This is a post that I’ve had written for a while and have been waiting on a good time to publish. Enjoy.
I’ve been holding off doing this post for a while now, mostly because of the difficulty of allowing myself to be so vulnerable. Fair warning, this is going to be a long and heart-felt post.
I’m stealing this term from a mentor of mine, my old commander. She often shares personal stories and tough experiences while using this term, meaning she is exposing the truth hiding within.
On December 8th, after a year of personal preparation, I had my Open Kimono moment with my squadron(even though I’m retired, I still consider them “my squadron”). On that day I told my story in its entirety. I didn’t leave out any of the personal moments or feelings that I normally would in fear of looking weak. To me, it had to be that way so that the message that I wanted to get across felt real to my audience, to my Airmen.
My nerves were shot that morning. It was an event that I had been preparing to do for a while, ever since I was approached about it by my leadership trio a year ago. Even though I had a lot of time to prepare myself and get to where I wanted to be in my recovery before doing so, I was still scared to death. My own personal stigmas went into high gear. “What if I look weak in front of my Airmen?” “What if my old coworkers can’t handle this information and separate themselves from me?” “What if I lose the respect and personal connections that I had spent 11 years building?” These are tough questions and may sound ridiculous, but they felt real and, in many ways, I believed the worst answers.
After getting to the building and being brought inside, I saw that the training room was packed. The entire squadron was there…this was happening. I heard a lot of “JONESY!” and “What the heck are you doing here?”. Then, something that I should have seen coming, two of my guys came up to greet me and hugged the crap out of me. The first was a SSgt from my office, one of the new NCOs that I had the opportunity to mentor on how to fill his new shoes…errr stripes. I also had many personal sit downs with him, times that we both got stuff out of. The second, a man that I’ve known for years, was a TSgt who I got to be there for and do things very similar with, but on an even more personal-level. I don’t know if I told them at the time, but that actually helped the nerves quite a bit.
After a quick introduction by the new commander, I was up. I walked to the front of the sea of people, took a breath, and reintroduced myself. Fun fact: After the introduction, I discovered that the PowerPoint that I had been working on for a week…was corrupted to bejesus and back. Most of the words were mixed around, moved all across the screen, or turned into Wingdings. At least the pics were there. After a quick attempt to fix it, I said fuck it(out loud on accident) and pressed on with how it was.
I told my story, starting from my initial entry into the squadron and the non-standard mission that my friends and I completed in the two war zones that we never expected to find ourselves in. I talked about my stressful transition to my new “standard” mission set and to being stateside more often. I pushed through the hard part, crying at times, of my dealing with struggles that I couldn’t understand. I ended it with my most recent transition of going from active duty to being retired. Not only that, but medically retired, which is still difficult to wrap my head around at times.
Throughout the talk, I hit laughing points to keep it light when appropriate. Other times, preceded by a warning to them that I might cry, I went deep. I talked about the guilt that I felt, the daily internal struggles with PTSD, the battles with suicidal thoughts and attempted actions, the overly exaggerated work ethic that was brought on from trying to make things “right” with a world that I owed. At the end, I talked about lessons learned and emphasized the absolute necessity of talking to each other to just let off some pressure and realize that you’re not alone.
After it was over I looked over and saw that one of my best friends had snuck in to come see me talk. I teared up a bit when I noticed. We bro hugged it out and he gave me the standard, “I’m proud of ya, man. That took some balls!”
Holy Surprise and Support, Batman!
That whole fear of weakness and bridge-burning? Didn’t happen. I caught feedback through many avenues, all incredibly positive. Many people contacted me directly with their stories or their lessons learned. Heck, some people in different part of the country hit me up and thanked me for “stepping up”. Just wow!