Thank You, Uncle Sam

Memorial Day seems like an appropriate time to reactivate my blog.  As I’ve checked my Twitter feed and read comments on Facebook, many people are extending appreciation to veterans. It’s a little thing, but, as a veteran, it makes me feel good to see more people realize freedom isn’t free.

I enlisted in the Air Force out of high school for several reasons, but the primary reason was patriotism. Between my junior and senior years in high school (the summer of 1970), I spent 6 weeks studying at Oxford University through a future teacher program sponsored by the NEA. Our group followed the seminar with three weeks traveling around Europe on a mini-bus. It was during that summer abroad that I became keenly aware of the many comforts and privileges I had taken for granted my entire life—access to bathrooms, grocery stores, cars, air conditioning, water—the list could go on and on.

Several world events were also occurring during that time period. One was the fight for the ERA amendment and the other was the Vietnam War. Enlisting in the USAF was my attempt to put my “money where my mouth” was. If I believed women deserved equal rights, then I had to bear equal responsibilities. That meant I needed to serve in the military, just as my male friends were being called by the draft to serve. I had an obligation to give back to the country that made my freedoms possible. [It wasn’t all patriotism and altruism, though. The GI Bill was an excellent enticement.] Little did I know how much I would gain from the experience. The Air Force provided me an excellent transition from childhood to adulthood. I had plenty of freedom to make my own stupid mistakes but there was always someone available to help me if I got in over my head. If I hadn’t married a man with children that lived with us and been hot for a remote assignment, I likely would have stayed in the Air Force until retirement. So, I often say I left the #1 most stressful job (air traffic control) for the #2 most stressful job—teaching.

My eight years as an air traffic controller in the USAF contributed significantly to my development as a teacher and administrator. Skills that my military experience developed include:

  • A heightened sense of “situational awareness”—In air traffic control, one must always know where all your planes are and where they’re going next. As a teacher and administrator it is also essential to know what is going on around you. Being oblivious is NOT an asset.
  • The ability to prioritize and juggle multiple projects and tasks—There were always multiple jobs that needed to be done, and I had to find a way to do them. During my time in the military, I learned to manage the workload, whatever it might be.
  • To be decisive and take action – Believe me, trying to direct multiple types of aircraft to the same runway is an excellent teacher of the need to make a decision and act on that decision. Mixing Cessna 150’s with fighter aircraft and tankers is a challenge!
  • The ability to get along with all types of people—Few places have such a mixed group of people as the military. Living and working in close quarters with many types of people helps highlight the similarities more than the differences. As our schools become more and more diverse, the ability to get along with various people is a real advantage.
  • Leadership and organizational skills – As I progressed in rank, the responsibilities increased. I became a shift leader then a supervisor. I was assigned scheduling and training responsibilities. Through those experiences, working with people above and below me, I learned to “sell” my ideas instead of demand my way. It is a skill I carried into my career in education, always trying to make the “why” clear with every task.
  • A foreign language—What a useful gift for working with our school populations. Learning a foreign language taught me empathy for others who must learn a new language and live in an unfamiliar culture.
  • Rules can be waived – There is always someone higher up who can waive a rule. Frequently, one just needs to ask.
  • Discipline, respect, effort, flexibility, patience…Well, you get the point.

Although I appreciate the warm comments from family, friends, and strangers, thanking me for my service, I want to say “thank you” to Uncle Sam for providing me the opportunity to serve. Yes, I served my country. But my country served me as well.

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