As a brand-new second lieutenant training in Alabama, I went to dinner with a young Black man I had just befriended. I assumed he believed the same things as I did. It was, after all, the Air Force.
I began to tell him about something I had seen on a conservative news channel. He quickly stopped me.
The channel was racist, he told me.
I’m sure I looked dumbfounded. Though I had not had the luxury of cable television growing up, I had heard only good things about that particular news channel: Fair. Balanced. The spin stops here. They were words I had heard and believed and found comfort in. The words spoken on that channel confirmed my beliefs. They appeared to represent the beliefs of those around me, too, judging on the channel’s prevalence in dining facilities, operations rooms, and Air Force dormitories.
But while I can’t say I believed my friend immediately, I never forgot the feelings he expressed. A tiny crack in my beliefs appeared that day.
People tell me I don’t look like someone who served in the military. If you had met me when I was looking to join at age 18, you would have been even more surprised.
Growing up in a lower-middle-class family in a small central California town, I lived a sheltered life as a skinny, shy, quiet white girl surrounded by people like me. Although I could run fast and far, managing one pushup on my toes was a struggle—let alone the 18 pushups required for the physical fitness test.
But what I lacked in strength, I built through determination and hard work. I trained every day the summer before my first semester of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Besides running under the hot California sun, I did pushups and situps each day on the old carpeted floors in my parents’ living room. Each day, I grew stronger as I proved to myself I could do it.
Throughout my training, I began to learn about the Air Force: rank, saluting, core competencies, mission, and more. I knew I had to be ready. No one told me I would have to prove myself, but I have always had to prove myself. And joining the military as a woman was likely to be a challenge.
At the time, I had no idea every aspect of who I was would change, down to what I believed and how I viewed the world.
I expected that joining the military would lead me to become more conservative—more rigid, less flexible. These are the rules, and they’re in black and white. I assumed seeing the world and meeting new people would reinforce what I already believed. Instead, over the years, I have seen my convictions slowly crack and crumble under the weight of all I learned and saw.
The last few years have been especially pivotal, forcing me to not continue in my normal patterns. Instead, I’ve paused. I researched and learned. After deep reflection, I took everything I discovered and found holes. I needed to learn more, to think more about what I had been raised to believe. I questioned if my beliefs were based on bias or stereotype.
Truthfully, my worldview shattered into pieces, and I’m not even sure who I am today, except that the cracks have allowed in new ideas, new cultures, and new people.
My time in the military pushed me toward the center with an ear open to opinions that are not my own. I developed a willingness to listen, instead of feeling that I need to be right. And just like my need to serve and my patriotism, this journey of growing and learning did not stop when I took off my uniform almost eight years ago.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
But six years before that, when I headed to officer training in Florida (field training), I felt terrified: scared of the unknown and unsure if I would make it through. Always doubting my abilities, I never showed confidence. While every part of that experience was a challenge, I met amazing people in my flight, people who lived all over the country. It was the first time I had met so many people with experiences so different from my own.
Together, we created more stories. I met so many people and traveled to so many places. Not only did I get to see the country, but I got to see the world. The military afforded me the opportunity to travel both on my own and at the Defense Department’s expense.
My biggest adventure came with a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. I was attached to an Army infantry unit—a unit I could not officially serve in.
Women, at that time, couldn’t be infantry.
Afghanistan changed everything. The people on my team—a rough-and-tough group from South Carolina—welcomed me even though I didn’t quite fit in. I ate Spam and eggs for the first time, learned about the extreme love of college football, heard about hardships back home, and faced challenges both inside and outside of the wire. These experiences opened doorways to conversations during the endless hours we spent together. As an introvert by nature, I slowly began to process all I saw. It wasn’t one particular experience that changed my viewpoint, but rather the whole mess mixed together.
At one point, I moved to Los Angeles, where experience once again jarred my reality. I had grown up thinking poor people somehow deserved it—that they hadn’t worked hard enough or, worse, were lazy. But in LA, poverty surrounded me, along with the hurt and pain that often accompany it. I saw hard situations—not laziness. I saw history and heartbreak that evolved from a system. I listened to stories. I learned to give back. My beliefs had grown from bias, and it took experience, by way of the Air Force, to see past my cocooned upbringing.
These last few years have been hard. I have continually questioned what were once strong beliefs. I challenge them often with deep questions and reflection.
It’s funny: I’m now a veteran and a member of a group that people like to make assumptions about—how we look, how we think, and how we vote. But if those generalizations were, at some point, true, they are no longer. In the last election, we even leaned left, according to a Military Times poll, though that will likely swing back again with a different candidate.
But we are, and should be, a group diverse in our politics, religions, genders, and backgrounds.
I work, now, to be more open and understanding, more willing to listen to both sides instead of whoever screams the loudest. I have seen so much anger and blame cast around the political spectrum that it makes me worry for our future. I believe that, if I can change and grow into this new person, everyone can. But it requires stopping, listening, and examining our biases.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
No, I’m not as conservative as I used to be. I don’t actually know where I stand these days. But I’m not that small-town girl who thought she knew so much about how the world worked, who had answers for everything, and who was so sure she was right.
So many things I once believed have been challenged by the truth of others’ stories—friends I have made who experienced a different life from mine. I do believe we all want what’s best.