Why I serve

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Benjamin Salmon
  • 552nd Maintenance Squadron
I serve to defend freedom and my country. I serve to defeat our enemies and protect our way of life. I serve because my father served and his father before him. Ask any Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman and you might hear just that. But do they really understand? Can they honestly say that they know exactly why they serve? Or is it just faith, a belief, a warm fuzzy feeling they get when they see the American flag flying in the wind.

For some of us it wasn't so simple. For some of us we had to lose something dear to realize how fragile life really is. And from those losses came opportunities to perform as airman and shine light on why we actually serve.

I never thought I would enlist in the Air Force, but maybe growing up on 74534 Military Road I would have seen it coming. It was my home ever since I was a little boy. Living out in the country surrounded by 100-foot-tall pine trees provided a sanctuary of peace and tranquility. On Sundays, we would usually have fried chicken after church out on the front porch to enjoy the surroundings. There was no place like home.

However, on a fateful August 29, 2005, my home would never look the same. Hurricane Katrina rolled in from the Gulf and destroyed the sanctuary that was my home. Pine trees were snapped like toothpicks, the garage lay in ruin with huge branches sticking out of the roof of the house. My home would never look the same. I had family that lost everything, from cars and houses to most importantly the family pictures - pictures of births, pictures of weddings and pictures of family gatherings, never to be seen again. I had friends that decided to stay and protect their property. But without power for weeks, roads blocked by debris, and no clean running water they were in more danger than weathering the storm

Back in Oklahoma, working 12 hours shifts at Tinker for five days straight was just a minor part in restoring my home. All the maintainers and myself worked diligently to generate aircraft just so the relief efforts could have some sort of air traffic control due to the New Orleans International Tower being knocked out of commission. It was over the course of those five days that it became clear of my reasons of serving. I wasn't pararescue saving lives from a helicopter or an Air Battle Manager on the E-3 directing relief efforts. I was a maintainer that stood proud on the flight line knowing that I helped fulfill the mission in bringing hope back to not just my family and friends, but also to the state of Louisiana I will always call home.

Being a part of the greatest Air Force the world has ever seen doesn't confine me to the borders of the east and west coasts. What I do serves a purpose worldwide. Over time, I have come to the realization that the conflicts of yesterday have impacted my life today.

In 1992, there was a little girl living in a small town in Croatia. It was the early stages of the civil war in Yugoslavia and she and her family had to flee their home in Bosnia. That year, a couple of days after her sixth birthday, she found herself looking out a window from a stranger's house in Croatia. Time stood still as she found herself observing her home town from across the Sava River. This little girl remembered what the street used to look like at one point on a warm, sunny day. She remembered walking the streets and having felt the cold chill of the wind. She remembered playing with her friends and Barbie dolls as each girl celebrated yet another birthday. And she remembered her family gathering on the front porch to welcome family and friends for dinners. Although by this time what she saw was a complete opposite.

Still looking out the window, she does not see the bright sunny weather, only the debris that is left in the air from when the bombs hit everyone's home. She doesn't see little girls playing with Barbie dolls, but rather she sees the emptiness of the children playing in the streets. And she doesn't see big happy families gathering for dinners, but rather people looking for food. In that moment, reality hit as she knew that those memories were just memories and will only be memories. The town suffered a hit, and it was at that moment that she forced herself to stop thinking about the past as it would no longer be the same.

For the next three years, little girls across the country had similar experiences. By this time, it was late 1995 and U.S. troops and NATO started entering Bosnian borders as realities of the true destruction became apparent. The U.S. military arrived to ensure that the loss of life would come to a halt and to ensure the peace among the people caught in that conflict. If it wasn't for the airmen that came to the aid of an alien country, I would have never met that little girl who is now my fiancé and the love of my life.

It is the simple but yet complex duties of being an Airman that brings opportunities to life that the average person will never experience. I feel a sense of belonging being part of the Air Force that gives me an opportunity to bring relief efforts to my hometown and to help restore a city where my roots and heritage are planted. It is this same opportunity that brings aid to countries worldwide that are in need of justice where inhumanity and corruption exist. These life experiences have instilled my place and have solidified my understanding of why I serve and why I will continue to serve until I can no longer.