A day of firsts

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Chris Long
  • 315th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

An 1800s English philosopher by the name of John Stuart Mill said, “There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home.” This can be attributed to many things in our lives, but how often do we really experience a “first time moment” that opens our eyes to the truth in something that we have only heard about?

I have been in the U.S. Air Force in one capacity or another since September of 1999 when I enlisted as an aircraft maintenance specialist. Staff Sgt. Jerry Gamblin, my first supervisor, wanted me to understand that “this isn’t a 9 to 5 job. What we do impacts the world and protects our nation. If you are here to do your four years and leave then make sure you do it well and take away the experiences and understand what it means.” This never meant as much to me as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet, as real as that experience was for me, it was nothing like that of the people at ground zero. Why is that? Simple, I understood what it meant, but I couldn’t relate to it in a way that those on the ground could. They had experienced it firsthand.

So fast forward 16 years. No I didn’t just serve my four years as I had planned. Something in me changed after 9/11 and I knew this was where I belonged. In 2007 I left active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve and became a member of the 315th Maintenance Group allowing me to still be a part of the mission. I worked in the back shop and on the flight line as a maintainer ensuring that the jet could make its mission. The group of maintainers I worked with were amazing. I listened to their stories about time downrange and hearing how our work was impacting the mission.

The mission… This is something I had heard my entire career. After commissioning as a maintenance officer I saw the mission from a new perspective. It was no longer about my specific role, but making sure that world’s best maintainers getting the birds off the ground had what they needed to be successful. I was told that I was an integral part of making the mission happen. I believed it then and I believe it now but I only knew what it meant in word format. I hadn’t ever experienced a mission. That’s right, I have been in uniform for 16 years and never been on a mission, have never flown on a military aircraft, have never flown on the flight deck during takeoff or landing, and I had never left CONUS (Continental United States) as a military member. Recently, all of that changed in a single day.

Earlier this year I was presented with an opportunity to transition from maintenance to 315th Airlift Wing Public Affairs. Although I haven’t been to PA school yet I jumped at a chance to experience a mission and to write my first article. The article was on the 315th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. They were flying off CONUS in an effort to gain currency, perform check rides, and perform all of the necessary functions as if it were a real world situation. I was excited to go, but I had no idea what was in store for me. I arrived early to make sure I wasn’t holding up the crew and shortly after the initial mission brief we boarded the C-17A Globemaster III bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As I said I’ve been a maintainer for sixteen years, nearly a career, so it wasn’t my first time in the aircraft. I know the C-17 well as do all of our maintenance professionals. I settled in and started walking around to familiarize myself with the Reserve members we were flying with. I snapped photos for my article, but it still wasn’t really different. I was on a C-17 on the ground and watched folks work and assisted where I could. Then they closed the doors and asked if I would like to take a seat on the flight deck. I watched as this massive aircraft nimbly left the runway in a distance that seemed too short to believe. This amazing aircraft that I had turned wrenches on for a decade was now carrying me on my first mission. I felt like a kid looking out of the windows as we flew past the Arthur Ravenel Bridge and then across a blue canvas with a shadow of the C-17 racing us to our destination. The pilots of the 701st Airlift Squadron controlled the aircraft as if it were second nature all while letting me know what it was that they were doing. I never felt like an imposition because they treated me like I was a part of the crew.

Once we were on our way and cruising I headed back downstairs and saw the same people I met on the ground now in full mission operations tempo. They were amazing! Everyone from the Airman to the colonel were working together in an effort to care for their patients, rank didn’t matter because the patients and the mission were all that mattered. I was watching one group of people now working as a symbiotic organism to save the lives of our wounded warriors. This was what I have been doing in the background for an entire career, saving lives. I turned wrenches on the ground so that the aircrew would have a safe aircraft to fly in and save those who protect us, but once the aircraft left I headed to the next broke jet, after all I was an integral part of the mission and my mission was to get jets off the ground. It’s the same thing for all careers, we perform our function. Every person, no matter the career field, joined together in one seamless tapestry from the maintainers, to the pilots, to the aeromedical folks. I was experiencing what the mission was really about. At the conclusion as we returned to Charleston, I was once again seated in the flight station and watched as Charleston appeared in the horizon. We approached the runway and gently touched back down to Earth, back to Charleston. Sometimes a saying we’ve heard seems cliché and then your perspective changes. Charleston, one team, one fight. It’s not just a phrase, it’s a reality.

If you are reading this then I want you to know that you too are an integral part of the mission. It doesn’t matter what your job is, everyone makes the mission happen -- from the civilian workforce to the members in uniform. John Keats said, “Nothing ever becomes real ‘till it is experienced.” The mission was always real to me but I never knew how important we all were until I had my day of firsts. I am an American Airman, I am a warrior, and I will continue to answer my nation’s call.  

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