The Coin

I turned the large coin over repeatedly in my hand after she walked away. This moment didn’t feel real. I had just had a brief discussion with the Secretary of the Air Force right here at my work computer. I replayed her comments over and over in my mind as I continued to turn the coin in my hand. “Tell me YOUR Air Force story,” she had said. I hate when people ask for that. My story isn’t straightforward at all. In fact, nothing about me or my life has ever been straightforward. But I gave her the quick synopsis. “I enlisted in 2000, did some bomber avionics for awhile, found out about the one-year program so I separated, did ROTC at Syracuse University for a year, field training the following summer, back on active duty in 2002 after commissioning that summer. Went to training in Florida, went to GA, back to the schoolhouse to be an instructor, back to GA, and I volunteered to do a year out here in the desert.” She stared at me intensely before she replied with “So how many deployments have you had out here?” “This is my 8th deployment out here, my 9th overall.” She just said wow and turned to look at Nick suspiciously. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had asked him too and this was only his second deployment ever. It didn’t make sense to her and it left him feeling a bit like a fraud. “So I hear you’re pretty important around here,” she said loudly, with a smirk. “I try to be,” I had my best impersonation of a gung-ho extroverted Air Force officer going. The truth was that my position had become the single most important-and busiest-since my arrival 4 months prior. So she was correct, but as always, I downplayed my importance to the mission. “So tell me what you’re looking for on all these computer screens.” I spent the next few minutes explaining each of my four computer screens, my tech’s four computer screens, and the 8 large screens around the wall that I kept track of all shift. I didn’t really simplify anything for her because I knew she would understand most of what I was saying. She was cool, I was enjoying my conversation with her. But then some stoogey troll of an officer grabbed her and told her they were running behind. She took something out of her pocket and extended her hand to me. As soon as I felt the warmish metal against my hand, I knew I was getting coined by her. I felt this weird sense of victory like, if only the bastards back home who think I’m worthless could see me now, getting coined with no prompt from my leadership. She said good day and turned around to leave. I stared at her back and felt a little shaky. I couldn’t understand what had just happened. But the coin in my hand kept bringing me back to the reality I had just experienced. Later on, I was talking to Nick when Pippa asked to see the coin. Then she made a comment about how some leaders just want to see girls in flight suits and it doesn’t matter how good you are. I wanted to punch her right then, because that wasn’t what happened and she knew it. She knew I was one of the best on the floor and gender didn’t matter. It was just someone tired of the old dog and pony show happy to see someone actually working instead of stupidly standing at the end of their row at parade rest, trying to look important. Not me, I was getting the job done and she liked that. You can talk to the show ponies, or you can talk to the real person working their ass off. Back in my room that evening I took the coin out of my flight suit and looked at it again. It was easily the largest and heaviest coin I’d ever had. It was impressive looking on both sides and I couldn’t believe I really had it in my hand. Or that I even met the SECAF. What a crazy day. And the craziest part was remembering what had happened the night before. As I slid my right arm out of my flight suit, I saw the marks on my wrist where I had been cutting myself with my newest knife the night before. I didn’t want to kill myself, I just wanted to experience physical pain to take the place of the emotion pain I had been feeling. It had always worked in high school. Just pull the blade across as slow as possible at first, pushing harder each time until I saw blood. I would hold my breath as I dragged the blade across my skin, and then release it slowly once the bleeding started. Once the blood flowed, the pain in my heart dissipated. It was truly a gift from the universe to know that this physical pain from cutting could almost erase the mental anguish I was fighting. I was sad about being away from the kids and where my marriage was headed and that my time in the Air Force was under 1000 days. It went by so fast that I forgot to enjoy so much of it. I’d been struggling with depression and anxiety for awhile. I had nightmares that woke me more nights than not. I had visualizations of things I’d seen on flying missions that haunted me when I was awake and asleep. I felt like I had no friends because there was no one I could tell about most of my life, how I felt so different, how I wanted to run away, and how much I just hurt inside. I started crying as I held the coin close to my heart. The guilt from cutting had hurt almost as much as the pain that drove me to it. I hadn’t cut myself since I was 16 and here I was, cutting myself at 41, like I hadn’t learned. 25 years of respecting myself enough to not cut and suddenly I didn’t even have 24 hours. Holding the coin close to me, I promised that I wouldn’t do it again, that I had so much to live for and this coin proved it. Instead of putting the coin on my desk like I had planned, I put it back into the right chest pocket of my flight suit so it could live close to my heart forever. I would only take it out to wash the flight suit. And when I felt unimportant and alone in the future, I could reach for that coin and know that brighter days were ahead. I haven’t cut since that day. If I look at FB, I can even figure out which day it was since I did post about the coin and the conversation. One of the coolest parts of the whole thing was that the SECAF talked to a group of hand-selected “high-speed” individuals that evening after we talked. She told them about the girl she met on the ops floor who volunteered for a one-year assignment, had already been there seven times, and was still smiling because she enjoyed that mission so much. It was all true. I volunteered because I loved the mission, because I felt like I was doing something important, and mostly because it was a way to escape from something. Like cutting, volunteering to deploy offered a way to escape from the pain of having two special needs children, the truth about who I actually was, and the jerks I worked with who wanted to destroy me. So a one year deployment because a way to wait out a bad commander and let some of the other leadership leave so that I could start over when I got back after a year. That deployment and more specifically, that coin, became a way I survived and even started to thrive under the immense pressure I was under. I remember it fondly and find myself smiling at so many of those memories. It was one of the best times of my life, even with these low points.

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