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Wife, mother, Airman: Open house gives wings to my dreams

Airman 1st Class Crystal Jenkins, a photojournalist assigned to the 673d Air Base Wing Public Affairs unit, holds a photo of her and her family after she graduated from Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., in 2017. Jenkins was inspired to join the U.S. Air Force during the 2016 Arctic Thunder Open House at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. After enlisting in 2016 she was given the opportunity to return to the base she was recruited from.

Airman 1st Class Crystal Jenkins, a photojournalist assigned to the 673d Air Base Wing Public Affairs unit, holds a photo of her and her family after she graduated from Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., in 2017. Jenkins was inspired to join the U.S. Air Force during the 2016 Arctic Thunder Open House at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. After enlisting in 2016 she was given the opportunity to return to the base she was recruited from.

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --

I was just one of 300,000 people on the flightline that weekend.

It was the 2016 Arctic Thunder Open House at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and I was still a civilian.

That weekend, my nearly-dormant desire to serve in the U.S. Air Force was reawakened.

As I came across the Air Force recruiting table, I stopped and asked the questions that would soon lead me to wearing the uniform. At the forefront of my thoughts was the belief my time to serve had already come and gone, passed over by the life experiences so many young adults have, marriage, divorce, children, the loss of loved ones.

Is it too late? Am I too old?

As I walked away from the recruiting booths, I considered yet again what my life might look like if I had chosen to serve. The curious side of me gave way to old memories buried deep.

During childhood visits at my elderly grandparents’ home, the lack of cable and their physical inability to play on the floor with me presented an unforgettable, life-changing experience. My grandparents, who were born in the very early 1900s, had old National Geographic Magazines stacked on huge shelves in their living room, with the latest copy always next to their chairs.

I had heard the story of my grandfather’s service to his country during World War II from my grandmother, and I always felt admiration that he had chosen to serve even though he was much older than most of the men joining at the time. During these short, infrequent visits, I relished my time with them, pillaging the old magazines.

One day I came across a feature about one of the National Geographic photojournalists. The article talked about her experiences as a professional as well as her unwavering determination to be a mother and wife. I was an impressionable 10-year-old girl and the seeds were planted. I was starting to see that service before self and dreams could coexist.

Life moved forward, as it inevitably does, giving way to years of hearing my child-like dreams were not based on reality and how photojournalism was a great hobby but I’d never be able to take care of a family that way. It was discouraging. Despite these verbal quips, my teen years provided a vast amount of expansive experiences and overseas trips. I visited the places and cultures I had only ever read about. Those seeds were being watered.

As I aged, my dream of being a photographer weighed heavily on me; with my parents’ guidance I began looking at universities that could make it possible. At age 17, I was given an opportunity to go far away from home and make my dreams happen. As the time to leave neared, my heart was pulled in what felt like a thousand different directions. I was hesitant to leave the life I had known, my parents (a mother who was in very poor health), my family and a boyfriend I thought I could make a life with. Just like that, gears shifted and I set off on a new path.

Over time, I worked my way into a career as a mental health case worker, married the boyfriend, delivered my firstborn, and was able to be present for the remaining years of my best friend and mother’s life. For a number of years, my life was happy and to say the least livable – but somehow I always felt unfulfilled. Time passed, and I found myself as a single mother, somehow managing decent grades while attending school full-time and working three jobs.

When I least expected it, my first love re-entered my life after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps, offering what turned out to be three more incredible children and the most amazing decade full of life’s adventures.

Sometimes the ups and downs life threw at us seemed unbearable, but we both knew resiliency was key and we refused to give up. Our faith allowed us to know with confidence that we were more than conquerors and that nothing is impossible to those who believe.

Fast-forward to 2016. We found ourselves in the place we wanted to call home: Alaska. After extensive state-wide traveling that summer, we decided to stay close to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, allowing us to access resources we might need for our family. We heard about the Arctic Thunder Open House and knew right away the kids would never forget the experience. So we made it a priority to attend, despite the crowds we knew we’d face.

