Note: photo edited to show pending promotion
As I approach military retirement, I look back at my 20-year career and wonder if I truly made the best decisions given the choices available to me. Back in 1994, I thought I had it all figured out, thanks to help from my mentors, an Army JROTC instructor from my old high school in Maryland and a Navy JROTC instructor from my high school at the time in Florida. I applied for both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and an Army ROTC scholarship (University of Florida), and I was confident that I would be accepted to both. Perhaps I was a bit cocky then. I also calculated contingency plans, so I also enlisted in the Air Force…just in case plans A and B fell through. Besides, enlisting in the Air Force seemed to make my father proud of me, which was important for a 17-year old. I was going to be an Airman, like my father before me. And his father before him. At the very least, I bought some pride from my father until the acceptance letters came in from West Point and ROTC.
Fortunately for me, Plans A and B did come through–I was accepted for West Point *and* Army ROTC, so I got out of my Air Force enlistment and decided to go with plan B and take the ROTC scholarship in order to stay close to home, and my girlfriend–the girlfriend who would later become my wife. West Point was my dream destination, but I did not want to leave my girl. I figured ROTC was the safer route to get what I wanted in life. Maybe I settled on something short of my dream opportunity, but it was the logical compromise that would let me stay close to home and still get my engineering degree and become an Army officer.
As it turns out I just was not ready at age 17 to venture out in the adult world. I was lonely and miserable in college, especially during Army field training exercises (FTXs), which were mandatory always commensurate with midterm exams, or a big date with the girlfriend. I had no money, had no car, and could only afford to live at home by the generosity of my mom. At some point my dad stopped talking to me, either out of disappointment that I would not follow in his footsteps, or in anger that he had to pay for my first semester of college due to delays with the scholarship money. By the spring of 1995 I was in danger of failing out of college, losing my girlfriend, alienating my family, and going bankrupt, but I stubbornly stuck to Plan B until I reached my breaking point. That breaking point occurred on an FTX after a weekend of sleeping in the mud, getting stung by scorpions, and getting chewed out in front of the entire company for doing calculus homework during fire watch. Once I got back home I decided to drop back to Plan C–enlist in the Air Force. Here I am 20 years later writing myself a letter.
If I could go back in time, perhaps I would tell myself to go stick with Plan A and go to West Point. I would be a Lieutenant Colonel now, probably in the Army Corps of Engineers, and probably lining up assignments and schools for my O-6 board. I would be making nearly twice as much money and would be in one quarter the debt. I would probably have a much nicer car, better clothes, and perhaps a house. I probably would have spent half my career overseas. I probably would have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times, and perhaps survived a few IED attacks. At the very least I would have some interesting war stories.
Looking at this alternate history that may have occurred if I could have delivered a letter from my 39-year old self to my 17-year old self, I see that maybe I could have done some things differently in this reality. Maybe I was never destined to be a Colonel, or own a nice home at an early age, or drive a nice car, or have nice clothes. At the very least, I would tell my 17-year old self that if I choose family over fortune that I should still do the little things: do a better job of saving money early on, travel overseas as a family, read more books, watch less television, exercise more, buy fewer fancy things, get away on nice vacations, visit family each holiday, volunteer for every deployment, fight for every training school, and get home at reasonable times. If I had a time machine, I would deliver the following letter to myself:
Dear 1994 Walt,
Through the miracle of modern science, I am able to write you this letter from the future. I hope it reaches you on a beautiful, sunny day in Florida, and I hope Rachel is not far from you. You are going to want to read this with her. What I am about to do is bound to violate some kind of temporal ethics by telling you from the year 2016 what I have learned over the past 22 years. I hope you can learn from my (your) mistakes, and do so without destroying the time-space continuum.
