FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. — I once read that newly created cells in our bodies do one of two things: They either begin to decay or they become more vital.
These cells choose their path based on what we demand of them. If we are sedentary, our brains signal our cells to decay; but if we exercise, our cells get the signal that we need them to be strong and healthy. Likewise, when we refuse to challenge ourselves, it’s like we are telling something inside of us to decay; but if we do the things that challenge us, we too become more vital and, sometimes, we even change our lives.
I often think about an experience that challenged me and forever changed my life: Air Force Basic Military Training. To understand why BMT challenged me, you first have to understand the person I was before I joined the military.
In 1984, I was a college dropout waiting tables at a local restaurant. It was one of the lowest points in my life, not because I was a waitress, but because I had little hope of a different future. That’s a tough reality when you’re 19. Looking for a way out, I joined the military. My father said I wouldn’t last two weeks. I couldn’t fault my dad for not believing in me, because I didn’t even believe in myself. I was physically weak and had a history of being a quitter.
I passed out my first day of BMT. While I was recovering, the rest of my flight got issued uniforms. For three days I marched at the back of my flight as a “Rainbow.” I remember looking at everyone else that first day, those other girls were confident and strong. Me? Still in my “civvies.” The truth was painfully obvious — I didn’t belong. My dad was right.
In 1984 we ran PT in formation, starting with two laps and gradually working our way up to six. I was a terrible runner, and by the fifth lap I started falling out of formation. I was still able to make my run time, but falling out of formation made one a magnet for unwanted attention. On the sixth lap, I could no longer make my time. While everyone else went to dinner, I headed back out to the track for remedial running every evening. I was miserable and I wanted to go home.
Our fifth week of training was a turning point for me. I had been too caught up in my own miserable existence to notice something — many of the girls who I thought were so strong that first day were gone. They had given up, but I hadn’t. I wasn’t the same quitter who had shown up to BMT that first day; I was stronger and more resilient, but I still couldn’t run. In the end it wouldn’t matter that I had lasted more than two weeks, because if I couldn’t pass my PT test, I would be discharged.
Due to inclement weather our fitness test was on the last day of BMT, which meant no second chances. We formed up and started running. First lap — fine, second lap — fine, third lap — OK. On the fourth lap I started to struggle, but I was not the only one having a difficult time. We locked arms — no one was going to fall out, we would finish together even if we had to drag people across the finish line.
On the fifth lap I was dying and running just one more lap seemed impossible. On the sixth lap I felt like my lungs would explode. I could see the finish line, but if the other girls had not been holding my arms I don’t think I could have finished. We crossed the finish line together and I cried for joy. As we stood sweaty and stinky in our dayroom, our training instructor pressed a basic training ribbon into each of our hands. It was the proudest moment of my life. I was an Airman.
A mile and a half may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it seemed impossible. It was my challenge, and for the first time in my life I stuck with something difficult and finished it, but I didn’t do it alone. It’s through teamwork we can accomplish just about anything. I didn’t just run a mile and a half that day, I changed my life and I did it with my new Air Force family. I learned that I am strong and we are stronger when we band together to never give up, never to quit.