When I grow up

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Danette Van Dalen
  • 47th Force Support Squadron commander
Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up? I didn't always want to be in the Air Force, but it is interesting how things work out sometimes.

My sons keep me entertained with periodic updates on what they want to be when they grow up ... nothing earth-shattering in the early iterations ... fireman, policeman, the "trash man." My 5-year-old son is still pretty well set on being a train conductor. But the older one, a sage at 7, has branched out: fighter pilot, Jedi warrior, tank operator, truck driver. He recently announced that, when he grows up, he thinks he'll be a carnivore. I assured him, with my best Magic 8 Ball clairvoyance, that chances are good.

In my youth, it had never occurred to me to be interested in a military career -- I wanted to be a doctor. My father retired from the Air Force when I was in kindergarten. I had fond memories of going to pick him up from work at the Air Force ROTC detachment on a couple of occasions and of seeing his pictures from when he wore the uniform. 

He had been proud of his service, and his "by the book" demeanor certainly permeated our upbringing. But it wasn't something I had considered for myself. I even remember trailing him around the house one day as a teenager, helping him work on a home improvement project of some sort. I was lengthening my stride to step in the same spots he had walked in and said, "Hey, Dad, look! I'm following in your footsteps!" 

He replied, "Well, if you want to do that, you'll have to spend 21 years in the Air Force." 

At the time, I thought that was the funniest thing I had ever heard, and actually laughed out loud (long before LOL was cool).

But during freshman orientation at college, I signed up for ROTC, hoping to compete for a pre-professional health scholarship. I did not get the scholarship, but I liked the program so much I stayed. I liked the structure, the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging and the sense of accomplishment in my "corps job." I began to spend more time on ROTC, proportionately, than on my other classes. I wondered how I could mesh my medical aspirations with an Air Force career. 

I got my commission, and then my first assignment -- nothing related to medical work but that was really okay. My life's dream was no longer medicine, it was Airmanship. I loved what I was doing and I was doing what I loved -- helping people. I wouldn't call it a compromise; it was more of an epiphany.

Looking back, I didn't really end up where I thought I'd be when I grew up. Although I believe I could have done a number of other things, there's nothing I would rather have done. 

Taking the long view, I like it so much I stayed. I've lived overseas, traveled and worked a variety of jobs. I've had the opportunity to work with some of the brightest, most dedicated and most interesting people on the planet. I even got to fast-rope out of a helicopter in the middle of the pitch-black desert of New Mexico one night while assisting our explosive ordnance disposal Airmen with training. 

I may not have become a doctor, but I've reached so many of my other goals, I'm not disappointed. I'm a wife, proud mother of a future train conductor and future carnivore and an Air Force officer. When I'm finished growing up, who knows what else I'll be? Other than picking out a site for our post-retirement home, I haven't made any firm plans ... they have a way of changing. Flexibility is the key to airpower, after all, isn't it?