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Learning to Fly

Brandon was raised in Mesquite, TX, until moving to Pocatello, ID, at age 16. He enlisted in the Marines where he was attached to HMH-366, a squadron that has since shut down. Brandon is now a fully disabled veteran living in Sneads Ferry and going to school full time at CFCC. He plans to earn an engineering degree from NC State University. As a “Peacetime Marine,” Brandon feels that this demographic of veterans, and their very specific struggles, are often overlooked.

All set in the hole,” I mumbled reluctantly, and as if in anticipation of my words, the sweet-smelling, blazing-hot exhaust started jetting the earth’s dander into my eyes. We were taking off, and it was my turn to execute. For the past 30 minutes, I had watched Staff Sergeant Snyder, a fellow candidate, attempt and fail miserably at themvery thing I was about to do. I hadn’t explained yet, but this demonstration of skill was the last thing Stewy needed to see, after a week of certification, before signing me off as a night systems instructor (NSI). In “Look Up from Your Screen,” Nicholas Tampio says, “The learning process happens when an embodied mind ‘gears’ into the world.” I was about to experience this first hand. Just like my companion before me, I took my turn, and I blew it. Stewy knew I wasn’t ready, and graciously gave me a chance anyway. Why would he let me go through all of that if he knew I was most likely going to fail? Could he have known all along how important that moment would be for me?

My failure had become a crossroads. Do I define myself with failure, or transform my failure into a mechanism for excellence? At the end of the night, we turned in our flight gear and sat down for a debriefing. Our flight suits were wet with sweat and leaked hydraulic fluid. We spoke coldly, and plainly about where each person could improve over the smell of Marlboro Red Cigarettes and Wintergreen Tobacco. Snyder and I each took our verbal beatings from the frightening MAWTS-1 instructor, then his tense brows relaxed, and he said with a sigh, “I’m proud of you two.” Setting down his greasy checklist, he expanded, “You tried your best at something that not many people can do. I’ll be back in a month. Be ready.” In Lynda Barry’s “The Sanctuary of School” she says, “I was lucky. I had Mrs. LeSane. I had Mr. Gunderson.” Believe it or not, I was lucky I had Staff Sergeant Stutesman. When I was a Junior Marine, I was fortunate enough to fly a few flights with Stewy. He told me in a surprisingly hateful, but passionate tone, “When something scares you, you have to learn it. You have to master it. That’s how you become better than everyone else.” He taught me to do things, not despite the difficulty, but because of the difficulty. Before joining the Marines, I almost failed out of high school. I never thought I would chase academic success, but through professional development, and other struggles in the Marine Corps, I found my growth mindset and a love for that which is challenging.

This story begins with a sixteen-year-old version of myself, skipping school with nothing on his mind except passing time until he could join the Navy. Think of Dave in Joey Franklin’s “Working at Wendy’s.” Joey describes Dave as follows, “He is seventeen years old, five-ten, and keeps his hair short like a soldier. He goes to an alternative high school if he wakes up in time and is looking forward to enlisting in the military when he turns eighteen.” The only difference was that I barely showed up to a regular school, I wasn’t five-ten, and I worked at Taco Time. I was arrogant, lazy, and had every intention of having everything handed to me. I want to be clear. I didn’t think the military was going to be sunshine and rainbows. I knew I would have to grow up eventually, but why now? “Let’s just wait until boot camp to get it together,” I would deceivingly think to myself. I wanted to join the military as a child because even my undeveloped brain knew what sacrifice was. Somewhere on the way to adulthood, however, I let honor deteriorate into a convenient excuse. I would often boast after failing a class or missing an assignment, “The Navy doesn’t care about your grades as long as you have a diploma!” I knew in my heart that I was lying to myself. I was making an excuse for my lack of effort. What I didn’t know was that some life lessons were about to splash cold water in my face. I was about to wake up. I scored high on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), so I figured I’d do whatever I wanted. Once I graduated high school, my dad and I drove to Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit the Navy recruiter. It didn’t take long for the Chief Petty Officer to figure out I was far out of height and weight, as well as fitness standards.

