Enlisting during a Pandemic

  • Published
  • By Airman Colleen Coulthard
  • 33rd Fighter Wing

Why'd you decide to serve your country? It's a question you get a lot as a new enlistee. When I raised my right hand and swore-in, Dec. 23, 2019, I knew I wanted to do something better with my life, but I didn't realize I’d start serving during one of the most devastating health crises of our generation. Flexibility, of all the lessons learned, became my saving grace through basic military training, technical training, and now, in the operational Air Force.

Never has “Semper Gumby” rang more true than during 2020-2021. For me, the length of separation from family and friends became unknown. Stability became a luxury. The craziness of BMT and the military dulled in comparison to the real-world isolation, job uncertainty, and stress of everchanging COVID guidance.

I transitioned into the military between December and June of 2020 at the emotional height and panic of the pandemic. I was constantly worried for my family, specifically those at risk, and felt hopeless when anyone got sick. The military gave me hope.

During a crisis, people revert to their habits, to what they know. I saw the backbone of military culture. I witnessed incredible determination, support and unity within the ranks. As the world faced pandemonium, I learned to understand stress and find ways to cope with unpredictability in a healthy way.

Although some of the traditional lessons may have been lost on the COVID generation, joining the military during an international crisis exposes recruits to real-time response efforts and key functionings of our force. Other philosophies, like “there are no absolute truths,” were clarified because of COVID; our day-to-day was based on everchanging research results. Whether it was Health Protection Condition Levels, mask mandates or base restrictions, we knew to expect the unexpected.

When I joined the delayed entry program, I was one of the lucky ones. I had my dream job within the first month and a leave date set for the end of March. Only a week before I was slated to leave, a call from my recruiter confirmed my worst nightmare: all jobs had been canceled. I was without a stable income for three more months, and to say I got creative is an understatement.

Pandemic repercussions, including the cancellation of jobs, quarantine, extended separation, and different training experiences, sets this generation apart from other Airmen. Trainees who couldn’t wear gas masks, practice hand-to-hand combat or sometimes even march, aren’t any less prepared for the realities of military life. We made do with what we had, while learning to support each other and recover from a different host of stressors.

Drills may be different, traditions may have changed, but I walked away from my first year of military experience with deep personal growth. Being thrown out of my comfort zone and realizing, “yes, I can handle stress” changed who I am and how I react to the unpredictability of life. The world may be very different from the one I’ve always known, but the resilience gained through this global adversity has forever changed me.