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Have an answer to the million dollar question

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --

“Why did you join the Air Force?”

On the surface, the question begs for an informational response. However, if given the opportunity to ponder, reflect, individuals may find this question intimidatingly complex.

Recently, while serving as an augmentee for the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center Protocol Office, I was approached by one of the most respected leaders with whom my fellow Airmen and I have had the honor to serve – Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

“Why are you here?” he asked after we exchanged a handshake.

“Oh, I’m helping with the protocol office this week, but I normally serve in the public affairs office, sir,” I blurted out, stumbling over my words, completely taken off guard by the bluntness of his question.

His face remained unchanged, as he, and I’m assuming, wondered why I offered such obvious details. Staring back at me, he tried again.

“Why did you join the Air Force?”

The response that rolled off my tongue was the same response I had given for my nearly 18-year enlistment. I had never considered the possibility my motivation to join the world’s greatest Air Force could be interpreted as self-serving and thoughtless – that was until I went home regretting every word that left my mouth.

“I was going to school and ran out of money,” I began. “So, I joined the Air Force, finished my bachelor’s and my master’s, and now, I’m waiting to retire in two years.”

Sure, it was the truth, but it wasn’t the entire story.

But, my opportunity to explain passed within seconds as he shook my hand and walked away.

As I drove home that evening, I kept reliving our conversation. Waking in the morning, I, again, thought of a more crafted response that would have reflected my personal love and commitment to my Air Force family.

“Sir, I may have joined to finish my education, but I stayed because of the mission, the people and the sheer excitement I feel watching our aircraft taxi the runway. I gave the Air Force my life because the values reflect my personal values. I stayed because in all honesty, the Air Force has challenged me to give more, be more for my country. To look outward and serve my nation with the heart and dedication it deserves.”

I should have said that. But, I didn’t. One first impression, one response to the most revealing question a service member can be asked.

“Why did you join?”

Know your response. Practice your response, so when you are approached by the leaders who want to know who is fighting for the security of the nation, you can reassure them the nation is in good hands.