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Breaking barriers

  • Published
  • By Col. Bridgett Gregory
  • 90th Medical Group commander
I was recently blessed with the opportunity to attend a basic officer training graduation and parade at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. I was the guest of a former enlisted troop I met four years prior as his squadron commander. My pride meter was pegged for all the anticipated reasons, and also for one unintended.

We first met during our 'welcome to the squadron' appointment I held with all newcomers one-on-one. His attitude and savvy reeked of 'winner.' I learned he came from humble beginnings, he became a successful entrepreneur, his father was a retired two-star general officer (aviator) in the Philippine Air Force, and that he wanted to become a U.S. citizen and Air Force pilot. We talked about paths to get there.

Unless the newcomers objected, I wrote letters to their parents. The first two paragraphs were standard, describing our base and unit missions. The third was tailored to what I learned about their son or daughter and pledged support for their goals. Occasionally a parent would reply.

I received a beautiful letter from this Airman's parents. They lauded their son and his quest to realizing the American Dream. We were quite taken with what each other's letters meant. A most respectful bond formed between us. No doubt we would meet some day.

This Airman was a standout and collectively admired. An entourage that included his Flight Commander took a day trip with him to the closest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center. He returned a U.S. Citizen.

I moved on to another squadron command, but we stayed in touch. He married. He was promoted. He had a son. He applied for pilot training. He would need letters of recommendation, an age waiver, and had to pass the flying physical exam. He nailed it.

At the BOT graduation, families filled Maxwell's Hoover Auditorium. As the highest-ranking guests, the retired General and his family sat in the front right row. I joined the official party of commissioning officers who marched in last and lined up in the front left row.

The BOT Flight Commander served as emcee. He announced the graduates, who would be guiding them through the commissioning oath, and who would be giving their ceremonial first salute. My former troop was second to graduate and take the oath. I choked up a bit near the end, but could no longer contain my emotion seeing his family pin his new rank.

He received his ceremonial first salute from - his wife, a staff sergeant. She was recently accepted into the Nurse Enlisted Commissioning Program. After she is commissioned in four months, their combined family income will increase significantly. This was the American Dream for this Philippines native!

Several more brand new lieutenants were sworn in. Some were nervous, others were unfazed. The emcee announced the next graduate, that her uncle would be swearing her in, and that her first ceremonial salute would be from her fiancé, who was a female Marine Lance Corporal (medically retired). The young lieutenant was emotional throughout the oath recital while her uncle held steady. Her ceremonial first salute was exactly like all the others: crisp perfection followed by raucous crowd cheers.

The flight graduated and all mingled. I welcomed the lance corporal into the Air Force. She erupted with praises for our service, the integrity of the BOT program and that of her fiancé's classmates. She said that for the first time in her young life she felt instantly and genuinely welcomed.

It was time for the graduation parade. I joined my former troop's family in the distinguished visitor section of the reviewing stand. The General recalled his time in the Philippine Air Force, which included a year right there at Maxwell AFB in the early 1990's as an international Air War College student. His son, then a boy and now an Air Force lieutenant headed to pilot training, learned how to swim in the base pool. He repeatedly effused tremendous gratefulness for our country. It was all so moving.

After an extraordinary evening with my former troop and his family I headed to billeting. How humbled am I that our paths crossed. How privileged am I to have been a part of this amazing family journey. Eleven years before at this very same place, I was gifted the opportunity to swear in another former troop. I reflected on the day's events and our progress.

Nearly a year ago our President declared, "service members will no longer be forced to hide who they are in order to serve our country." The 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy repeal did not mean immediate universal personal acceptance of same-sex coupling. It did mean to put aside personal feelings and embrace efforts that remove barriers to inclusion.

Imagine my tremendous pride for this newly commissioned lieutenant and his family. I am just as proud of our Air Force for that warm embrace.