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More than I asked for

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

I left home for the first time in my 20 years of living on Jan. 10, 2017, to become an Airman. I saw the Air Force as an opportunity to better myself through professionalism, education and experience. As a first generation Airman I went in blind, but I knew what I wanted and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way. However, I was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster I had strapped myself into.

After two flights and a bus ride, I finally arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. As soon as the bus stopped, the doors swung open and a military training instructor ran us off.  We made our way into a small room filled with crates overflowing with backpacks, shower shoes, reflective belts and other essential supplies for trainees. Once we were rushed through and loaded up, we were corralled into a giant auditorium filled with what felt like over 1,000 people. The silence in that room was chilling.

I sat down with nervousness, adrenaline and intimidation all welled up inside me. The only sound that could be heard was the voice of an MTI who shouted names and instructions.

After several hours of in-processing and a frantic run to the 331st Training Squadron, I arrived at what would be my “home” for the next 60 days. The dorm was everything I expected it to be, plain and symmetrical in every sense of the word. And there I finally looked at the faces of the women, who I had no interest in getting to know, but would share this journey with.

A tall and intimidating master sergeant, our MTI, barreled in behind us commanding we stand against the wall locker of the bed we had chosen. Her strong voice rang through the room like nothing I had ever heard before.

She began to talk about many rules and topics.  One that stood out in my mind was this wingmenship concept. My immediate thoughts were negative. I didn’t want a wingman. I wanted to get through alone because I was there to become an Airman and not have to worry about other people.

She told us to pair up with the trainee beside us to exchange these little paper wingman cards. With the heavy atmosphere that we were in, the only words my new found wingman and I were able to exchange was our names, which I instantly forgot.

Days went by fast but it didn’t seem fast enough. Being away from my family and my husband, who I was dating at the time, was excruciating. I fell into a deep sense of loneliness and helplessness that I could not escape. I realized I couldn’t do it alone. For the first time at BMT, I found myself asking God for a friend.

At the end of each day our MTI gathered us in the dayroom to talk and pass out letters. This particular day in week two was the first day many of us received mail. It was the most exhilarating experience. I walked back to my bed and ripped open my letters to find a handful of photos of my family. Tears immediately poured out of my eyes onto the little 4-by-6 pictures of everyone I had left back in Ohio. I looked up at my wingman, the girl whose name I had forgotten. Tears also flowed from her eyes onto her own photos.

We both knew exactly what the other felt. We collided into an embrace and that was it. That was the answer to my prayers. It wasn’t just an internal strength that I needed but a strength that I could receive off of my wingman, trainee Tatiana Guzman.

As time went on our friendship grew. We bonded over activities such as rolling socks and scrubbing our dorm’s shower walls. We had each other’s backs and refused to let the other fail. Throughout the rest of our training, she helped me in my struggles and shortcomings and I helped in hers. We went everywhere together and talked like we had known each other our entire lives. She was finally getting me to understand what it was like to have a wingman. However as quickly as I gained that strength, I lost it.

After a visit to the doctor for a knee problem, Guzman walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and told me she was leaving our flight to go to medical hold. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it, but it was happening and there was nothing I could do. I helped her pack and escorted her to medical hold. And that is where I had to leave not only my wingman but my best friend.

The next few days were harder than they were in the beginning when I had no one. I was angry and hurt. How was I going to finish? My new found source of strength was no longer there. That is when I learned another side of wingmenship. It wasn’t just the concept of being loyal to one single person.

Other women in my flight, who I joked with or ran beside during physical training, started to substitute that missing strength. Throughout BMT, I had only considered Guzman my wingman, but from that point on it was more than just her.

Days got better even though I was missing Guzman. I came to terms with the fact I would have to try and contact her after BMT and hope we would see each other again one day. That one day came faster than I thought.

I walked through the chow hall line and sat down to eat. I looked up from my tray and saw Guzman heading towards the exit. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited but knew I couldn’t express it without being called out by an MTI. The chow hall was for eating, and eating only. I scarfed down my food and headed out the exit to try and catch up with her.  When I got outside, she was nowhere to be found.

I marched back to my dorm and was immediately greeted by a shout in my face, “Guzman is back!” I sprinted to my bay to only find an empty bed next to mine. I tried to hold back the tears as anger and embarrassment welled up inside me. By that time, the entire flight had completely surrounded me in my state of emotional distress. After what felt like a million hugs, the wall locker door behind me flew open and out came Guzman. She was back and this time it was for good.

The rest of BMT I not only had Guzman by my side but the rest of my wingmen known as Flight 194.

Upon completion of my training, I was surrounded by some of the best friends I have ever had. Throughout those two months, I realized the Air Force was not a solo mission but a wingman mission. On March 3, 2017, I became an Airman, just like I had promised myself, but with a few extra people in my life.

Don’t allow your strive to accomplish your goals detract you from letting others in your life. Your wingman may be the very thing to get you through your journey.