Coins, careers and lessons learned: An Airman’s journey to knowing it all

By Senior Airman R. Alex Durbin
633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

For me, September marks a bittersweet time of year. As the summer and the memories it brought fade, replaced with the brisk winds of change, I look forward to my Air Force anniversary and back on how far I’ve come in the past three years. With my annual reflection also comes a different anniversary, the Air Force birthday.111125-F-XY001-001

As I remember the highs and lows and the leaves change color in nature’s last blaze of glory, I am astonished how the present is different from the future I imagined three short years ago on the parade grounds of Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in my pristine dress uniform and shaved head under the crisp, blue flight cap carefully slanted at the perfect angle.

I remember racing thoughts of mingled pride, relief and impending fear as I watched my Military Training Instructor move down Flight 005’s formation, extending a coin-laden hand to each newly minted Airman, welcoming them to his Air Force with a handshake and a few soft-spoken words.

When my MTI stopped and turned to me with a sharp, practiced movement, I felt my throat tighten and the butterflies in the pit of my stomach awake and take flight. I raised my hand to meet his firm grasp, and felt the hard, metallic coin for the first time. After he uttered his whispered welcome, which I have long since forgotten, I gripped the coin tightly and I returned my arm to the proper position, blending back into the still, blue sea of new Airmen.

After the ceremony concluded, I embraced my family for the first time in months and departed the parade grounds. My thoughts drifted back the round, unassuming coin tucked away in my wallet. As my family happily chattered about the base, their hotel room and the things I missed while away, I inspected the smooth edges and raised text of the blue and gold coin. I can remember with crystalline clarity my singular thought as I held the coin between my thumb and index finger.

This small piece of shaped metal, roughly the size a half dollar, was a symbol of everything I worked for in the past weeks. The hours spent sitting hunched over my bed folding, unfolding and refolding my clothes to exact specifications and perfect edges. The endless sound of boots rhythmically beating the ground in unison as 60 trainees marched to our MTI’s booming voice calling “One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four,” in a methodical cadence. The early mornings of more than 500 trainees running in circles, still rubbing the sleep from their eyes as the sun rose over the Texas horizon, smeared with brilliant streaks of gold and pink.

All the sweat and hard work led to this. The coin, I thought, was a memento to remind myself I endured and prevailed.

And for me in that moment, it was enough.

A few blurred days later, I awoke long before the sun and boarded a Boeing 747 bound for Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Defense Information School for journalism training, confident I learned everything I needed to know about the Air Force.

I quickly found out I was wrong.

After I landed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, I, along with my fellow Airmen bound for DINFOS, collected our belongings and walked to the curbside pick-up area at a brisk pace common of recent BMT graduates.

As we exited the airport through a sliding glass door, I was met with the overwhelming sound of slamming car doors, family greetings and the grinding sound of plastic wheels on concrete mixed with the smell of engine exhaust, reminding me I was no longer in the quiet, confined training dormitories at Lackland.

The door closed behind me with a soft whoosh and a call from 20 feet down the road cut through the chaos. I turned to see a woman in a familiar blue dress uniform waving. As I approached, I saw the name “Price’ stamped in white letters on the rectangular blue name tag clipped to her pale blue shirt and staff sergeant chevrons sewn to each sleeve.

She introduced herself as one of our three Military Training Leaders and instructed us to load our luggage into the van parked behind her. My fellow Airmen and I rushed to accomplish the order, stuffing our belongings into the vehicle with haste.

Staff Sgt. Price gave a small, half smile and told the group to stop in a firm, but compassionate tone. “Slow down. You won’t fit everything in there if you rush.”

We waited for the rim shot or punch line. After weeks of BMT, it was almost as if the concept was alien in nature. After a second or two of waiting, we caught ourselves and carefully organized the luggage and piled into the van.

After a 30 minute drive of dodging midday Baltimore traffic, we arrived at Fort Meade and parked in front of the Air Force Training Detachment building. As we gathered our bags, I felt the chilly Maryland air whip at my cheeks and rustle the branches of tall pine trees, a stark departure from the warm fall temperatures and desert plants of South Texas.

Staff Sgt. Price showed each of us to our rooms and told us to unpack our things. While I settled into my new home on the second floor of the building, I hung my uniforms carefully and haphazardly stacked the rest of my belongings into the drawers beneath my armoire, then sat on my bed, unsure what to do with myself.

The problem was quickly remedied.

By day, I attended the Basic Public Affairs Course, learning everything I needed to become a competent, productive public affairs specialist. By night, I returned to the detachment, learning how to become a competent, productive Airman. The weeks slid by quickly as I fell into the routine. Formation, march, school, formation, march, exercise, dinner, bed. Rinse. Repeat.

The browns and oranges of fall turned to the whites and grays of winter, then the rebirth of spring brought the moment I anxiously awaited — graduation.

The school’s atrium was well lit from the March sun shining through the room’s ceiling-high windows as I entered in my dress uniform, freshly checked and rechecked for accuracy in front of the bathroom mirror. Nervously, I took my place next to my classmates and the ceremony began.

An Air Force senior noncommissioned officer spoke for a few moments on the meaning of the public affairs occupational badge I had clutched in my left hand, reflecting the sunlight back at me. As he described the meaning of each part, I traced the lightning bolt, quill and globe with my finger, smudging the polished metal.

My thoughts drifted back to the small blue and gold coin I inspected with the same intensity just a few months before. I realized it lay forgotten in the back corner of my armoire and felt a twinge of shame. I pushed the thought from my mind and it left as fast as it came as I snapped my attention back the ceremony.

The rest of the day was a blur of congratulations and celebration, my newly acquired badge proudly displayed on my dress coat.

The next day, I departed the detachment after a few bittersweet goodbyes and promises to stay in touch. I filled the back seat of my worn sedan and pulled out of the detachment’s parking lot, bound for Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. I slowed to a stop and took one last long look at my surrogate home. I thought of the Airmen still sleeping in their beds recharging and relaxing before the unending routine began again on Monday. Formation, march, school, formation, march, exercise, dinner, bed.

I put my car in gear and left the detachment in my rearview mirror as the sun rose ahead of me.

I arrived at Langley five hours later, the smell of salt water drifting on the gentle wind. After moving my things from my car to my room, I was gripped with excitement and anticipation. I was now an official public affairs Airman, and was ready to take the world by storm. After all, I was a DINFOS graduate; I scoffed at misplaced commas and could write a news story in my sleep! What else could I possibly need?

It should come as no surprise I was wrong again.

The realization that all of the knowledge I worked tirelessly to obtain was just the baseline came as a shock. But surely in a few years of on-the-job experience I would know everything I could possibly need, I thought once the idea sank in.

Right?

Now, nearly three years later, I look back at the young Airman I once was and laugh. Upon reflecting on the days and months and years of working and learning, I realized I’ve learned one core underlying truth: I don’t know everything, and that’s okay.

I’ve discovered in my short time as an Airman that it is impossible to know everything, but those two days in September remind me there is a giant world of Airmen to protect my weaknesses, just as I can protect their’s in return. The raised numerals on my Airman’s coin, which read 1947, remind me that millions of young men and women have endured what I have endured, prevailed where I prevailed and realized they too did not have all of the answers. Although I don’t know everything, I can say with certainty that together we can accomplish anything.

But then again, maybe in three more years, I’ll have the answers.