Monday, September 30, 2013

A Veteran's Tale

What were you doing in early 1990? What's that? You weren't born yet? Then go Snap Chat or Tweet or something while I talk to the grown-ups. 

Sorry, you can stay. I'm just envious and longing for those days spent backpacking through Europe with three pairs of socks and a perm that even the French thought was repulsively greasy. I have slides.

But while my new bride and I argued our way from Lucerne to Lyon and all points betwixt, my brother-in-law, Dean Ainardi, began his own journey. He joined the United States Air Force. 

On Friday, Dean formally retired after a twenty-three year career. The ceremony, held at Joint Base Lewis/McChord for family and friends, was emotional and funny, touching, sad and inspirational as hell. Sharply dressed men and women, some in camouflage, others in full dress uniform, packed the room, outnumbering civilians perhaps two to one.

Every fresh-faced airman I came across greeted me as "sir." Although it would have made a lot more sense for me to address them with such deference, such is the underlying theme of service in this setting.

Dean is one of those guys who downplays everything, and I know he would have done the same thing had I not asked him some very specific questions about his stint in the military. I really wanted to know more of his story. As is common with so many veterans, it's the story of a remarkable person who considers himself anything but remarkable. 

My questions are italicized and Dean's answers follow.

You enlisted in the military at age 25, a little older than when most people join. What made you to decide that was the direction you wanted to go?

After my dad died (in 1987), I was kind of drifting from job to job and pretty unhappy with the jobs/my life as a whole. After I met Tammy and I knew that I was going to ask her to marry me, I knew I needed to find a career, not just a job. I tried the college thing (before I met Tammy) and knew that was not going to work for me (Apparently they actually want you to attend the classes, turn in assignments AND take the finals.). I was looking at jobs and everybody wanted school or experience, I had neither and I somehow wandered into a recruiter’s office. “The rest is history.”

How did Tammy react when you said you were thinking of joining?

Well since I have the Ainardi gene, I was an idiot and did not tell or discuss this with Tammy. The night I asked her to marry me, I also informed her that I had joined (not was going to join…had joined) the Air Force and would be leaving in six months. She was “a bit” shocked and overwhelmed but still said yes. In retrospect if I had it to do all over again I mayyyyy have involved her in that decision.

In your first assignment back in 1990, you were sent to the Philippines to work as an apprentice mechanic. You ended up helping to evacuate five thousand people prior to a volcanic eruption. Did you experience any second thoughts (or third or fourth) about having signed up?

No, not really—the actual evacuation part did just the opposite. It was an eye-opener to what the military could actually accomplish. For the first time in my life after Dad died I felt like I was actually accomplishing something. I realized that I was part of something way bigger than just a job. I also realized how much your supervisors relied on you to know your job. 

It taught me that you have to be able to think on your feet and make decisions on the spot. I was very low rank and the decisions I made were very low level but at the time it really opened my eyes to what the military was all about. Of course on a personal level, I was separated from Tammy the first year and a half of my marriage so on that level yes I thought, “WTF did I do,” but what I learned about myself and the confidence I gained in myself far outweighed the separation downside.

During your experience deployed to war zones and dangerous areas, did you ever have an "Oh shit, I’m gonna die!" moment, and if so, where did it take place?

The first one was in the Philippines. My boss and I were in charge of keeping the roads from Clark to Subic Bay Naval Station (where everybody was evacuating to) clear, using a huge vehicle wrecker.  We were staying in an open-bay barracks. I was sleeping on the top bunk when an earthquake hit, which was common during the eruption. We were getting five to ten a day but this one was a big one.
I woke up just in time to see the ceiling cracking and starting to fall in on me. We luckily hauled ass out of there about two minutes before the roof came down on the bed I was sleeping in. Needless to say, we slept in our wrecker the rest of the time we were there.

In Iraq, I had many of them, but if you ask most people that have been in that type of situation, the first is usually the one you remember. For me that is true also. It was my first time over there and I had been there a couple days. This was before anyone had figured out how effective the predator drones were for base security, so the bad guys had basically free rein to shoot mortars over the fences any time they wanted. 

I was walking between our shops when we got attacked. I was stuck in the open with no bunkers close.  The mortars started exploding around me and I was fu@#ed.  I was too far away to run for shelter, there was no good cover, so I hit the ground and covered up best I could.

The mortars all missed, but that was my first real “oh shit” moment in Iraq. Like I said, the first one is the one that freaks you out a bit then after that it just kind of becomes your “new reality” and you just deal with it.  That was probably the most scared I have ever been in my life.    

Yeah, I think a lot of people assume that the Air Force is a “behind the lines” military branch, where you work on distant bases out of harm’s way, and obviously that’s not true at all.

Over two plus decades of service, you are retiring with the rank of Senior Master Sergeant, a title comprising only two percent of all enlisted personnel. You’ve supervised and trained thousands of mechanics, a lot of them fresh out of high school. What's the biggest blunder you've seen someone make around one of your vehicles?

Well, when you get young airmen arriving at a base, they are scared to death. They always do stupid shit, so I could go on for days with this. But one of the funniest AF blunders happened at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy.We got a new kid right out of tech school and when I told him to pull a vehicle in for some type of repair, he said he did not know how to drive. 

The guy was from New York, had ridden subways and buses all his life and had never driven. Sure as hell, we figured out that he came into basic where you march or are bussed everywhere so no need to drive.

We researched the qualifications for our job, and nowhere does it say you have to have a driver’s license. We ended up having to do what we could to teach him in Italy, but we had to send the guy back to the US to go to a driving school and get a driver’s license.  

We've all heard of “Desert Shield” and "Desert Storm," which you served in. But you also participated in "Operation Desert Fox." What was that all about? Sounds kind of Vegas.

Honestly Tim, I could not tell you. Every thing we do is some type of campaign. Each one has a different name with a specific set of objectives.  Once that campaign objective is completed it is closed, and in theory, we go home because it’s done.  In reality, they create another campaign with another name and we stay there and keep doing the same thing. More than likely, as with everything in the military, it has more to do with funding than anything else.    

Last question. Somehow you've managed to maintain a highly positive family situation throughout all the moves and absences. Your kids, now 17 and 21, have lived in Delaware, Italy and Tacoma, Washington twice and Louisiana, and they’ve grown into such great people. How did you and Tammy make it work?

We drink a lot. All kidding aside, I have no idea why we are/were successful and why many military families aren’t. We (military) are no different than mainstream society. We deal with all the same issue as the “outside,” and I don’t think our divorce rates (as with most social issues) are much different than the mainstream society.

Honestly, this is more of a question for Tammy. One thing that most people don’t realize is the pressures put on the spouses and family members. I move from place to place and go from my job at one base and I go to the next base and do the exact same job. The spouses and family members do not get those luxuries. They have to “reinvent” their lives every time we move with new schools, new jobs, new friends…

But to try to answer this;  Tammy and I have really enjoyed the military.We bitch and complain all the time about the bad stuff but we also know that we got some great stuff from the military. All military families suffer and give up a lot as far as “normal” American families but we also get a lot in return. How many normal families get to move from place to place and experience different life experiences and cultures? How many normal families get to spend over 11 years in Europe and travel all over the place and get paid to do it? Not many that we know of. 

We have understood this from the beginning of our marriage, and we made sure the kids understood that, yes, this is tough, but look at all the good things we get being in the military. We don’t dwell on the bad. 

Thanks, Dean. We're glad you're home.

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