I dreamed of being a fighter pilot: memories at Air Force Academy

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Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a young girl who was smart and stubborn feisty and nontraditional and she refused to live within the cookie cutter shape anyone else suggested (or demanded) she try to squeeze herself into. When she was in 8th grade she took a skills assessment test and despite whatever boring career those results told her to pursue, she was determined to be a fighter pilot, followed by a lengthy and successful stint as a military attorney, JAG. As she progressed in school, the dual fighter pilot-JAG dream continued to grow with her, she made good grades, loved political science and geography, and kept her eye on that prize. Her senior year of high school she took a test for the armed services and scored ridiculously high, every branch of military started actively recruiting her. She chose the Air Force and by spring was ready to enroll in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and was mentally and physically preparing for basic training.

She was going to be a fighter pilot. And then an attorney, a Judge Advocate Officer, for the United States Air Force.

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…..and then she started to doubt herself, people told her that women shouldn’t be fighter pilots, or military attorneys, or have the big dreams that she had. They told her that she was too hard, too prickly, and would be alone forever because no one wanted to be with a woman like that. Even her friends began to seriously question her choices and tell her she’d be better off pursuing something more feminine. And this young woman began to falter, she’d had a REALLY rough year and, despite her brave heart, she wasn’t strong enough to continue this dream on her own. She told Air Force she wasn’t coming, she gave up her spot to graduate in the class of 2005. She moved to the city, began working three jobs to save up tuition money for a university she hadn’t applied to yet, hoping to begin classes the next January.

Four months later a couple of hijacked planes crashed through thee long-reigning peace of American soil.

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Once upon a time, I was going to be a fighter pilot. Once upon a time, my career trajectory was a JAG attorney. Once upon a time, Air Force Academy would have been my home, my alma mater, my family. I walked away from this opportunity fifteen years ago and from time-to-time I still wonder what my life would have been like had I pursued that path. Everything would be different, in some really positive ways, and in some very scary ways.

A few weeks ago I was in Colorado Springs, CO for a work conference and on my one free afternoon I drove to the Air Force Academy campus for a tour. As I was driving towards the visitor’s center I started to cry–to sob, really. I absolutely was not expecting that reaction. As I watched the video following a group of cadets through their first year at the Academy I sobbed, heartbroken because that experience wasn’t my experience. I walked around campus, grateful my sunglasses hid my tears. I spent quite a bit of time in the Air Force Cadet Chapel, trying to get a hold of myself and sort through my emotions.

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I would have been a great officer for the Air Force. I would have been a great fighter pilot. I would have been a kick-ass attorney. That could have been my life; I would have missed so many of the horrifying and hurtful experiences of my twenties; I would have had a family of support and camaraderie; I would have been happy. Now, intellectually I know that my most painful memories would have been replaced by equally difficult experiences that come with military life. No one escapes life completely unscathed, and the military is not a place to hide from fear or pain. I know that. But, even so, it was impossible to explain that to my grieving heart.

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This grief and heartbreak, trying to process why I was so emotional about a dream I had walked away from fifteen years earlier, was very unexpected. Recounting the story afterwards–the dream, the tour, the tears–I got emotional all over again, and even in writing this post I had to brush tears away. I don’t know if all of that emotion is based on my wishing I had pursued that dream**, or if it is frustration on those UNIMPORTANT PEOPLE who told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t, and me listening to them and agreeing that “Yes, you’re right, I should be more who you think I should be, not who I think I should be.” For the record, not a single one of those doubters are currently involved in my life in any way, not even social media contacts. Yet they were so important to me at the time that I permanently altered my life’s course and set aside my dreams to appease them.

**Sidenote: Blue Eyes and I would still have met had I joined the Air Force, we were set up by friends who would have still been friends and gotten married, regardless of my higher education choices. My JAG career could have aligned with my current sweetheart, a man who has always supported my biggest, craziest, most out-there dreams.

