In 2007, I was attending the Defense Language Institute’s Mandarin Chinese Basic Course. I was several months in and had a 3.8 GPA, second only in my class to my friend and fellow Airman James Fisher. I won’t say my academic success was because I tried harder than my classmates. I absolutely didn’t. I just was lucky enough to have a brain that was hungry for the material.
My wife Jessica suddenly became very sick one day. She called me from the doctor’s office and said that her liver was failing. For some reason I’m still not entirely clear about, they had to remove her gallbladder right away. I left class to take care of our two infant children while white-coated strangers took my wife into a back-room to remove pieces of her that had gone rogue. When we got Jessica back home, sick and in serious pain, my first order of business was to drive back to base, to talk to my Military Training Leader about getting some time off to take care of my wife and children while she recovered from major surgery. It took everything I had to convince them to give me 3 days off of class. They said any more than that would require me to be disenrolled. I went home that day ashamed of what I had to tell my wife, deeply ashamed of the institution I now belonged to.
I felt shame when I left my wife alone at home after 3 days of recovery, to care for two infant children, one of whom, Rebecca, was in the early stages of the disease which ended her life last week. Jessica wouldn’t take any painkillers after the third day, because she didn’t want to fall asleep while caring for our children alone. When I reported back to my Military Training Leader on that fourth day, they introduced me to the First Sergeant, who sat me down and ordered me to complete a Family Care Plan. You might have heard it described differently than this, but here is what a Family Care Plan is in this scenario: It is a detailed description of all of the ways in which we would prevent an emergency like this from keeping me from fulfilling the “needs of the Air Force” in the future. They wanted a signed guarantee that if my wife or medically fragile child were to suddenly fall deathly ill again, I wouldn’t have to take so much time off.
I never completed that family care plan. I couldn’t bring myself to. They could go to hell for all I cared.
It wasn’t the last time I felt ashamed to be an Airman either. I have had that conversation with my wife a number of times over the years- explaining the situation we were in – a leader’s detached response to our plea for help – a policy that was preventing me from being there for her when she and our kids needed me.
I have had some great leaders too. They showed me what was possible. They showed me that it was worth fighting. They showed me that values could come first, even in the U.S. Air Force.
This is what I write about- it’s about how profoundly personal all of this is to me. To me, innovation is personal. It’s not about the technology or because I’m particularly obsessed with processes and systems. It’s about valuing people, about putting values first and not wasting their time and losing their spirit. If you do not value people, you are an obstacle to value and a threat to the mission, because the dedication, devotion, motivation, and caring of a human being would pay dividends that simply squeezing them for all the productivity they currently contain won’t ever match.
I am only still here because we needed the medical insurance for our daughter. Now that Rebecca has passed away, I find myself wondering about what is next. I find myself thinking about all of the things that would have convinced me to quit if we hadn’t been compelled to stay by some cruel calculus.
So I am actively seeking ways to finish out the rest of my Air Force career focusing on these human issues that I write about – of culture, innovation, resilience, and leadership. Either way, I will continue to write. It has become a bit of a habit at this point.
Many thanks to the leaders who did the impossible and restored my faith in what the Air Force could be. I have hope for what the next six years of my career could contain, and that hope is held high by the incredible community that has been overwhelmingly supportive in the wake of my beloved daughter’s death. Thank you all.