Toe to 'Iwo To' with professional development

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn Rich-Pendracki
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
Often in our careers we hear about the importance of professional development and how imperative it is to our personal growth, as well as in helping us develop as Airmen.

Recently I had the honor of accompanying about 40 men and women from the 18th Medical Group on a trip to the island of Iwo To, more commonly referred to as Iwo Jima.

The trip was designed to hone morale, camaraderie, historical military education and professional development for the 18th MDG Airmen. Little did I know how deeply this experience would resonate with me both professionally and personally.

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. Every now and then he would tell me a story about when he was serving in the Pacific theater during World War II.

One night while we were watching a documentary, the famous photo of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi flashed across the screen. He off handedly said, "I know one of those men, I served with him during the war."

I looked at him in awe and waited for more of a story, but there never was. I could never have guessed how those conversations would shape my future and lead me to where I am today.

When I began my short journey with my fellow Airmen to the tiny island about 750 miles south of Tokyo, I was deep in thought on how I might best tell this story.

We boarded the KC-135 and hunkered down for the short flight. I listened to conversations from the folks I was surrounded by. I shared their enthusiasm and anticipation for visiting this historic island.

It was a bright and beautiful March morning as we landed on the flightline of Iwo To, the same time of year the battle took place 68 years earlier. James D'Angina, an 18th Wing historian, gathered everyone around before we began our 5-mile hike to the top of Mount Suribachi, and gave the group an introduction to the Battle of Iwo Jima.

A few moments later the group was led down a hill toward the beach. The first battle-scarred structure we came across still had fortification used during the battle. The weapon and evidence of munitions left behind from the battle lay surrounded by unkempt grass, encased in rust. We gathered around as D'Angina told us more of the battle.

We were then led onto the trail of Mount Suribachi. Our boots crunched along the gravel and dirt road and began to create a rhythm, while those walking next to one another fell in step. The conversation was light and friendly.

My mind wandered and I began to think about what a contrast this hike must be from the troops who fought here those many years ago. How the rhythm of their steps probably stemmed from fear, courage and an overwhelming devotion to country, Corps and their fellow Marine. This was the same ground they had walked.

The walk continued through the morning and seemed to go on and on as we saw evidence of the battle every few meters.

"This walk is tough and we aren't taking fire, can you imagine what it must have been like?" I overheard someone say.

The sun beat down on the group as the final stretch of the hike was just ahead. As the trail wound up the mountain, the foliage began to break.

The beaches on both sides of the island could be seen. The view made me freeze from the overwhelming idea of the troops sent in to take the island and those who were following orders to defend their position.

When we finally reached the top of Mount Suribachi, the group fanned out to take it all in. They took photos and left trinkets in homage to those who fought and died there. The camaraderie of the group was clear as they posed for photos and checked on one another. They had become closer.

The view from the place where the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" was taken was humbling and inspiring. This was not only because of my background as a photojournalist, but also by my realization of the hardships encountered and overcome by the brave men who fought there.

On our way back to the flightline, we stopped at an entrance to one of the caves used by the Japanese troops. The conditions these dedicated men lived in, for months on end, was unimaginable. The cramped, dirty, blind darkness of the cave that went on as far as the eye could see put perspective to the creature comforts we are afforded as Airmen today.

This extraordinary opportunity to experience the team building and professional development of my fellow Airmen has left a great and lasting impression.

Not all professional development sessions are going to be like this one, but it has illustrated that any experience we have can be a time to learn. When you go through something with a wingman, it has the potential to develop you, whether it be basic training, technical school, a deployment, a TDY, or even a commander's call. You have experienced something that has the potential to teach you something profound.

We are so fortunate to be able to have experiences that less than one percent of the U.S. population get. It could be the heat of the battle on a foreign beach, or the map-lined walls of an office where difficult decisions are made.

Although we are fortunate, we should always remember those who have come before us. We learn, remember and live through their actions as well.

During our last few moments on Iwo To, after our long trek back on the demanding trail, Col. Barbara King, 18th Medical Group commander, said it best while addressing the group.

"This has been an absolutely amazing experience for professional development and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said.