First of all, the most important lesson I have learned in 20+ years is that my success would not have come without Rachel. Yes, she pisses me off every day, and if I recall correctly she pisses you off just about every day. It will get worse before it gets better, but trust me, it does get better. She will be the first person in your life to challenge you to be great, to be better than yourself. To “be all you can be”. She will raise two wonderful kids, and in your timeline she may do it alone for more than 4 years out of 20 while working full time and going to school full time. She will move the family household goods alone–all 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of it– because the military tends to send you on mandatory training the day the moving van arrives. She will walk the kids to school in torrential rain, because your broken down jalopy (the best an E-3 could afford) was rear ended and you are too young to rent a car while the car is in the shop. She will work around your midnight and night shift schedules so you can spend time with the kids. She will even bake cookies for the entire squadron just so she can see you at dinnertime or midnight meal. She will never complain. Not once. By the way, she will accidentally get the entire 20th Fighter Wing drunk off rum cake. The Russians will not notice that half the eastern defense grid is inebriated. Cut her some slack.
Second, remember to take care of yourself first. You tend to preoccupy yourself with what others want and what they think of your decisions. In my timeline, you are a quitter. You took what you thought was the easy route, and it turned out to be the hard route. You should go to West Point, just like we practiced. Do you remember waking up at 3 am just to practice the Army fitness test every morning? Well, it was all for nothing. In my timeline, you decide to stay close to home, to take the easy route–the safe route that lets you keep your friends and family. I hate to break this to you, but you nearly lose everything anyway going the safe route in Army ROTC. You join the Air Force and ride a bike for a fitness test. Take the road less traveled. Trust me, you have conquered every challenge you have ever faced, and I have confidence that you will conquer West Point.
Third is family. You will probably get married and have wonderful children, as Rachel and I do in my timeline. Start a family. A strong one. Teach them to be strong and independent, to challenge the status quo. Even in my timeline where you go with Plan C and enlist in the Air Force, you spend nearly 4 years of your 20-year+ career away from home. You will miss three-fourths of your wedding anniversaries, every first day of school, and perhaps the birth of one or more of your children. You will miss the kids’ school plays, spelling bees, awards ceremonies, karate tournaments, first kisses, and first heartbreaks. It is worth it. If you remain true to yourself your family will love you and everything will be fine.
Finally, I lied. In retrospect, going to West Point only seems like the right thing to do when I am looking back in regret over the past 20 years rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my Air Force career. You will have an amazing enlisted and commissioned career in the Air Force. You will be an honor graduate in technical training. You will earn Senior Airman Below the Zone with a selection rate of 15%. You will be recognized by Colonel Mark Shackelford as the top Airman in a 3,000-man unit that is spread across three states. You will promote to Staff Sergeant and Technical Sergeant first time with selection rates of 16% and 14%. You will be recognized by former Thunderbird pilot Colonel Dana Atkins as the top non-commissioned officer in F-16 Fighter Town. You will get picked up for Airman Education and Commissioning Program when the selection rate is 18%. At times you will wonder why you threw away a perfectly good enlisted career, but you will eventually realize how successful you continue to be as a commissioned officer. Finally. You will take the circuitous, 10-year route to get that engineering degree you promised your mom, but you will make it. All that hard work did pay off. You will be one of a handful of engineers to work on directed energy weapons, including a few opportunities to test the limits of non-lethality against officers in your year group. This might be a good time to tell you that you will be a test subject in the directed energy testing, and you will be half naked in front of female scientists. You might want to hit the gym a little harder when you first get to the Lab. You will be one of 12 Airmen selected from a pool of hundreds to build prototype drones for Air Force Special Operations. You will compete the winning design in front of General Bruce Carlson by having a special operations red team kidnap Lieutenant General Ted Bowlds and have the drone follow and locate him. You will discover years later from Dr. Alok Das that your winning design eventually evolved into the last small UAV flown out of Iraq, and has been credited with locating many improved explosive devices and saving many lives. Near the end of your career you get into secret squirrel stuff that I cannot talk about, but I can say that the Air Force is leveraging lessons learned from your $12M program in 2012 into an $825M effort in 2016, and is rolling some components into an ACAT III program, with customers in 24th Air Force and Space and Missile Systems Center. You will end your career in another secret squirrel job, and meet some amazing people. You will spend far too much time being frustrated and perhaps a bit disappointed to notice that you had a great career. Now it is time to accept a new challenge. Try not to be so hard on yourself. Maybe this letter really is not meant for the 17-year old Walt who is scared to face the adult world alone. Maybe this letter is for 39-year old Walt who is still scared to face the adult world alone. You made all the right choices you to this point, and I am certain you will continue to do so.