On your face!

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Zach Anderson
  • 4th Air Force

The order seemed to follow my every move during the spring of 2006. I was in the midst of basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and at the age of 26, I was finding it much more difficult than I had anticipated to adapt to the rigors of military life. Being ordered "on my face" to perform endless sets of push-ups had become a daily, if not hourly, occurrence.

The routine was always the same. Trainee Anderson, aka, "Trainee Moron," would inadvertently commit some unspeakable infraction such as failure to use a reporting statement, moving at the position of attention, or wearing my cover while indoors.

Without fail, each breach of good order and discipline was followed by a withering verbal tirade declaring in no uncertain terms how the lint on my uniform was the most repulsive violation of military conduct in history and could quite possibly lead to the fall of the free world. This verbal assault was inevitably followed by a creative and painful physical disciplinary action doled out by five-feet-six-inches of pure evil known as to me as "Ma'am," or, more properly, Tech. Sgt. Cortez, my military training instructor.

I'm pretty sure I set the record for push-ups and flutter kicks achieved by an Air Force basic trainee during those weeks at Lackland. It seemed no matter how hard I tried, I was always falling short of the standards. My boots had the worst shine, my bunk had the sloppiest hospital corners, and I couldn't march to save my life. (Ever helpful, Sergeant Cortez offered to label my boots "R" and "L" with a marker to remind me which foot to step with.)

Compounding my struggle was the fact that I was eight years older than most of my fellow trainees. In my mind, as one of the senior members of the flight I should have been one of the top performers, a leader setting the example for the younger troops to follow. Instead, I was straining to keep up with 18-year-old kids who seemed to effortlessly grasp and apply each new military lesson. While they were discovering the finer points of breaking down the M-16, I was still laboring to perfect the proper method of folding my underwear. As my sub-par performance continued, I found myself spending more and more time "on my face."

The effect on my psyche was devastating. I was demoralized to the point of questioning my reasons for enlisting at all. How was I going to serve my country when I couldn't even execute an about face without tripping myself? I was pretty sure if I ever got out of basic, I would prove to be worthless as a member of the military. Mentally, I was done.

By the third week of training I had reached the point that, when I failed to call the dorm to attention as an officer departed, I had already dropped "on my face" before Sergeant Cortez had time to issue the order. My preemptive, self-inflicted punishment did nothing to halt her from bringing her trademark verbal "black rain" down upon me. As I dutifully "pushed 'em out" on the floor, she cut loose with an incredible onslaught of threats and admonishments, questioning everything from my mental capacity to the legitimacy of my family tree. But somewhere between insults, she slipped in a phrase that I have held onto ever since:

"You have something to offer the Air Force, Anderson! You need to start showing it!"

I almost paused in mid pushup. Was that a slight vote of confidence, disguised as an insult? I have something to offer? After all the failures I'd displayed, after all my  shortcomings...really?

I allowed myself to dwell on that though, that tiny sliver of hope that even I, "Trainee Moron," might actually have some skill that could prove useful in the service of my country.

That moment proved to be the turning point in my fledgling Air Force career.

I began to focus on what I could offer and not worry about what I couldn't. Maybe I couldn't carry the guidon without dropping it, but I was incredible at rolling my flight mates' socks to pass inspections! By the time Sergeant Cortez presented me with my Airman's coin at my graduation, I had no doubt that her words were true: I do have something to offer ... and I need to show it.

I don't know if Sergeant Cortez meant for her words to carry such meaning, but, in my mind, they carry a truth that rings true for all who wear the uniform. Each and every one of the men and women who serve as members of our military has something to give;  something to offer. Each has a skill, a talent, a reason to serve...and an obligation to show those qualities.

It can be so easy to forget that fact, to simply grind out the days without considering the personal contributions we make. I still can't march, and the thought of attempting a hospital corner sends a chill down my spine. But I, like every member of the military, can give my absolute, personalized best, day in and day out, for the service of this country.