Compassionate Air Force steps up

  • Published
  • By Maj. Joel Neeb
  • 12th OGV T-38C Branch Chief
I remember hearing this was the "Year of the Air Force Family" last summer, but it really didn't mean anything to me.

Privately, I even wondered if it was just lip service paid to whitewash the toll that increased deployments were having on servicemembers. I went on with my daily routine, and pretty much forgot about it. Then, in February, my life changed forever.

I was diagnosed with stage three appendix cancer, and I needed major surgery immediately, followed by six months of chemotherapy. One day I was fighting to become a Thunderbird pilot, and the next I was quite literally fighting for my life.

Unbelievably, at this same time, a dangerous quarter-sized lump was discovered in my three-year-old son's left lung, and we were both under the knife within weeks of each other. My worst nightmares were coming true, and I was terrified. My life was turning upside down, and I didn't know where to turn.

That's when the Air Force stepped in. When I woke up from surgery, I was surrounded by members of my squadron who came to be by my side. Within days of my diagnosis, wives of military members I had never even met before were beating down my door with meals for my family. My wing commander and operations group commander visited to find out what they could do to help. The co-workers in my office got together and split up my duties so I wouldn't be burdened with any unfinished work. My parents were flown out to be at my side. My medical travel, bills and future appointments were all taken care of by an Air Force medical liaison.

I was truly humbled by how quickly and passionately my brothers in arms moved to help out my family. But, when I thought about it, I realized that this was no different than how I've seen them respond to others during stressful times in the past. I've witnessed countless meals made for parents of newborn children, help and support for families of deployed members, and squadrons band together to care for the grieving family of a loved one lost. That's just what we do in the Air Force.

I don't know if we realize how special this is. I can think of no corporation in the civilian sector where the CEO would personally visit to find out how he could help during a tragedy, as my wing commander did for me. There's no other community in the world that takes care of each other like we do. We may have to deal with long periods away from home and the stress of combat, often for less money than our civilian counterparts, but we are all in this together.

The truth is, we are a family, and I couldn't have made it through the last six months without you. I hope you never have to go through what I did recently, but if you do, rest assured that your Air Force family will be there covering your "6" along the way, too.