PA walks mile in a gunners shoes

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. —I said yes, but I was nervous as hell.

I’d heard them firing for a little over an hour, felt the ground move, seen grass fly and watched the recoil from the blasts shake the Airmen depressing the trigger.

I was taking photos of an Airman finishing the last of his ammunition when a combat arms instructor asked me if I wanted to try firing a .50 Caliber M2 machine gun.

I was having second, third and fourth thoughts, but I couldn’t back out because I’d already said yes. I put on a heavy flack vest and helmet then positioned myself behind the tripod with my legs on either side.

They told me to pull the bolt back. I used two hands to do so. The instructor let out a sigh, and I smiled because he had no idea what he was in for; neither did I.

Having never fired any weapon remotely that large in caliber, I was not prepared for the force that came out of the gun. Not to mention trying to aim it and hit a target. It definitely wasn’t as easy as they made it look.

As a photojournalist, I am often given the opportunity to tell the stories of Airmen in career fields across the Air Force but it’s very rare for me to step into their shoes. Sometimes we look down on others based on their jobs because we overlook the realities of what they deal with on a daily basis.

Respecting every career field is not only good for the Air Force but it’s easy if you consider what their life is like.

People often dismiss other career fields because they think that career field has a lighter workload. This particular day with the 823d Base Defense Squadron involved me waking up at 5 a.m., a 2-hour drive and shooting heavy weapons on a range. Not the typical eight-hour day in an air-conditioned office that most people associate with public affairs.

Although I could see the power of the gun, to me, it still just looked like people pulling a trigger. Surely, anybody could do that. This belief faded quickly as I looked down the sights of the machine gun and my glasses slowly slid beneath my eyes as I depressed the trigger and fired eight rounds in what seemed like slow motion. My body jerked with the recoil of the gun. Brass flew around my legs, and my glasses bobbled back into place.

As this happened, all I could think was how difficult aiming was, and how bad of a gunner I would be. The training I received in basic in no way prepared me for the magnitude of a weapon like this.

I guess this isn’t something just anyone could do.

I could barely steady my nerves on a calm range in a teaching environment. I can’t imagine what it would be like to aim this beast at enemies in hostile territory before they’re able to harm me and the others in my Humvee.

An exceptional gunner takes pride in protecting their convoy and keeping an eye out for potential threats. This same kind of pride spills into other career fields but sometimes it makes us believe our job is more important than others.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. My job is to tell Airmen’s stories, so without the other career fields I have no stories to tell and that particular day I was capturing part of a gunner’s story. This allows me to see how each career field helps the Air Force accomplish its mission, whether it’s gunners in a Humvee downrange or the Airmen preparing food in the dining facility.

Every career field relies on each other to keep the base up and running, but firing this gun was humbling and made me respect gunners and defenders even more. The next time you find yourself about to dismiss another career field, I challenge you to learn more about what they do and what they bring to the fight. If you have the opportunity, try it for yourself.

As I stood up, after ensuring the weapon was safe, the instructor informed me I didn’t hit any targets, only sky and birds. I laughed and told him I’d be a terrible gunner, but hey, I got some pretty good photos today!

For now, I think I’ll stick to shooting my camera.