I was 19 when I stood at a MEPS station in Pennsylvania and took the oath to serve in the Air Force. I left for Basic Training a week before Thanksgiving and had my 20th birthday my 2nd full week of training. I was the 4th element leader in my flight, in charge of helping our Dorm Chief guide our flight of nearly 50 young women through 6 weeks of intense personal and collective development. I even spent a few days as chow runner, taking our flight down to our meals and directing them where to sit while the government paid grown ass men & women to scream in my face and throw food at me.
One of those women, my TI, is who I always think of when Veterans Day rolls around. At just over 5ft tall she was a giant in presence and voice. The sound of the taps on her boots coming up the stairs or toward you across the chow hall were like the soundtrack to your impending death. The scariest part about her was that when she wore her wide brimmed hat, it was always so low that you could never see her eyes. All you saw was this hat in your face and her mouth moving a thousand miles per hour while she wrecked your world and your self-esteem in thorough, shade-filled ass chewings. Not that you'd want to look her in the eyes, though-doing so would sentence you to standing squats against your wall locker or diamond push ups until your arms and core were searing from pain. She was the type of woman who you "felt" coming before she even entered the room. I won't confirm if I ever saw her smile or crack a joke just to be funny or appear human. That's GS 14 classified info she'd probably kick my ass for divulging so I won't. I watched her make another instructor cry she dressed him down so when she caught him going too far with a trainee during PT. She did no harm and took no shit-EVER-and she taught our flight how to do the same.
She nicknamed me "Tia & Tamera" because she said my smile and attitude reminder her of them. Publicly she said my constant positivity and goofiness annoyed her. In her office early one Saturday morning after PT, she quietly thanked me for it, saying it was why she fought so hard to bring me back when I was recycled (transferred to a newer in training flight) in my 4th week, for failing a locker inspection. "It just wasn't the same around here without you...it was too quiet, the girls were too upset. No one was fighting to hide smiles or laughs. They missed you. Dorm Chief couldn't forgive herself. I didn't have anyone to catch dancing in the day room or latrine. You worked so hard to help everyone else, I just didn't think it was fair to make you redo a week. We need you with us. We need your energy. As you go on in your career Trainee Dudley, don't let the military take that from you. Being a woman in this game is HARD, especially in the AFSC you're going into. You'll constantly have to prove yourself, and you might have to sacrifice more than just what's required of you enlisting. But don't sacrifice your joy-hold onto that because you're going to need that. Lead with that. Keep smiling even when the shit is flying in your face. It'll help you adapt and learn what shit to take and what to keep walking past." This was coming from the same woman who my first night there, threatened to hang me out the window by the keys I had left hanging around my neck and outside of my shirt...and call my mother to tell her she'd only done it because I was so fucking stupid and couldn't follow the simplest of instructions.
Basic taught me many things. I learned it's entirely possible to sleep in a tightly made bed with perfect hospital corners and without messing it up....that folding my underwear into 6 inch squares with perfectly lined up ends was less about how ridiculous of a task it was and more about learning how to pay attention to detail under enormous amounts of stress...that all it really takes is 45 seconds or less to take a shower...that the same stuff I used to shine my boots also cleans scuff marks off the floor. How to lead and more importantly how to follow. I even became probably a little too proud of how well I marched, swinging my arms perfectly "6 in the front, 3 in the rear". Basic taught me how to be a team player and how to ignore the noise and focus on what actually matters.
But as much as I learned during those first 6 weeks and throughout my brief career as a Security Forces troop, the most valuable lesson I learned in the military, came the day I stood at "parade rest" in front of my TI's desk, and listened to her tell me to never adapt so much to my surroundings or circumstances that I lose myself. Over the years as shit has flown in my face and I've been forced to face seasons of living that were less than ideal both in and out of the military, her words have always been in the back of my mind, pushing me forward, making me fight to hold onto a sense of self. I haven't always followed her advice as well as I should have, but I hold onto it and do my best.
That's why I always think of her along with others I served with on days like today. If there's one veteran who I'd like to take out for dinner, drinks, or send just a note of thank you to this Veterans Day, it's SSgt. Campbell-Gulley. Ma'am, if you happen to come across this, I owe you. Thank you for kicking and empowering my ass those 6 weeks. My military career wasn't perfect, but I hope I did you proud during my time and I hope I've even done you proud in my civilian life as well. I'm still smiling-even when shit is literally flying because my toddler pooped in the tub.