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20 years ago today, I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force through ROTC.  I remember how spending the next 4 years serving “active duty” or the next 6 years in the Air Guard or Reserves seemed like an eternity of commitment to “pay back” the entity that’d covered my tuition and books for the previous 4 years.

Today, I’m a Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF Reserves. After 11 years in the Air National Guard, I’ve spent 9 in the Ready Reserve or traditional Reserves.  Since that commissioning ceremony 20 years ago, I’ve had many, many early wake-ups and sacrificed weekends.  I’ve missed a few weddings I wanted to attend.  I’ve had to forego the chance to grow out my hair, see if I could cobble together a beard, or smoke weed when we were in Denver a few years ago. But I honestly think I’ve gained more than I’ve foregone.  Here’s why.

I finished law school and a 2-month bar prep class without needing loans, thanks to the GI Bill.  Know many attorneys with no school debt?  Neither do I.

We were able to buy a nice house several years ago, thanks to a VA loan.

My bride and I are self-employed and don’t have 4-figure health insurance premiums, thanks to Tricare.

We get discounts at theme parks, museums, and hotels.

I’ve been to all 50 states.  I’m pretty sure I’d still be missing Alaska, Vermont, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine without the help of the Air Force KC-135s and C-130s.

I’ve had great experiences–“bucket list” items–thanks to the Air Force, like playing blackjack in Las Vegas, camping in Denali National Park, learning to surf in Honolulu, eating fresh lobster in Maine, hiking a rainforest in Puerto Rico, skiing in Park City, having Valentine’s Day dinner in Paris, driving 600km across olive groves in Spain, touring the Tower of London, driving a BMW 325i 135 mph across Oklahoma, sharing a NASCAR “ride along” with my dad at Dallas Motor Speedway, and flying a Cessna 3,000 feet above the ocean cliffs of Molokai.

I’ve made great friends, like Shane, whose wedding I officiated 10 years after we’d spent 5 months together in Iraq.

I started blogging because of the Air Force, as I was lonely and bored while working solo Saturday shifts during a deployment to Andrews in 2006.  Then I started another blog while in Iraq in 2007.  And then started writing for other sites (like DadCentric, City Dads Group, and Humor Blogs) upon coming home in 2008.  Blogging has led to hundreds of new friendships, numerous travel opportunities, and even an Iris award after an epic philanthropic project. Last year at Dad 2.0, I moderated a panel focused on military service.

The above paragraphs are why I’m a little embarrassed by the occasional “thank you for your service” comments I get from civilians who learn of my time in the Guard or Reserves.  If all I’ve benefited from the military were weighed against all I’ve contributed to it, I think I’d get a great view of Lady Justice’s forehead, not her knees.

But you know what?  I’d wager most of my fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines would say the same.

After our 3 days in Disney parks and L.A., we took our Kia Sedona for a 1000-mile road trip to explore some of the natural beauty of southern California, starting with Channel Islands National Park.  Have you ever been to Channel Islands National Park?  No?  You should fix that.

We got up early Friday morning and boarded the ferry for Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island for a guided 3-mile (or so) hike across America’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands (i.e., they were never connected to the mainland and have animals and plants not seen anywhere else in the world!).  The children especially loved spotting the numerous island foxes.

And the harbor seal.

And the sweeping views of the ocean from atop the cliffs, whilst I tried to push back fears of their bodies plummeting hundreds of feet onto those rocks by the water you see in the picture below:

It’s among the least-visited and most remote of the national parks (and perhaps the newest, as it was established in 1980), and it was a great way to spend an entire day of peace, quiet, and no cellphone signal.  The children completed the park’s junior ranger program and got their badges just before our ranger guide boarded the 4pm ferry off the island. We had seafood for dinner in the Ventura harbor after taking the 4:30pm ferry back to the mainland.

The next morning (Saturday), we headed east into the California wilderness; our first stop was Manzanar National Historic site, because not every national park or historic site celebrates our country’s achievements; this one, of course, reminds us of our mistakes. Before visiting Manzanar, I knew very little about how we treated Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing; I certainly didn’t realize we sent over 100,000 of them to these “camps” to live and prohibited their returning to California for several years after they were “released.”  The displays at this site (models of the homes they lived in, recorded interviews with some of the occupants, and written accounts from children) were heartbreaking and moving.  The stop was well worth the time and the few miles out of the way to Death Valley.  The children learned a great deal during their junior ranger programs, and we enjoyed the windy landscape at the base of the Sierra Nevadas as we explored the grounds.

We re-boarded our Kia minivan and headed southeast to Death Valley National Park, the hottest, lowest, and driest spot in the U.S., arriving just in time to get the kids’ junior ranger books before the visitor center closed at 5pm.  Dinner was at the Toll Road Restaurant next to our hotel at the historic Stovepipe Wells Inn.  There was an outdoor pool the kids badly wanted to enjoy, but the strong, sandy winds would have made that an unpleasant experience, I’m sure, as I envisioned that time I visited the hangar where my dad worked once in high school and saw the machine they used to clean aviation engine parts with sand particles, and I had no desire to be shiny and metallic that evening.

