I served six years in the United States Air Force. Before you ask, no, I wasn’t a pilot. For some reason most people assume everyone in the Air Force are pilots. I was a mechanic. A damn good mechanic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s go back to the beginning of my service.
What made me enlist? In a word, necessity.
I had been living with my sister who started seeing a new man. I won’t go into specifics but will say he wasn’t a good person and somehow led her astray. Sometimes I think growing up with my father messed my sisters up more than it did my brother and I. They never had a healthy male relationship, or male role model. Through the years I watched as each of them struggled with boyfriends and warped ideas of love. Anyway, she chose this new guy over me, her family. It’s a decision she regrets to this day. I know, she’s told me.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. I felt completely alone in the world. I was a twenty four year old never was. I had potential, but had no idea what that potential should be used for. So I wandered through life trying to be the best person I could at whatever I was doing at the time. Every job I ever had was shit–supermarket cashier, video store shift supervisor, pizza shop assistant manager, factory worker. Yet, at each stop, I was always promoted and given more responsibility. Signing up for the military had always been in the back of my mind. My grandfather, father, and uncles had all served. Maybe one day I would too…
Having no where left to turn, I chose the best possible alternative: service.
Just like any other job I ever had, I excelled, even in Basic Training. Most of my fellow soldiers were in their teens. I was halfway to thirty, more experienced, more seasoned. Many of the guys in my flight would seek me out for advice. I’ve always tried to treat anyone like I would like to be treated, based on the merit of their actions. I think that attitude won me some respect. Our Training Instructors molded my body, but they didn’t need to mold my mind. I understood what I was getting myself into. Plus, I fired a gun for the first time. I fired plenty of pretend guns while playing video games. This was different. Surprisingly, I was pretty good…with an M-16. Give me a pistol and my accuracy goes out the window. I still haven’t figured out why. Agreeing to lay your life on the line was something I took very seriously.
The key to surviving Basic Training was discipline and mental toughness. Instructors could scream and yell all they wanted. Some trainees folded, others adapted. It was easy for me to see that giving your best every single minute, of every single day was important. Good thing I had been doing that since kindergarten to survive my father. The military wasn’t much different than growing up in a house with strict parents who weren’t afraid to beat you with a thick leather belt.
After Basic Training came Technical Training, or tech school. This is where I learned how to do my job, which I had never heard of before I got there. I had basic knowledge of tools, but real mechanical skills were foreign. Sitting in a classroom and talking can only offer students so much. It’s a good thing we also had a workshop with practice parts. Just like everywhere else, I excelled here too, receiving praise from each of my instructors.
I’d like to make something clear: at no point have I ever sought praise from anyone, at any time in my life. All I did was give my best to whatever task was set before me. Airplane messing up? Need that symptom diagnosed? I can do that. Need a part replaced? I can do that too. Need someone to pick up the parts? Need someone to sweep the floor? I’ve done all those things and more. No job was too big, or too small for me. It didn’t matter what the job, I gave it my all.
If I found there was something I wasn’t good at, I sought out ways to improve my skills, constantly growing, as a soldier, person, and mechanic.
These are all traits I bring to my writing process. I dove in head first and learned along the way. There was no fear. As soon as I identified what was holding me back, I immersed myself in those flaws, learning everything I could, anyway I could. It took time, but eventually I saw improvement. Soon after, my confidence bloomed. I no longer sought validation from other writers about my writing. My skills grew to the point where I know my writing is good. I don’t need anyone else to acknowledge it anymore.
My contribution for the SNAFU anthology was my first military themed story. People often suggest we write what we know. I think that’s only half of the equation. I believe we should also write what we’re passionate about.
I try to bring military sensibilities to whatever I’m writing. The Air Force has a set of core values which all soldiers must memorize and live up to. They are: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. As you can see, they’re pretty self explanatory. That last one seems like it’s been with me since birth, and it’ll probably be there until I die. I believe there are some things we’re born with. I’ll always give my best. It’s part of who I am.
My life hasn’t been easy. I’m sure many of us could echo that statement. If I’ve learned one thing in my thirty some odd years roaming the planet, it’s that achieving excellence is rarely easy. If it’s important, the determined among us will find a way.
Writing is no exception. Those of us who want to carve out a career doing it will find a way to make it happen. For me, discipline, mental toughness, and a commitment to excellence has seen me become a soon to be published author. I used to call myself an up and coming writer, refusing to use the term “author” until I earned it through publication. Even in the early days I was setting small goals for myself, giving myself something to work toward.
As I look back on my service it seems so far away. I’m grateful for the experience. Yes, even deploying half way around the world, working through 130 degree temperatures, and fourteen hour days in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was during my service that I discovered a love for writing when I penned a three page rebuttal to a superior’s accusation that I disobeyed a direct order. But that’s a story for another time. 😉
There’s actually a funny story behind this photo. Each trainee gets one of these photos taken during Basic Training. The woman snapping the picture told me to smile. I said I didn’t have any smiles in me at the time. She paused, as if thinking, but said nothing. After a long moment she snapped this picture. If you look close enough, you can see I’m exhausted and my face is raw from shaving every day. I’m still that kind of guy, one who wears his heart on his sleeve. For some reason that moment stuck with me throughout the years, the way she looked at me all perplexed. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Set the bar high. Surround yourselves with other, like minded writers who demand your very best. Eventually excellence won’t be a speck on the horizon, it’ll be something you grab a hold of each day. Expect great things and eventually they’ll happen. Write like your stories belong on the shelf with whichever authors you admire and respect. At some point they were in our shoes. They didn’t give up. We shouldn’t either.