TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – On Jan. 10, 2017, on a snowy morning in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was jostling through a crowd of young men who, like me, were being herded onto buses making their way to the airport to be flown to San Antonio for basic military training.
I remember pushing my way to the back of the group so I could kiss my girlfriend one last time. The way I saw it and the reason I kept shouting back at the sergeant yelling at me to get back in line was, “It’s cold out there, sir! I’m going to be needing just a little bit more warmth to weather it.”
It’s not by accident that we all know what to say after “aim high.” It’s what we’re here for. It’s what a 30-year long career can be summarized by. Say it like a prayer, say it because your leadership told you to, say it because people have died in the act of doing it. We’re kept alive by those words and we’re kept together as a unit through them.
In BMT, you don’t get a lesson in what winning looks like. In BMT, the words “fly, fight, win,” meant for me, flying back home, fighting anyone who gets in my way and winning my freedom.
But this year has tempered me; made me rethink what it means to be here.
I’m not cut from the standard military cloth and I will admit, I scoffed when I first heard the Air Force motto. I thought, “How can an organization that deals in war be said to ‘win’ when war is just a measure of who loses less?”
I thought, “Losing a limb isn’t winning. Losing your friend isn’t winning. Winning is probably pretty far from the thoughts of the veteran who comes back and has to ask neighborhood kids to please not shoot off fireworks near her house because they remind her of the time her Humvee was ripped apart by machine gun fire.”
And then I met that veteran.
On her lawn outside her home was a sign that said, “Combat veteran lives here—please be courteous with fireworks.”
Inside, she offered me a coffee made in a plastic cup, poured the sugar with a rubber-lined spoon. She said her last panic attack was when her dog accidentally knocked over a glass vase from an end table. The shatter sent her to the floor and she spent the next hour with her knees to her chest, sobbing.
“My survival can look a little bit like death sometimes,” she said. “But I’m surviving.”
I sat with her on a sofa and asked her what she thinks “winning” means. She paused for a long time and pat her dog, a St. Bernard named Viva. She looked down and said, “This. We’ve all got a reason for why we serve. And we all have opinions on the why of what we’re serving for. But I served to get back to my dog. I served so I can afford to buy her top-line dog chow. She’s an old woman now and my service makes it so that she can live well for the rest of the time she has left. I owe the military for her big, goofy grin.”
Viva, as though in agreement, began to lick my hand.
“Winning” is an abstract concept. It’s up to us to ascribe meaning to it and to apply the metric by which it’s measured. For some, winning can be a degree. For others, it can mean honoring a family legacy or providing aid to those who need it. For others still, winning is coming back from a deployment to the big, goofy grin of a dog.
The Air Force is a family, but a family is made up of individuals. We’re kept alive by our family, but we excel by the strength of the individual. It’s the fight of every individual Airman to enforce and perpetuate the values they want tomorrow’s Air Force to be built on.
Our groupthink does not extend to our own personal motivations, so find meaning in our motto. Bring your personal struggle to the fight—don’t tune it out. We’re the world’s greatest Air Force because of your individual victories; because we bring every ounce of ourselves to whatever arena we choose to win in. That’s how the Air Force works and that’s why we succeed.
In seven days, it will be one year since that snowy morning in Knoxville. I’ve grown a lot in that time. I’ve seen a lot, experienced much, made friends, lost friends and when I hear “aim high,” I answer. I am proud to be in the Air Force for the reasons I work to enforce. Humanity and individuality will not make us weak. It will keep us warm. And we need a little bit more of that warmth to weather the cold.