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NEWS | March 17, 2015

Lessons from a SeaBee

By Col. Jimmy Canlas 437th Airlift Wing vice commander

About six months ago, I went through a pretty challenging time in my life when my father passed away.  Although his passing was not totally unexpected, the pain of losing my father was greater than expected.  My father dedicated more than 20 years to the U.S. Navy as a SeaBee (derived from CB, short for Construction Battalion), and another 20 as a civil servant.  Among the highlights from his service, he served two tours in Vietnam, and spent time in Diego Garcia transforming the atoll into an airfield. 

On the long flight from Charleston, SC to the Philippines to attend his funeral, I had a lot of time to reflect about the life of my father while crossing 13 time zones across the Pacific Ocean.  Like most children, I idolized my father who showed strength, compassion, creativity, tenacity and unconditional love.  He also filled many roles in my life: provider, coach, tennis partner, mentor and teacher.  During this time of reflection, I jotted down notes on some of the favorite life lessons from my father.   As I grew older, I realized these were not original by any means, but that did not diminish the impact in my life.  Perhaps the beauty was in its simplicity.  Here are a few I'd like to share with you.

Life isn't fair...and that's ok.  When my father entered the service in the late 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement, he experienced racial discrimination that was rampant in society and in the military.  During that time, all recruits from the Philippines were automatically assigned to the mess as cooks.  In order to cross train out of the kitchen, he had to score higher than non-minorities on the qualification exams.  He used this inequality as a source of motivation: he decided to work harder, be smarter, and be more determined to get what he wanted.  His hard work paid off by scoring perfect on the qualification tests, which allowed him to be selected as a SeaBee.  He said, "you will always have obstacles to overcome, but you will also always have a choice: do nothing or do something."  When we choose to do something, we move away from entitlement and arguments for "fairness" become less relevant.

You'll miss every chance you don't take. Don't be afraid to take chances.  While this may hint of a Yogi Berra-like phrase, its relevance and impact are no less substantial. After becoming a SeaBee, my father could have played it safe and stayed out in the field.  However, he knew in order to progress through the ranks he must find a way to stand out from the rest of the pack.  Despite English as a second language, he moved beyond his comfort zone and volunteered to instruct electrical principles at the SeaBee school.  It was a rough start as he struggled to communicate clearly and connect with his students, but turned to other instructors for help and improved his lesson delivery.  His perseverance paid off, he eventually rose to be one of the school's top instructors ... and it all started with the willingness to take a chance.

Enjoy the process.  This was my father's version of "Stop and smell the roses" or "Life is a journey, not a destination."  In retirement, my father turned several acres of farmland into large fishponds.  Though he could have turned this into a for-profit endeavor, he chose to keep it as a hobby.  Every day, he would feed the fish by hand.  After a few months, he would manually harvest the fish with nets, give away the fish to the surrounding impoverished community, and then start all over again.   It would drive my results-oriented mother crazy, but he always said it was not about the money.  Rather, the enjoyment of the process, whether in sweltering heat or the middle of a monsoon.  Regardless of what you are doing, find joy in the process and you can handle any task. 

Though my father had many more sound bites, these three resonate with me.  These lessons have helped me navigate this military life by shaping my work ethic, giving me confidence to step outside of my comfort zone, while having fun along the way.  Thanks Dad.