My adult self tells me that it is useless to hold a grudge towards those doubters, I made my choices fifteen years ago and cannot go back. My life as an Air Force JAG will forever be a dream lost, and that’s all there is to it. My optimistic adult self also tells me that in my interactions with young people I should never EVER poo-poo on their dreams simply because those dreams are not mine, or never would have been mine. Telling someone they can’t (or shan’t) simply because it’s not my cup of tea is heinous and will leave nasty little cockroaches in their brains and hearts for years and years to come. I want to positively encourage young people to take a careful stock of their dreams, their skills and talents, and opportunities, and to make the best choice they can. And then, dammit, I will support that choice. I will never tell someone they “can’t” be or do the thing that makes them happy.

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A few notes on the photos: The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is definitely the most distinctive building at the Air Force Academy, designed by architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1962, it is this looming monolith among low-slung classroom buildings and retired fighter jets scattered on the enormous lawns. Each week there are services for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and others in the various spaces of the chapel. From the outside, this building is all steel and concrete, sharp and straight and pointing towards the sky, beauty found in an austere, architectural, modern sensibility. The inside, however, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Stained glass and other windows that are practically invisible from the outside make the inside glow throughout the day as the sun filters through, slowly changing the colors on the pews. Smooth benches and very little frouffy decoration give off a Scandinavian vibe, but to be honest, I mostly felt like I was in an art deco spaceship, in all the best ways imaginable.

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8 thoughts on “I dreamed of being a fighter pilot: memories at Air Force Academy

  1. I was going to enter seminary and study theology, until I learned women weren’t granted those full opportunities in my church, and I let people tell me I would be better off as a pastor’s wife, instead of a pastor myself. From time to time I get that feeling I missed my calling–I look up divinity schools and career opportunities–and then I click them away, feeling sad and unfulfilled. I have a good life. I made some good choices, some bad choices, but I ended up in places I never thought I’d be, with someone I would have never met otherwise, and it’s been worth it. Sometimes, however, that feeling comes back. For the record, I bet you would have been a kickass fighter pilot.

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  2. It’s frustrating to say the least that women are pushed away from male-dominated fields. I’m glad that my parents were supportive of my sister as she has thrived in a male-dominated industry- but not everyone has that!

    My SIL’s husband just retired from the Air Force and last time we were in CO I got to see the chapel- it’s amazingly cool!

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    1. I ended up in a super-male dominated major and program of study (Economics), but am currently on a team of 12 awesome women at work, who are breaking all sorts of norms and roles. I guess I have a little of both worlds…but that does not negate the jerks who told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t. Ugh.

      The chapel is amazing, I could have stayed there for hours!

      xox

      On Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 10:14 AM, Feisty Harriet wrote:

      >

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  3. Can we please talk about how heartbreaking this is? Ugh. I’m so retroactively angry and sad for you. You would’ve been incredible at all those things. That said, you’re pretty incredible without being those things too. Still…alas. I hope I never squish someone’s dreams with my careless words. And now I really want to visit that chapel in person because: GORGEOUS.

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  4. Hello,

    What a powerful story and it hits me so close to home. Like you, I wanted to be a pilot and like you I was surrounded by so many negative people. I had all the whispers in my ear from the doubters that I shouldn’t try for my dream. Unlike you, I had one small advantage. I had someone from the Air Force laugh in my face when I said that I was going to be a pilot. That one guy, a recruiter pissed me off so much that after a few days of self pity I dedicated myself to becoming a pilot. If it wasn’t for that guy, I would have given up on my dream. I literally teared up when I read your story because it is the alternate path of my life.

    I tell my daughter every day that she can do anything and that all she has to do is to give herself permission to be anything. I tell my son the same thing because the only limitations we have in life are the ones we put on ourselves. I try not to ever tell my kids to be careful but I try to always say to have fun. I have failed in life so many times, but I am resolved to move forward with confidence and courage.

    I truly appreciate your willingness to openly and confidently tell this story. I found you by searching the topic Air Force and with your permission, I would like to become a follower.

    rob

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