My life plan crumbled like cigarette ash in my hand. Tara Westover documents a similar perspective-altering experience in her work From Educated. Westover states autobiographically, “That failure sat uneasily in my mind. It was the first indication of whether I would be okay, whether whatever I had in my head by way of education was enough.” This was the first time in my life that I had to be accountable for my actions. I had made my bed, poorly, and was lying in it. I had two options. I had to either take the failure as simple data and lose some weight, or I could continue blaming everyone else for my position. In hindsight, I’m not sure why or how I got it together, but it was quite a miracle. I tried every “get fit quick” scheme in the book. They helped some, but what did the trick was putting my nose to the grindstone and making consistency my rule of thumb (drinking lots of water helped too). A friend of mine was set to leave for boot camp for the Marines and invited me to exercise with them at the recruiting station. I got into shape, but more importantly, I found my calling. I was leaving the Navy behind, and joining the Marines.

Fast forward, I graduated boot camp as a squad leader and was promoted above my peers upon graduation. I couldn’t believe what I had managed to accomplish given who I was just months before. I found my drive, my self-esteem, and most of all my growth mindset. After graduation, they sent me off to Pensacola, Florida. I was going to Naval Air-Crew Candidacy School (NACCS). Here is where I found my next obstacle. I had made strides in my physical fitness, but Air Crew candidates were expected to pass every physical fitness test with a first-class rating. My recruiter, Staff Sergeant Mason, told me that boot camp would be the easiest thing I would do in my career, and I quickly learned just how accurate that statement was. I started to doubt myself. “What if I just DOR? (Drop on request)” I thought. “I could always just do an easier job.” It became clear to me that the old me hadn’t died yet. I realized that I had yet another hard choice to make. I could lay down and quit, or I could do what I had done before and try my best. To try and fail is better than simply quitting.

I classed up and the training began. The days blurred together. I felt like the second I laid my head down at night, the next day of hell had already begun. “They can make you suffer, but they can’t kill you. They certainly can’t stop time,” said my dad wisely over the phone. He was a Navy veteran himself, and very right. Soon, milestones were being hit. Mile swim? Done. Drown proofing? Done. Dunker training? Done. The only task left was the physical fitness test (PFT). Over the next few days, we finished the last bit of the curriculum and got ready for the final fitness test. I trained every day and rested as every fitness YouTuber suggested, but I still got a second-class score. My instructors knew me and respected the effort I put forth. They worked with me for a week on nothing but physical training, and just like that, I passed my PFT with a first class score. It’s crazy how ready people are to work with you if you just try your best. I had failed initially, but my conviction to try, and to never quit was the reason I succeeded in the end.

Eventually, I graduated from all of my schools and made it to the fleet. I did generally well for myself, but so did my peers. The competition between my friends and me was high.
We competed to be the first to be qualified in everything. Who had the most flight hours? Who had the higher percentage on their plane captain syllabus? Who did Sergeant Martin seem to favor? Etc. A year or so later, I managed to be the one who came out on top (by a close margin). Due to some manpower issues, I was selected last minute to be evaluated as an NSI. I had to prepare a presentation on the night environment, take a written exam, and lastly, I had to pass my NSI check flight. I used the lessons I had learned throughout my career and did well on both my presentation and my test. However, nothing but experience could help me with the check flight. I wasn’t ready, but I remembered that to try and fail is better than letting an opportunity pass. As I previously stated, I failed, but I also learned what it took to become an NSI. William Zinsser, in his work “College Pressures,” invites former students who were successful in their fields to come speak at Yale University. He notes, “The students assume they started in their present profession and knew all along what they wanted to do. Luckily for me, most of them got into their field by a circuitous route, to their surprise after many detours.” I went on to become an NSI, an AGI (aerial gunnery instructor), a WTI (weapons and tactics instructor), and even led a group of Crew Chiefs on the thirty-first MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), a deployment to Japan and the South China Sea. Maybe that initial failure was the key to my success later.

I am now, after all of that, a relatively accomplished adult who is enjoying earning his degree, and the challenges that come along with it. I wish I had the pages to write more about my failures, and how I conquered them. What matters, however, is that I learned to use failure as a tool. I feel that all too often, people fail and spiral into disparity. The easy path is always comfortable but will lead you to stagnation. My life is hard, fulfilling, and full of people and things that I love. I have achieved this, finally, by doing the things that scare me. With this mindset, you can only ever “fail up.” Maybe you will surprise yourself, and succeed on the first try. I challenge you to use this thought process in your own life. What things scare YOU? How will YOU learn to fly?

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