I submitted my application to retire from the Air Force Reserves on January 12, during my training weekend at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. I knew that on May 13, I’d meet my 4-year commitment to pass on my post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to the children, and that on May 16, I’d have my 20th “good” year with enough points to retire–23 years after being commissioned through ROTC at Alabama. My finger hovered above the mouse button. I’d be giving up about $30k/year in pay and benefits, sure, but I wanted to erase the stress of a potential deployment from my mental stack of constantly lurking subliminal threats. I clicked “submit.”
Two months later, the sickness began, and shortly after that, I received an email with the following recommendations from my base:
I wondered whether to bother with a formal ceremony or whether to postpone it, but I knew we had plans during July drill weekend and that I couldn’t possibly predict when the above recommendations would no longer be needed. I figured I’d go ahead, even if the room was empty, and my ceremony was recorded or streamed for remote viewing only. April drill weekend was cancelled; May was “virtual,” meaning most of us participated from home with teleconferences and online training only.
Weeks passed, and instead of excitedly working on the speech I started in February or choosing a guest list for my reception/party, I sulked. Before I knew it, it was mid-May; my ceremony was set for June 6, and I’d prepared nothing.
On Monday evening, June 1, I called my last supervisor, LTC Eggleston, who’d retired in February, to ask if there was anything she wished she’d done differently or forgotten to do/arrange for her ceremony (which I thought was very well done). She asked if I had my box from ARPC (Air Reserve Personnel Center); I told her I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. “I’m sure it’s at the unit–that’s where they mail it. It will have your wife’s certificate, your flag, your lapel pin, and your retirement certificate in it.” I asked, “What about the little medals the kids get? That’s the main reason I’m even doing a ceremony!” “Oh–you have to order those…I’ll send you the website, but they take 7 days to come…”
I felt nauseated. For 23 years, every time I’d seen a parent retire from the military and present medals to their children for loaning their mommy or daddy to the U.S. government, I’d think, “I want to do that with my 3 one day–they’ll still be young enough to look cute and think it’s really cool!” It was, in large part, the reason I’d clicked the box requesting a ceremony when I’d filled out those screens back in January.
At 10pm that night, I followed the link and ordered the 3 medals and certificates. I paid for rush shipping, and the next day, I got notification that they’d arrive by 8pm Saturday; my ceremony was set for 3pm. All I could do was wait, and hope.
Plans for my ceremony continued in the matter they started on Monday when I called ARPC on Wednesday and learned the reason I’d not seen my box was because “one of the items was on back order.” So, instead of sending what was available, I’d get none of it, which meant the second-most important reason I wanted for a ceremony–to honor my bride and present a certificate to her–was now in the toilet as well.
I had people from my unit tell me I needed to buy my own flag to have presented, even though the Covid guidelines said there couldn’t be a color guard, and despite my knowing I’d eventually get one sent by ARPC. I decided to just skip the flag part of the ceremony.
On Thursday, I finally worked on my biography for the event’s program, and I made an outline for a speech to give at the end. The kids’ medals actually arrived early, coming to our house that evening. I asked a psychiatric nurse from my unit to get flowers Saturday to give my bride during the ceremony when she saw my harried expression that day and asked how she could help.
Every night during my last week in the Air Force, I woke up multiple times, plagued with anxiety. Nothing was going right. I blamed myself as much as I blamed the pandemic, the Air Force, and my unit with its new Commander and full-time technician.
One of my best friends–the only person besides my parents who was present at my 1997 commissioning who was slated to attend my retirement–told me he was not going to be able to make it. He was apologetic, but I was crushed.
I called my Dad and asked him why he hadn’t had a ceremony when he retired from the USAF Reserves 30 years ago, and he explained his reasons. I started to tell him about how my week had been, and in particular, the news I’d just learned from my friend Jim Bob when I lost the ability to continue. I had to pull off of I-285. He comforted me and said he was looking forward to attending, that it’d be a special event regardless, that he was proud of me, and did I have any Cubans left for the ceremony afterward?
Friday, I finalized the layout of the program and made minor tweaks to my bio. I rented a canopy from the base outdoor recreation center. Around 4pm, I was finishing my out-processing checklist and saw our clinic’s dentist, LTC Ghim, and he asked me if I was about to head out, as he wanted to give me something, so he followed me to my car. He handed me a bottle of Japanese whisky with an engraved C-130 on it and a personal congratulatory message etched in the glass under the plane. I teared up.
