It’s been one year since I last wore a uniform, serving in the U.S. Air Force. It’s a bittersweet thing really. I needed to leave on many different levels, but, like Switch says in The Matrix, “not like this.” This is a long read, so if you want the TL;DR version, skip to the last few paragraphs.
Right from the start, I wasn’t exactly the typical military guy. I shocked a lot of people when I decided to enlist, but it was a good change from my life in East Providence and gave me a lot of opportunities. I wouldn’t be where I am today, for good or for ill, if it wasn’t for my military experience.
It was under leaders like Jeffre Nagan and Darrick Lee that I finally started to understand my place in everything. In the sea of generalists, I was someone who could do exceptional work under the right guidance, even if my work style didn’t always fit the mould. I started getting into video and database management, and flourished. I think my time at Misawa under those two was the happiest time of my career, despite how remote the assignment was.
Yokota brought new challenges and new rewards. Mentors like Dustin Payne and Juaacklyn Denny refined my video production to a level where my videos had a certain level of polish. I even fell in love, although it couldn’t last for a variety of reasons. Yokota was tough, but I grew a lot and was starting to really look forward to my career in the Air Force.
Then, Mountain Home. I’m not going to say it was all bad. Being stationed there was how I met Andy Anderson, who took me under his wing and gave me opportunities in the civilian sector I could have only dreamed about before. I met some great friends there too, and I still miss the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
But there was bad too.
Bad is really an understatement. I had some truly toxic leadership, from a self-absorbed senior NCO who couldn’t fathom why someone would be content as a tech sergeant and not want to be promoted, to a civilian PA officer who had no trust from anyone above or below him, to a comptroller commander who was described by defense lawyers as “a bully.” Suffice to say, I didn’t have the support or leadership I had benefitted from at previous bases.
Two events stand out to me as the pinnacle of what Mountain Home was to me: first was being made unit deployment manager (a full time job) at a time when I was the senior-ranking enlisted in the office, had an exercise coming up, and am generally not that great at multitasking. I was set up to fail, and fail I did. All this when I had just come back from the Eddie Adams Workshop, the premiere photojournalism workshop in the U.S. and possibly the world. I was at the top of my craft and suddenly told photography was no longer my job.
The second was our wing mission video. We were giving a young up-and-coming airman the chance to shine, but I was DP and EP to help keep her on course and make sure the production quality was up-to-snuff. She resisted my guidance at just about every turn until the lieutenant in charge of the project decided to sit us both down. Despite my expertise and her junior rank, the LT ordered me, in front of her, that I wasn’t allowed to tell her to make a change unless I could point to a rule she was breaking. Since there are few hard-and-fast rules with video production, he may as well have told her that she didn’t have to listen to me anymore.
The stress of working in such an environment took its toll. I was drinking more, eating worse foods, and my physical fitness took a nosedive. I won’t blame the Air Force entirely for my actions, but it didn’t help. All of this cumulated into my final year.
I decided I wanted to separate in late 2016. I was doing a lot of freelancing and decided that made me happier (and earned me more money) than my military work. I started saving any money I could to create a nest egg for the following year. Then, on a job in early 2017, I lost my primary drone, forcing me to drop $8,500 on a new one that night to continue the shoot. That destroyed my savings and then some, forcing me to re-evaluate my separation plans.
Then, the other shoe dropped: out of the blue, my commander decided to demote me.
No specific reason was given, just that based on my track record of failing as a unit deployment manager, difficulties managing people, etc., that I was not fit to be a tech sergeant anymore. I was devastated, and my finances took another hit. I tried to voluntarily separate right then and there, citing that I could go work for the Defense Media Activity, which would ultimately benefit the Air Force, but my application was denied, as was my plea to stay the demotion. Later that year, I failed a physical fitness test and was demoted a second time. I was now a senior airman, one rank above what I entered the Air Force as, essentially ripping away a decade of career progression and excellence over petty bullshit.
There was a silver lining though, the second demotion put me beyond “high-year tenure” and automatically slated me for separation. Better yet, it gave me separation pay, which at least somewhat made up for the loss of pay from my two demotions. Basically, because I was being forced out rather than kicked out, or voluntarily separating, the military was obliged to give me some money to get me started.
