JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
The Air Force Reserve’s 70th anniversary coincided nicely with my own 30-year mark as a part-time GI.
I joined the Reserve almost as an afterthought upon leaving active-duty service in April 1988.
As much as I loved my job and serving in the Air Force, I never considered staying on active duty beyond the one hitch I had agreed to as a high school senior. I wanted more control of my life as I pursued a career in civilian journalism.
A few weeks before I left the service, I was called to a meeting with my office superintendent, an ancient sergeant who was younger then than I am now. He asked me about my plans before suggesting that I consider joining the Reserve or Air National Guard. Making some money at a profession I was already trained for would help ease my transition to civilian life, he said. This sergeant knew I was moving back to my native Massachusetts from our California base so, with my OK, he picked up the phone right then and called back to the wing at Westover Air Reserve Base. He told someone a bit about me and wrote something down on a slip of paper. He thanked the person, hung up and handed me the note.
"Call this number when you get home," he said. "It's your new office."
That's how easy it was for me to join the Reserve three decades ago. The decision to become a reservist paid off immediately for me and, ultimately, for the Air Force. I had headed east with plans to go to college, get a solid job, meet a nice young woman, get married and raise a bunch of children.
None of that happened, at least not there and in any sort of practical order.
I realized immediately that moving home was a mistake and silently made plans to return to the West as soon as possible. I took a laboring job that kept my body busy and my mind free to rechart my life. Reporting for military duty each month during this unsettled time kept me on a straight course, both in New England and, later, when I transferred to a unit in California. I initially worked there a day or two a week on top of my monthly drill weekends, the small flow of cash allowing me to wait to be offered a job I wanted more than I needed, which was a good position to be in as a 22-year-old.
My Air Force work experience landed me my dream position as editor of a weekly newspaper in a mountain resort community, and the military pay was a welcome supplement to my journalism earnings. The Reserve was there again for me a decade later when I made a dramatic civilian occupation switch. It took me two years to feel comfortable in my new profession of real estate sales. As I struggled with self-doubt during that time, being an asset to the Air Force kept me level-headed, helping me to hang in there with my fulltime job until I was eventually successful in it.
I haven’t stayed in the Reserve for three decades simply out of gratitude for what it did for me as a young man. I’ve stuck around because of the people, continuing work challenges and opportunity for growth on a clearly defined track of progression. The Air Force has demanded me to be more physically fit, develop my leadership skills and become more educated, all of which have benefited me at least an equal amount as a civilian.
My chief reason for remaining an Airman for so long, though, may simply be that I don’t want to worry if I’m doing enough for our country. Immediately after 9/11 I heard from friends who had left the active-duty Air Force without looking back. In September 2001 all wanted to know how quickly they could get into the Reserve or Guard. Ultimately, none rejoined the service due to family and civilian career considerations.
“You did your time,” I told them.
Another friend left fulltime Air Force service the same day I did after several concerns – including stability for his two young sons -- convinced him to leave the active-duty military after 7 ½ years despite him having planned to make it a career. He went straight into the Reserve and served another quarter-century in uniform.
“To the last day I was still having fun,” said my pal, retired Senior Master Sgt. Walter Leslie, who worked in administration before becoming a historian, deploying twice in that role and seeing how Airmen, including reservists, contributed to America’s defense on an international level. “I was finally doing something in the Reserve that had a purpose. I got to see what the Reserve did at a high level.”
Late in my career, I’m still having fun, too, being the ancient sergeant who’s as concerned about the careers and civilian lives of his Airmen as he is with his own. Of course it’s impossible to know for sure what my life would have been like if I hadn’t joined the Reserve in 1988, but serving in it has provided continuity in my life, a profession of honor and an experience that is uniquely mine. The nearly 70,000 reservists serving today, half of whom have active-duty experience, all have their own stories, too.
(Proietti is the chief enlisted manager of the Reserve’s 4th Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and serving an active-duty tour running Public Affairs for the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program)