There they were … Airman after Airman … talking to us about their missions, jobs and static displays. At the time I couldn’t figure out who was having more fun, me or the kids. And there it was, the same excitement I felt as a small child from Dayton, Ohio, visiting Air Force museums and numerous air shows. Regardless of how many planes I had walked through, or air shows or open houses I had attended in my 33 years of existence, those same feelings of purpose, passion and pride always seemed to surface like a volcano ready to erupt.

After visiting the Air Force recruiting table, the pamphlets sat on my dresser for days as I gave enlisting serious consideration. Fears flooded my conscience: being away from my husband and children, committing to something this big, and not being able to keep up with the other much-younger recruits.

A Winston Churchill quote I had heard early in my life rang like a Chinese gong in my head: “Never give up on something that you can't go a day without thinking about.” I wondered how my life experiences would add to or take away from the Airman I knew I would need to transform into. There were also fears of being considered too selfish of a mom, of wanting my work and life to coincide.

What surpassed these fears was how much I wanted my kids to have an example of not letting anything stop them from fulfilling their hopes and dreams. I wanted them to know anything is possible with hard work and dedication, despite fears of the unknown, and that their dreams can be accomplished at any age.

The Air Force quickly made me realize they were looking for my kind of maverick. Because of my education, work and life experiences, I scored high in the testing they threw my way. This allowed me the opportunity to fill any position needed, so I asked myself, “Where do they need me the most?” I was here to serve. My recruiter provided me a list of all the Air Force specialty codes deemed undermanned or hard to fill, highlighting the ones that needed the highest scores.

After a lot of research and late-into-the-night deliberating with my husband, I handed in a list of ones I gravitated toward and felt confident with. I hesitated though, and confided in my recruiter the hopes I had of one day becoming a photojournalist. He let me know how rare those positions were, especially in Alaska, and that he had never even seen one available.

The next morning he called and said, “Mrs. Jenkins, how soon can you be ready to leave? One photojournalist slot has opened but you will have to leave in just a few weeks.”

My heart was in my throat. My husband, although apprehensive of losing his wife for almost eight months, told me I should go for it.

“How often do you get your dream job thrown into your lap twice?” he asked.

I said yes.

As I continued to prepare myself physically, emotionally and spiritually for the things I knew I would soon face, I was invited to attend a mass swear-in ceremony, center ice at a local Alaska Aces hockey game. There, I met all of these amazing (mostly) young people devoting their futures to something much bigger than themselves. I was proud of them for defending my children’s futures (who were waving wildly from their seats) and promising their lives away for the good of their countrymen. As I stood there repeating the sacred oath, I watched the photojournalist I had previously interviewed with at the JBER Public Affairs office photographing the event. The sobering realization hit me that I was being given the opportunity to document the Air Force’s legacy. What could possibly top this?  

It wasn’t until I was at Basic Military Training that I realized just how capable I was, how the everyday experiences of my adult life had built me for this life change I had chosen. Like my grandfather, I didn’t fit the mold.

The Air Force taught me its structure, core beliefs, what it meant to look after every Airman around you. Strangely enough, it wasn’t far off from what it was like being a mom, wife or employee with a great work ethic. I quickly realized I was built for this and I was meant to do this.

The fears I’d had were soon replaced with growing confidence as my leadership taught me what it meant to fly, fight and win in my new life and in the Air Force. My dreams were now coming to fruition.

While in technical training for my new career, it seemed like an eternity passed while waiting to find out where my choice was taking us. With my family still more than 4,200 miles away, it seemed never-ending at times. The commander of our detachment took time to ask me why I had listed JBER as my top pick for an overseas location.

I told her about the 2016 Arctic Thunder Open House I had gone to and my love for the Air Force mission and history in Alaska. I talked about my children’s handicaps and health problems and about the top-notch care they were receiving. She told me JBER needed Airmen and if I still wanted the assignment, it was mine.

So … here I am, fulfilling a life-long dream and finding service before self.

Reflecting on the open house and all it has meant to me since, I’m overwhelmed with pride. As an American Airman I have been given the chance to document the history being made all around me. Sitting at the desk once used by the Public Affairs Airman I interviewed with not long ago, I am preparing to photograph the upcoming mass swear-in ceremony scheduled to take place at the 2018 Arctic Thunder Open House.

I will be there, with a camera in hand, swelling with pride and most likely tears in my eyes as the new recruits take the oath and make their own dreams come to life.