So, I was joining the civilian workforce. Like all separating service members, I was required to go through TAPS which is a program to help you separate smoothly. The program wasn’t bad, but clearly designed for people who had no idea what their strengths and weaknesses were, or how to find work. Even the Boots to Business class was a little lame, and didn’t really give me much new information on how to start up my video production business. A 20-minute conversation with my accountant today told me more about what I needed to do than the three-day class did.
Once I actually separated, a lot of things became clear. I suddenly started to notice what the military had done to my friends. PTSD is no joke, and neither is the wear and tear on our bodies. Sure, there are disability benefits and retirement pay, but those are woefully little for what the military puts us through. In December, I also lost a good friend and colleague, Chad Strohmeyer. I don’t know exactly what killed him, he died in his sleep, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had to do with the military in some way.
I also started to see how woefully underprepared most military photographers and videographers are to enter the civilian market. We’re not taught our value, so many chronically undervalue themselves and take sub-par pay, driving the entire market down. We’re not taught about releases and copyright, so navigating model releases, location releases, and even copyright of buildings like the Empire State Building, are foreign to us. We’re not taught the business of freelance work, insurance, equipment maintenance and repair, etc. We’re also not taught excellence or specialization. Military work may prepare us as corporate content producers or maybe journalists (if you’re lucky enough to have been stationed at an AFN detachment), but not freelancers.
In the military, if you fail, it’s not a big deal, as long as it wasn’t a PT test, promotion test, or similar. Forgetting to start recording, or botching your settings isn’t usually going to hurt you in the long run. In the civilian sector, at best, you don’t get paid, and at worst, word spreads and you never work in that area again. Those are totally different stakes, and if you don’t have genuine skill, you’re not going to make it. Also, if you don’t specialize, you’re never going to hit that level. That may sound odd from someone who prided himself in being a one-man, do-everything band in the military, but I’ve truly learned the value of teamwork and working with a good crew to make magic happen. When you lean on the expertise of others and marry it with your own expertise, you can accomplish more than any one of you could on your own. That’s not to say don’t learn the other aspects of video production, but you better know your role inside and out before you walk on set.
I guess at this point you’re wondering if I regret it. No, I don’t. I’m thankful for my time in the military and don’t regret enlisting at all. I still recommend to aspiring photographers and videographers that the military is a great place to get started. That doesn’t mean I’m not bitter about what happened. 6.5 more years and I could have retired with full benefits, as well as the pride of having retired from the military, rather than being forced out with a token honorable discharge, even if I wanted out anyway. I think if I had the kind of leadership at Mountain Home that I had at Misawa, I might still be in and going to DMA.
So by all means, if you’re thinking about joining, join. Just know when to punch out, and do it before things get nasty. I know civilian life is scary after having everything taken care of for several years, but trust me, it’s better than staying in what amounts to an abusive relationship for years on end. It’s taken me a long time to really unpack my emotions about everything and it all points back to how toxic the environment was.
For those who are still in, take care of yourselves. Yes, you get healthcare in retirement as well as from the VA for separatees, but nothing is worth long-term physical pain and hardship that medicine can’t cure. Don’t break yourself trying to pass a fitness test. Don’t turn to alcohol and food to cheer yourself up when your command is sucking your soul. You have more power than you think.
For those of you who are out, take care of each other and don’t look at your military days with rose-colored glasses. It sucked a lot worse than you remember.
I’m still not sure I’m ready to forgive the people who failed me in the military, and just the casual mention of certain people’s names still cause me to become irrationally angry. For that matter, I’m not sure I’m ready to forgive the military as a whole. It seems like “Enlisted Jesus” AKA Chief Wright is doing a lot of good for the Air Force but even if I had the option, I wouldn’t go back.. I’m not one to parade my veteran status around like some people do, but I am proud of it. I’m happier now than I ever was at Mountain Home, and despite the existential crisis of trying to find work to pay the bills, feel far less stress too.
So here I am, one year later, and genuinely looking forward to the next!