FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
Recently someone asked me what my job was. I replied with my usual, “I’m Fairchild’s Installation Resiliency Specialist, better known as the Community Support Coordinator or CSC.” Typically people say “Oh” and leave it there. This time, the person had a follow-up question. “What makes you a specialist on resiliency?” After five years of doing this job, I was not prepared for this question. I fuddled through explaining my training and talked about how much I loved my job. But that question haunted me the rest of that day and a month later I still find myself mulling over it.
What does make me a specialist on resiliency? I have had what some people describe as a “colorful” life. My father raised me after my mother abandoned me while he was on a remote tour in Taiwan. He remarried—four more times. Did having five mothers before I was 15 years old make me resilient? Is it possible I learned about resiliency when my father and his third wife served consecutive short tours and I went to live with her relatives who were strangers to me for a year? Maybe I was resilient because I became a foster child when my father’s definition of discipline and appropriate touch and the law’s definition differed. Maybe it was because I reconciled with my birth mother when I was 17 years old only to have cancer take her a few years later. I lost two other close relatives to cancer and then I had my own scare.
Was I resilient because I married too young and after only knowing him five months, or because I subsequently went through a divorce five years later? Maybe it was because I gave birth to a child who had severe medical complications and I had to face a real possibility she may not make it to her first birthday. I am certain that being a single mom and worrying about my daughter while I went to Korea for a year were factors in my resiliency. I also wondered if I was a specialist on resiliency because I re-married another active duty member and we each struggled to figure out how to raise a stepchild, serve our Air Force, and balance being husband and wife. Maybe those things contributed to me being a resiliency specialist?
I supposed my resiliency expertise could have come from just serving in the Air Force. I deployed and went on two remotes to Korea and left my family behind, and I stayed behind with the kids when my husband deployed. I served as a Traffic Management Specialist (TMO), a technical training instructor, and a First Sergeant, not to mention countless additional duties--certainly those contributed to my qualifying as a resiliency specialist. My TMO job required me to be at the delivery address when a deceased member’s property is shipped to a family member. Being present when a parent receives the personal effects of a lost child will test the strongest willed person’s ability “to remain professional” and not cry. A TMO troop is also responsible for shipping the deceased member home from deployed locations—I sent 15 soldiers home in body bags while I was in Iraq. I shed tears for every one of my brothers in arms who sacrificed it all. If that did not make me a resiliency expert, then maybe it was dodging mortar attacks and running for cover that did it. As a First Sergeant, I watched one of my Airman--a friend and peer--die in the hospital after he was driving under the influence of alcohol and crashed. Certainly, this experience helped make me an expert on resiliency. Especially when his brother and sons broke down in my arms after learning their loved one was not going to survive the accident. This had to be what made me a resiliency specialist—right?
After contemplating on all my life events, I decided that none of this made me an expert on resiliency. If it did, then practically everyone reading this would be a resiliency specialist. No, there had to be more because every person has a story. Some people may have pasts similar to mine, and some have experienced far worse and they are near their breaking point because it has been too much for them. Other people have had less excitement in their lives, and have not had the opportunity to grow roots through adverse events and they feel hopeless or lost in their current struggles. Still others may have already been at rock bottom and have risen from the trenches stronger and more determined than ever. The key question is why are some people able to overcome and grow from adverse or traumatic events and others are not? I know that people’s culture, background, experiences, personalities, and many other driving forces determine how able they are to withstand adversity, change, and other stressors, but this diversity does not necessarily explain resiliency. Then I had an epiphany, although my life experiences did not make me an expert on resiliency, there was a common thread in each instance. It was the people who were by my side helping me understand and persevere through difficult times.
It was the social worker and defense attorney who made sure I was safe as a child and reassured me the events were not my fault. It was a loving foster mom who told me I was strong enough to get through anything. It was my friends who held me up as I went through a divorce. It was the doctors, nurses, case managers, and extended family members who helped me stay strong and who never gave up on my daughter. It was the First Sergeant who recognized a single mom and Senior Airman was struggling to make ends meet and provided a Christmas meal. It was the counselor from Military-1-Source reassuring me that despite what my daughters said, I was not a horrible parent. It was my husband who was my rock and number one supporter as I moved through my career. It was also my husband who held my hand and comforted me when I had precancerous cells removed from my body as well as four other surgeries. It was the commander who cried with me at the loss of each life in Iraq and the friends who took cover with me during alarm reds. It was a chaplain, fellow First Sergeants, and my squadron leadership who lifted me up when my friend died. It was my pastor reminding me that I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.
It was people who made me resilient. My support network was the reason I was able to flex and persevere through life’s storms. Even when I felt alone, I had their memories, voices and lessons to help navigate me through the roughest storms. I discovered that my experiences mold and shape me, but they do not have to define me. I came to understand that no matter what, I get to choose my attitude and responses to the situations I encounter. Moreover, I learned that although I may not always like or understand why events are taking place, I can trust that tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities. These lessons, given to me by the people in my life, are what pulled me through all my traumatic events and experiences. My faith and hope in a brighter future are what carried me through my darkest times and it was my friends and a great support network who provided the light in my darkness. It just took opening my eyes to see them standing there and having the courage to say, “I would really like you to help me through this.” It is not my experiences that make me an expert on resiliency, it is knowing what tools and resources are available to me and having the humility to reach out and use them.
Knowing who and what resources are available to provide Airmen and then families the right combination of support is what makes me an Installation Resiliency Specialist. Being attuned to the spoken and unspoken wants and needs of installation personnel helps me be an effective resiliency specialist. Understanding that I am not the expert on all things resiliency and showing gratitude for an amazing team of helping agencies who are dedicated to the well-being of everyone on this base makes me a specialist. Realizing that no two people see or handle life events through the same lens or in the same manner, and knowing that what allowed me to withstand, recover, and grow from my adverse life events may not work for someone going through similar situations allows me to be an empathetic resiliency specialist. Sharing my stories, providing information on available base resources, learning all I can about resources in the local communities, and addressing the concerns and needs of every person attached to the installation are what make me Fairchild’s resident resiliency expert.
So, next time someone asks me what I do, I will proudly say, “My name is Mrs. Dawn Altmaier and I am YOUR Installation Resiliency Specialist. How can I serve you today?”