That evening, my neighbors came over with a second, larger canopy they helped us erect for additional coverage with my rented one from the base. My bride made us cocktails, and I had a lot of them. I was tired of getting fewer than 5 hours of sleep, and I figured I needed all the help I could get to sleep the night before the ceremony.
Saturday, June 6 started at 0700 like a normal drill weekend would, but with fewer service members in our building, and all who were there wore black cotton masks. I visited my Commander to go over the names of my children and my parents; I asked if the decoration normally given to someone who’s served honorably for over 20 years had been approved yet, and I let him know that the flag and certificates normally given out would not be available. He looked on his computer…no one had written up my award, much less gotten it approved by the Wing.
After a week of disappointments, we were now a few hours from the ceremony we’d cobbled together to at least honor my wife and children, and the one part that I wanted to go right for me was not going to happen. It also meant my service dress uniform was going to be “out of regs,” since I’d already added the ribbon I was told I’d get but no one submitted. My commander called his best scribe–Senior Master Sergeant Chancellor–and told him he needed to produce a Meritorious Service Medal write-up in the next two hours. I sent him my last 3 performance reports, and he went to work.
I said my goodbyes to my section over Chick-fil-A chicken biscuits and black coffee. I cleaned out my work area and filled my back seat with things to take home and never bring back. I turned in my military laptop.
About noon, three officers and I went to lunch at a Cuban place near base. All day, my heart had been racing, and I’d been sweating, but I felt okay considering the lack of sleep and anxiety all week. Apparently, I was not okay, however, and after a few bites of lunch, I realized I couldn’t breathe.
I wheezed, struggling to bring air into my lungs as a faint whistle came from my throat. I started to stand up as my vision tunneled and started to go black. In tenths of a second increments, I went from fear to anger, as I wondered if all the misery of the week was going to kill me before the damned event happened; I even resigned to it, not even bothering to make the “I’m choking” sign with my hands. I was just…done.
Captain Briscoe was seated to my right and decided I was not “done,” however, and he got behind me and administered the Heimlich maneuver. A black bean flew out of my throat and onto the floor. I sat back down. My hands were shaking; my eyes were filled with tears. “Thanks” was all I could say. “You okay?” “Yeah.” I laid my burrito on its side and cut it into tiny bites and ate very slowly and deliberately as the rest of my table looked on with concern.
We got back to my unit, and those involved with the ceremony rehearsed for a bit, and two hours later, my folks showed up at my unit, as did my friend since third grade, Jody. My wife and children had come about 15 minutes prior. It was finally time.
The ceremony went well. The room looked full despite the “distancing” of folks’ chairs. We improvised the lack of certificates for my bride and me, and the SMSgt somehow created an MSM award to read and present me.
I presented the children with the medals I’d ordered Monday night, and they loved being recognized in front of my squadron. It was adorable.
At the end, I tried to give the speech I’d outlined. I didn’t feel my delivery was very good, given the near-death experience from a couple hours prior that continued to weigh on me, but my bride and others from my squadron were complimentary afterward.
Instead of cake at the squadron, I arranged for catered Heirloom Market bbq, an open bar, and hired hostesses wearing PPE in our backyard plus Jay Memory playing live music from the garage. I didn’t know if anyone would feel comfortable coming over in an age of social distancing, but attendance was actually great. LTC Ghim took lots of pictures for me; here’s one he didn’t take, as he’s standing next to me:
The reception party was all I’d hoped it would be and more. Members of my unit, friends, and neighbors had kind words and gifts to offer along with their congratulations. So far, no one’s indicated he or she got sick from attending, either!
Several folks said they loved my military bio, which I created to be the antithesis of every other retirement biography I’d ever read. Here it is–
As I said in my speech at the end, the military allowed me to serve with and learn from people who don’t look like me or come from backgrounds like mine, and if ever such an experience is needed in all of our lives, it’s now. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.
The week leading up to my retirement from 4 years of Air Force ROTC, 11 years with the Tennessee Air National Guard, and 12 years with the Air Force Reserves was one of the worst of my life. But, the improvised honoring of my children and my bride during the ceremony, shared with my friend Jody and my parents, followed by the celebration afterward will, hopefully, be what I remember from the experience that backstopped my two and a half decades in uniform.
I’ll also never look at a black bean the same way again.