We hiked a salty creek and saw endangered pupfish, which are like tadpoles, but bigger, and in saltwater, and more endangered.

I’m not sure what I expected to find in Death Valley on Sunday morning, but what we saw was much, much more.  We hiked sand dunes where the Tatooine scenes from “Star Wars” and “Return of the Jedi” were shot.

We saw the “Devil’s Golf Course,” where chucks of crystallized salt formations create razor-sharp terrain that seems to go for miles along the desert floor.

We saw what appeared to be a giant lake nearly 300′ below sea level that was actually a salt flat we could hike out to and stand where the hottest air temperature on Earth was recorded.

We drove on a trail cut between rocks seemingly painted by an artist, as yellows, reds, blacks, browns, and greens reflected on either side of us.

We re-boarded our minivan and headed south toward the Mohave Desert, determined to let the kids get another junior ranger badge and hike atop the Kelso sand dunes there.

Sadly, we ran out of time (in my bride’s estimation–she didn’t want to be stuck atop a 600′ sand dune at nightfall with 3 children and a 3-mile hike back to the car; I wanted to go for it) and did not make it to the top of the Kelso dunes, but we came close. 

It was after 6pm, and we had an hour or so to our hotel at 29 Palms Inn just outside Joshua Tree national park, so we headed south again, arriving about 7:30pm to dinner and live music by the 9,000-year-old Oasis of Mara.

Monday morning, we arose for breakfast at the inn before heading into our last national park, Joshua Tree, where I made immediate notice of the streets’ having no names.

We drove through acres and acres of the funny-looking yet beautiful joshua trees towering above the otherwise scraggly desert vegetation.  We stopped at Skull Rock and climbed the course sandstone boulders while chasing lizards and one large gila monster.

We had the picnic lunch our inn packed us atop an overlook above the San Andreas fault.  Luckily, nothing shook.

After lunch, we went back by the visitor center to let the children turn in their junior ranger workbooks and earn yet another badge + patch before returning to our Kia Sedona to head to I-1o and the airport, which was about 2 hours away. Our flight left just before 5pm (we made it by a few minutes) and landed after midnight Atlanta time. It was 2am by the time we were all home and in bed, so we let the children go to school a couple hours late, because we’re complacent like that.

This was an amazing trip.  We covered over 1,000 miles.  We drove past 8-figure houses in Beverly Hills and dilapidated ghost towns along abandoned highways.  We drove next to the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Nevadas; we went through multiple mountain ranges and crossed numerous deserts, all in just a few days.  I’m grateful to Kia for letting us use the Sedona, which was perfect for our family of 5 to explore everything from the urban streets of Los Angeles to the dirt roads of Death Valley.  Our family will never forget our California adventures, and we can’t wait until time to embark on the next one!

For spring break this year, we decided to take a week-long trip, something we’d never done before on spring break, despite the fact that pretty much all of Atlanta does this.  L.A. seemed like a good use of a couple companion passes that were about to expire, so westward we flew on Monday afternoon before checking into Disney’s Grand Californian hotel. The next morning, we had breakfast with chipmunks (and a few of their friends) before walking a few blocks down the sidewalk into Disneyland.

We rode rides I loved as a kid, like Space Mountain, Star Tours, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and we enjoyed newer ones like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and the Indiana Jones Adventure.  Sometimes we stopped for pictures with characters, too.

The next morning (Wednesday), we got up early and walked over to Disney California Adventure, a park none of us had visited before, as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t around in the ’80s.  Thanks to some good intel from my friend Whit, we knew to go right to Toy Story Midway Mania whilst my bride got fast passes for the Radiator Springs Racers during the initial “magic hour” before the park opened to non-resort-property-hotel-patrons.  We even had time for California Screamin’, my 8yo boy’s first upside-down roller coaster, and his favorite ride in both parks, during that magic hour with no lines.  Then we enjoyed Soarin,’ which featured a giant screen and hang-gliding all over the world, including several places we’ve visited (or will visit this year) together as a family (like Monument Valley)!  We enjoyed lunch with a mermaid and a live Frozen show that afternoon before seeing the “world of color” light show that evening.  It was a long, but awesome, day for everyone.

The following morning (Thursday), we used the “magic hour” to return to Disneyland before we had to check out at 11am (which we made by 2 minutes).  We enjoyed a new version of Star Tours and hit favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and Big Thunder Mountain once again, and we added It’s a Small World.

After we checked out, we headed into Los Angeles to check out the La Brea Tar Pits and the LA County Museum of Art; the kids loved both (especially my aspiring paleontologist son).  Here they are with the largest section of the Berlin Wall this side of Germany:

And here we all are in front of a gooey, oily crypt full of once powerful mammals:

We enjoyed some bronze nudity from Rodin in the outdoor sculpture garden and then headed up toward Ventura by way of Rodeo Drive, Mulholland, and the 101 during rush hour to meet Whit and his sons at The Stonehaus in Westlake Village for some Mediterranean food by a fire pit.

We got to the Ventura Beach Marriott about 10pm Thursday night, ready to start the second phase of our trip–national parks!

To be continued…