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NEWS | Jan. 15, 2014

From behind the lens: Airman reflects on new year, new beginnings

By Airman 1st Class R. Alex Durbin 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

As the clock on the living room wall of my mother-in-law's house in my hometown of Lowellville, Ohio, ticked closer to midnight on New Year's Eve, The excitement of those around me grew while I sat on the worn couch.

My friends and family happily chatted while donning party hats and clutching noise makers, poised for the celebration just 15 minutes away. On the television across the room, the broadcasters, bundled up in the frigid New York City weather, reviewed pop culture phenomena of 2013 between musical performances. I began to reflect on my own experiences during the last 12 months.

After a few minutes, I realized the past year was not a particularly special one. It wasn't marked with any significant milestones in my personal life or U.S. Air Force career.

The thought initially struck a blow, but I took solace in the fact I progressed as a photojournalist and Airman mentor. At first, that thought soothed my uneasy feelings, but I realized I didn't go as far above and beyond as I could have.

Sure, I put in long hours at my office and was not afraid to stay late to finish my work, but once I removed my uniform after a long day, I didn't give all I could.

At that, a memory bubbled to the surface.

In an effort to highlight the indomitable spirit of Service members, I wrote a series of stories about Airmen overcoming hardships through resiliency in 2013. Technical Sgt. Ashley Barnett was my first subject, and left me with an insight I won't soon forget.

"I realized I couldn't will myself to get better," said the 1st Operations Support Squadron weather mission services noncommissioned officer in charge, during an interview last September. "It was hard to take the leap, but once I did, it was the best thing I've ever done."

Following a car crash that left her severely wounded, chronic back pain led Barnett to fall into a depression with no way out in sight. After months of hiding "behind a hollow mask of happiness," Barnett took a leap of faith and decided to find the help she needed after her commander stood before a room of Airmen and professed his own trials and tribulations during a commander's call.

I felt inspired when she left me with a simple, but profound, piece of advice.

"Resiliency isn't about being happy all of the time," Barnett said. "It's about picking yourself up and dusting yourself off when you fall down, even if it's one step at a time."

My train of thought was interrupted as the countdown on the TV reached the 10-minute mark. The crowd grew as guests started trickling into the living room, watching 2013 reach its home stretch.

I looked around the room at my loved ones and was reminded of the second installment of my resiliency series.

"All you have to do is look around; there will always be someone to lean on," said Tech. Sgt. Stephanie Eversley during an interview just a few weeks after my first resiliency story was published. "The Air Force family idea is not a gimmick. It's important to treat each other like family, because as I can attest, it can make all of the difference to have your fellow Airmen to lean on."

In 2008, the now-633rd Air Base Wing Judge Advocate Office general law noncommissioned officer in charge suffered a miscarriage, losing her child, Layla Isabella, after 37 weeks of pregnancy. In the following weeks, Eversley said her Air Force family cooked meals and stayed with her, ensuring she and her family were taken care of.

"Your Air Force brothers and sisters are your most valuable resource because we are all in this together," Eversley said.

Looking across the living room at my wife, I saw her excitedly discussing the previous semester of classes and her upcoming educational plans. My gaze shifted to my grandmother sitting on a nearby recliner, barely fighting off sleep.

A crowd of familiar faces began together in front of the TV, obscuring my view. As I moved to the other end of my couch, I felt lucky to be with my family and hometown friends, but I thought of my wingmen back in Virginia, and slightly longed to return to my adoptive home at Langley Air Force Base. I thought about how Service members share a unique bond while in the military, and I realized that although I can always find support from my loved ones in Ohio, and I can also count on my "other family" to help me as well.

I shook off the thought as I noticed midnight closing in fast.

My stomach suddenly turned at the thought of the upcoming year. Midnight, I realized, was a precipice of a new era of my life.

Starting in January, I would begin taking college classes, and in March I will receive a promotion, each bringing new expectations and responsibilities.

Thinking about the upcoming changes, I felt nervous.

I then remembered the words of Tech. Sgt. Rashida Mahoney, the third and final subject of my series.

"Resiliency is all about preparation," she said. "It's like repairing your roof before it rains, because one day it's going to storm."

Mahoney was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. After a failed evasive surgery to remove the growth, she opted to receive a double mastectomy, a surgery to remove both breast to halt the spread of cancerous cells.

"I decided to fight because I wanted to be in control," said Mahoney. "I wasn't going to let anything stand [in my] way."

Mahoney's story of perseverance gave me comfort in knowing that I too could overcome my fears. Her story taught me that if take control and become the master of my fate, I can conquer my obstacles.

The room began chanting in unison, snapping me back to the present.

"10, 9, 8, 7..."

I left my post on the couch and moved to my wife, weaving between the other guests as I thought back to those three Airmen, unwilling to be defeated.

"7, 6, 5, 4..."

Slipping my hand around her waist, I looked toward the TV, feeling confident and ready for the New Year.

"3, 2, 1..."

As the ball in Times Square finished its descent and 2014 officially began, I kissed my wife. "Auld Lang Syne" began to play, causing me to reflect again on the three interviews still fresh in my mind.

I closed my eyes and made my New Year's resolution and my unease drained away. Looking forward to the next 12 months, I felt confident I would take what I learned and become a better Airman and person in 2014.

I didn't know what the New Year would hold, but I felt ready.

"Happy New Year!"