Airman's Longest Year
by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kristen
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Kristen Pittman performs
the oath of enlistment at the Air Force Reserve recruiting
office in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on January 30, 2017. (Courtesy photo)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Lackland Air Force Base, Texas
on January 18, 2018. (Courtesy photo)
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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