it would be at the time–started off slowly, but things would change soon enough.
My supervisor retired at the end of 2006, so another sergeant in the office took over his position. She rarely ever went over to the warehouse, spending most of her time at her desk in our flight’s office. As a result, I was, effectively, on my own in continuing to run and organize the warehouse, while my supervisor focused on other duties.
To fill the vacancy in the office, we got a new Airman, fresh from his technical training. He was assigned to another section, but he was the only other person in my flight who lived in the dorms with me. We became friends, and I frequently hung out with him and another new airman who had transferred in at about the same time.
In early February, I received a series of emails from some of my old friends at Nellis, with devastating news. One of my closest friends, Dan O’Brien, had been killed in a car crash the night before. The details were sparse, and it would be another year before I learned the full story, but for now, I knew enough: my friend was dead.
I first met Dan about two years earlier, when he transferred in to Nellis, shortly after I was ordered to move back on base. Dan and I were in the same flight, but didn’t work together very often. His dorm room was just down the hall from mine, however, and we spent a great deal of time together in our off hours. He was there to talk to when I was going through my demotion and the aftermath of my relationship with Megan, and he was able to turn to me whenever he needed someone to talk to as well.
Over the course of two years, Dan and I became pretty close, so losing him like that was really tough for me. Losing someone in combat is hard, but it’s a possibility you can prepare yourself for. But a car crash?
I realized fairly quickly that I wouldn’t be able to attend his memorial service at Nellis, much as I’d have liked to go. Getting leave time wouldn’t have been a problem, but I’d have needed to catch a flight immediately if I were to make it back to Vegas on time, and I simply couldn’t afford it, particularly on such short notice. Instead, I recorded a brief statement, eulogizing my friend, and sent it to my friends at Nellis. They played it at the memorial, and another friend in the fire department later told me that he saw my name on the program, and thought at first that I’d managed to fly back after all.
As I struggled with the emotional fallout of my friend’s death, life had to carry on. A few weeks later, I had yet another PT test. Once again, I fell short of the requirements to pass the test, primarily because I simply cannot run very fast. I was going to the gym twice each day, and once per day on the weekends. I’d even volunteered to join a program for lower PT scores, even though my score wasn’t low enough to require participation. I was trying to improve, but I’d long since hit a brick wall with my physical fitness. Despite my efforts to improve, I wasn’t passing the test, and once again, my promotion to Senior Airman was denied.
I was devastated. I’d been putting in everything I had to try to pass the test, but the Air Force kept making it harder and harder to pass. It seemed like the only way to pass anymore was to be so thin and tall that you looked good on TV; actual health concerns didn’t seem to factor into the criteria to pass the test.
I enjoyed my job, and I knew I was good at it, but my inability to pass increasingly difficult PT standards was eroding my self-esteem. To now have it prevent me from advancing in my career was absolutely demoralizing. My ability to run a mile and a half in less than ten minutes had zero effect on my ability to carry out my job, so denying my promotion based solely on that seemed completely asinine to me.
After a great deal of debate, I decided that it was time to end my military career, and that it would end on my terms. Before taking the assignment in Turkey, I’d arranged for a follow-on assignment to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. To qualify for that, I’d need at least one year of retainability, and my enlistment would have ended nine months after transferring to Scott. At the time, I’d wanted to continue in the Air Force indefinitely, and I accepted an 18-month extension on my enlistment. In effect, I was facing more than two more years in the military, and I no longer wanted to be there.
I spoke with my supervisor and my superintendent. While they were dismayed that I no longer wished to be in the military, they were sympathetic to my reasoning and helped me to file the paperwork requesting the cancellation of both my follow-on assignment and the extension on my enlistment. With that complete, I now had only nine months of retainability after my tour in Turkey was over in November. I had two options open to me now: extend in Turkey for another nine months, or request an early separation on the grounds that I lacked retainability for transfer.
I wanted to get out, so I requested early separation. Unfortunately, my initial request was denied. Unbowed, I filed a second request, under a different program. At the time, the Air Force was trying to get several thousand volunteers to separate early, in order to free up funds in the budget for new aircraft acquisitions to replace aging aircraft throughout the service. It was a stretch to claim separation under this program, but with my superintendent’s help, I filed a request anyhow.
It was approved.
Now that I knew I would be separating, I started making plans to go back to college, and finally finish my bachelor’s degree. I considered moving back to the Midwest, near my mom’s side of the family, but two things settled the decision in California’s favor: in-state tution at Cal State was significantly less expensive than any school in the Midwest, and an old friend of mine from my time at Fullerton College, prior to my enlistment, helped me to line up a job at the school where he was now working as a teacher.
I faxed my application to the school district, and prepared to end my military career. I attended the base’s Transfer Assistance Program (TAP), but quickly learned it was of virtually no assistance to me; TAP was, effectively, run by the Department of Labor, so it was focused on things like resume writing and applying for civilian government jobs through the USAjobs.gov site. There was no information given on how to apply for GI Bill benefits when going back to school, which was precisely the information I wanted to get. It was also mandatory to attend the sessions, even though there was nothing of value being offered to me in them.
As I completed my outprocessing, my superintendent transferred… to Scott Air Force Base. Had I stayed in, I would have continued to work with him. In his place, our flight’s new superintendent was another of my old instructors from tech school. I only worked under him for a couple of months, but apparently I impressed him in that short time, because he would still remember me years later when he met my older brother at a conference.
My going-away party wasn’t as huge as the one I’d received when I left Las Vegas, but it was certainly no less heartfelt. There was a brief party at the base golf course, where I’d been playing regularly for nearly every weekend over the past year, and several other people from my squadron came out to wish me well. The real party, though, was that evening, in “the Alley,” a strip of shops and bars just outside the gate. My flight and I spent most of the evening at the Bunker Bar, where we had a decal of our career field’s coin put up, and we signed our names along with it.
The party finally wound down in the wee hours. I was fairly hung over for my flight the next day, and sported a new tattoo (which I’d been considering getting anyhow, but the alcohol certainly helped make the final decision easier), but I didn’t care. I was dropped off at the Adana airport by my superintendent, and as I prepared to board my flight back home to the U.S., it truly began to dawn on me that this was it: my military career was drawing to a close.
I flew to Istanbul, then New York, and finally to Los Angeles. After a minor hiccup with getting to the right part of the base, which was spread out in multiple locations around the city, I checked into lodging at Los Angeles Air Force Base. The next morning, I took the bus over to the main area of the base and began my final outprocessing. The whole process took only an hour or two, and as soon as it was over, my terminal leave began. Officially, my final day on active duty would be November 4th, and I’d be on leave status for the next two months, since I had that much unused leave time accumulated, but in reality… I was done.
I was a civilian again.
I had a job lined up already, so at least I didn’t have to worry about that, and school had already started more than a month before I left Turkey, so I had some time to readjust before jumping back into school.
One of the first things I did after I finished outprocessing was to buy a cell phone. The next was using that cell phone to try to find a place to live. I stayed at my father’s house for the first few days, but I felt the need to find my own place as soon as I could. After a few days, I found a room. I moved into a two-bedroom apartment, taking one room, while the other was occupied by two girls who were going to Fullerton College. I had two weeks to settle in before I started working at the high school. That was far too much time on my hands, and I had no idea what to do with myself. Fortunately, that changed once I started working again.
November 4th came and went, almost unnoticed. I barely realized that, officially and in reality, I was a civilian again, albeit with another two years’ commitment to the Ready Reserve. I hadn’t yet gone back to school, but when I did, it would open up a host of new challenges for me.