MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kansas -- I pulled my blues out of the closet and began ironing. This time, it wasn’t for a ceremony or a fancy event. It was to face my commander and receive punishment for my poor decisions.
From now on, I’d wear one less stripe on my sleeve.
Before that day, I was viewed like the picture-perfect example of what an Airman should be. I was the Airman’s Council president, going to school full-time, placed second at an Air Force-level award and was coined 13 times within the first year of my enlistment.
These successes were really just a way to cope with what I was feeling on the inside. I was dealing with true desolation, and the only thing that would make me feel better is when others fed my addiction to constant praise and recognition.
This time, it nearly cost me my career and my life.
For the first two months after my demotion I was angry. I hated the Air Force. I thought no one cared and all I wanted was to give up. I spent days thinking of things I could do to get administratively discharged. I told myself that if I didn’t have a chance at getting my stripe back, I was done.
I couldn’t go anywhere in uniform without being asked by those I knew why I lost rank. My reputation had been tainted. I was no longer receiving the praise I loved so much, and instead only negative attention. My thoughts got darker and I began to hate myself. As the thoughts scathed my mind, myself and others noticed I was in desperate need of help.
Soon after, a friend and mentor pulled me out of my office for a much-needed talk. She could tell my passion was gone and wanted to help me get it back. Something clicked when she said, “Just because you can’t get BTZ or make staff in three years anymore, doesn’t mean you can’t have goals.”
Every morning, I would have a text asking me to tell her something that I loved about myself and what positive changes I was going to make that day.
I then received a calendar invite from my commander to meet in his office with three women I looked up to immensely. Turns out, people did care.
As much as I wanted to resist the help offered to me, I attended that meeting, and every week thereafter. They helped put me on a track to self-discovery and repair.
During this time, I realized there were things I could practice to be a wingman to myself, which got me through until my next calendar invite.
I made sure all of my resilience pillars were in check. I took some more classes. I attended training and became a Master Resilience Trainer. I spent time meditating and started training for a half-marathon so I could get my health in order.
I realized that if you stay so busy improving yourself, you won’t have the time to feel alone and worthless.
The Air Force has a culture of family and wingmanship. We constantly work to improve how we treat each other, and we set time aside to check on our brothers and sisters in arms. However, we don’t seem to spend as much time taking care of ourselves.
I truly believe that if I would’ve been proactive about my mental health, I may have never made the decisions that led to my demotion.
Even if you’re not experiencing tragedy right now, start taking care of yourself. Because the truth of the matter is, tragedy will strike. And if it hasn’t yet, I promise you that it will. The lens at which you see it will be the difference between victim and victor.
I challenge you to ask yourself how prepared you are for the next obstacle life will give you. If the answer is anything less than doomsday-prepper status, you’ve got work to do.
Start getting your physical, mental, social and spiritual lives in order. Whether it’s going to bed earlier, running more, reaching out to a friend, joining a church or trying a new hobby — try focusing on one thing in each category every week that you can improve.
Since my demotion, friends have come and gone, illness has swept across my family and I’ve encountered countless struggles. The difference is that now I have the tools to combat the debilitating thoughts that come with heartache. I can now be my own wingman and pull myself above water before I get to the point of drowning.
I am not a victim of what happened “to me.” Instead, it’s one of the most special parts of who I am today.
If you’re looking to start your road to resilience, contact your unit’s first sergeant or master resiliency trainer for more resources.
McConnell’s Beyond the Blue initiative takes steps to normalize help-seeking behaviors. These stories communicate struggles and create conversations that go below the surface. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts contact the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, then press 1, or access the online chat by texting 838255.