With a little help from my friends … my wingmen

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Wendy Alaniz
  • 217th Training Squadron
"When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world," according to Timmon in "The Lion King." Not in my Air Force.
     To say I've had a difficult year would be, by a stretch of the definition, an understatement. This is my personal life, my life outside the uniform, a separate entity -- or so I thought.
     I left active duty in December 2006 because my step-dad, my father, had terminal cancer. Being the fighter that he is, he was able to keep his distance from the Grim Reaper with radiation treatments. In January 2009, however, after being placed in hospice, he contacted his oncologist; something was just not right. Sure enough, he underwent emergency surgery to remove a rapidly growing tumor that was wrapping itself around his spine, causing paralysis from the chest down. His recover is ongoing and slow, but he is recovering. January.
     When I joined the Texas Air National Guard, I applied for a technician position. In mid-February I was contacted: I got the job and could start as early as March. Being one to strongly believe in signs, I had said that if I was chosen for the position, it would be a sign to start a whole new life. I elected to start March 1, which meant I had two weeks to find a suitable house for my three kids across the state, leave my current job, keep bills current and ... oh yeah, tell my mom. February.
     Sure enough, true to my word, I took the steps toward a new life. I asked my husband to stay behind, finally letting myself accept that divorce did not mean failure. My children and I were in a new city, with no friends and no family. Meanwhile, I had left a job where I was the one to go to. If there was a question about how to do things, I was the one to ask. Here, I did not know anything about how to approach my new position. I knew the material, but I did not know much about what to do with it, how to make it my own. My little family and I were suddenly broken and lost. March. 
     It took some time to adapt. I was learning to be a single mother of three, after being with a husband for 10 years. The huge fights we had now seemed minor in comparison to the stress. I was alone, and my kids were in day care, for the first time ever, because of me. I was always busy, setting up a new house, alone. There were times I wondered if I had done the right thing. April.
     For years I had been asking my brother, my recruiter into the Air Force, to come live with me. His last assignment was at Wright Patterson, and he kept living in Ohio, even after his divorce. Due to his failing health, he finally called me at the beginning of May; he was ready to come home. My older sister and I worked together from two different cities to coordinate the move. Two weeks later, I drove the kids home to El Paso, flew to Ohio and drove back in my brother's car. We had been back less than 12 hours when, on my birthday, I took my brother to the emergency room. He stayed there for 11 days.
     When he got out, we drove back to El Paso so he could see his kids. I took the opportunity to go out with some friends. Small world. My good friends' best friend was one of my best friends in college. We started talking and sparks started flying. We had an obvious connection. How could this be, if not even a month before I was thinking of getting back together with my ex? We were on our way to a good relationship, a fabulous friendship for sure. Shortly after we started talking, he was in a tragic motorcycle accident and passed away. May.
     By this point, my brother was on a special diet. I was learning to cook for him, and we would spend countless hours discussing menu ideas, recipes and content. We had intricate conversations about nothing. Mid-June he became very ill, and I had to call the ambulance. His doctor made it very clear I had to get my family over with him, and to start preparing, expecting the worst. So we did. Our nothing conversations turned to funeral arrangements, his own funeral arrangements and last wishes. Everything from possessions, to pallbearers, to being buried in full service dress. This was not easy. It did get better when I had a house full of family, even though they were here for somber reasons. June.
     My brother, retired Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Gonzalez, passed away July 1 at the age of 38. His little understanding of the dire effects that alcohol had, not only on himself, but on his loved ones, came too late.
While dealing with my brother in the hospital, my step-dad's cancer stopped responding to radiation. Due to my brother's services, my dad's first chemotherapy session was delayed by a week.
After traveling to El Paso to bury my brother, my kids and I came back home to try to get our lives back in order. One thing I did not think of was that this was the first time we would be alone in the house in over two weeks, although my brother's stuff remained in the house, his room still set up. My oldest son, 7, began to show signs of stress. He insisted on always being in line of sight, all doors closed, lights on, etc. My once calm child was now a nervous mess! July.
     I put my brother's belongings away as quickly as possible, distributed some, gave most to the Airmen's Attic. This seemed to calm my son some. All seemed to be getting better. At my dad's next doctor's visit, he was told the chemo was not having a desirable effect. He would now need to start a regimen with shots that would force his bones, already weakened by the metastasized cancer, to work in hyperdrive to produce more marrow. The appointment after that, he was again told the results were not good. He would now need transfusions. Since then, the doctors have been working to find the fine balance of treatment through chemo, shots and transfusions. He has had to put his mind, body, soul and family through downright horrible days but some very, very good moments. August.
     In the beginning of September I went on a TDY. My kids were packed up to be with their dad for two weeks. Whatever events took place, as a result, my two older boys chose not to talk about their dad when they came back. If he called, they would talk to him, and if asked, they would speak of him, but never on their own, as before. This behavior, along with other outcries, led me to seek professional assistance for my children's mental well being. September.
     Although this month is not yet over, I have already determined this is my turning point. I have finalized the divorce, finally gotten into a somewhat comfortable routine with the kids, have a newfound cozy closeness with my family, and can now see the exit to the demented house of mirrors I was in.
     I would like to say I did it all on my own. I am that amazing. I have that much strength. I have an abundance of faith and hope that sees me through. I would like to, but I can't.
This Airman hates asking for help. This Airman likes being the one to go to. This Airman likes people to know she knows her stuff. This Airman is here to tell you nothing is impossible ... with a little help. This Airman is here to tell you nothing is too difficult ... when you share the load. This Airman has been tested. This Airman was almost broken. This Airman was saved by unknowing wingmen.
     As instructors, we preach to the Airmen the wingman concept, encourage them to talk to the chaplains, a supervisor, a class leader, an instructor, an MTL, the shirt ... anybody they feel comfortable reaching out to. Just reach out.
     Why do we ourselves feel like this has to stop? Like we are somehow not entitled to these venues? Or is it that we feel we are too good to go this route? As if there's some sort of shame associated with voicing "weakness." After all, we are no longer new Airmen. We should know how to adapt and adjust at a moment's notice.
Yes, we should. However, we are also too good ... to not ask for help.
No matter how big or small a worry or trouble may be, no matter how simple and meaningless or how silly you may think it is, someone out there has an answer to put your mind at ease.
     Why not ask for help? You'll make your job go by faster, and it'll be easier. Why not rely on your chain of command? They've been put in place for a reason. Why not rely on chaplains? They may have that magic verse that explains it all. Why not go out and conquer the world by sharing your story? It may help someone. Most importantly, why not go out and listen? Sometimes that's all it takes to be someone's unknowing wingman.