Pursuing dreams to fly, fight and win

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Heather Baldwin
  • 100th Operations Support Squadron commander
Have you ever been told you didn't have what it takes while pursuing a goal? Did you believe it?

I did.

My final year in college, the Reserve Officer Training Corps detachment commander met with each senior to discuss our Air Force future. When asked what I hoped to do, like most of my peers I responded, "I want to be a pilot."

I'll never forget the deep sigh and words that followed. The colonel was concerned that I was too small and wouldn't be strong enough.

When I think back to that day, the saddest moment of the whole conversation wasn't the revelation that he wouldn't support my dream, but that I didn't question his conclusion. I surrendered any attempt to prove him wrong.

It seemed logical that a former B-52 pilot with more than 20 years on active duty would know if I was made of "the right stuff" to fly. I saw the movie, "Top Gun," I knew I didn't look like Maverick or Ice Man, so that was it - I'd do something else.

How often do we allow others to limit our ambition?

I'm sure everyone can recall a time in their life when they were told they didn't measure up. Some people agree without question as I did, others argue their value, but the ones with the best stories of success are fueled by the challenge.

In many instances we don't need people to place restrictions on our endless potential, we do it ourselves. Unfortunately, it comes naturally and at a young age.  I don't know how many times I've heard my five-year-old say, "I can't." While learning to read, mastering playground equipment or cleaning up her toys, she says it all too often.  "Can't" is code for "won't put forth the effort" in all of those cases.

A few years ago I was talking with a chief master sergeant who told a story of how he congratulated a master sergeant on his recent promotion and asked him what next. The promotee said he made it, he achieved his goal.

"Well, yes," agreed the chief, "but why stop there, why not go for senior master sergeant?"

The Master Sergeant stated that was all he ever saw himself achieving. His dad made E-7 and this "last" stripe was good enough for him. The chief did not understand why anyone with such talent and a record of success would limit themselves.

Lest I be misunderstood, there is nothing wrong with targeting E-7 and claiming success once achieve. This example merely points out that the master sergeant had capped his ambition while the chief saw greater potential.

I too limited my dream in college that day, and came to this realization about one year into the Air Force, but I didn't know how to go about pursuing it.

I was a Public Affairs Officer in the 93rd Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. It was an exhilarating time. The unit was standing up and grew from 35 people, when I first arrived, to 900 strong over 12 months. I had deployed and worked with some of the finest officers and enlisted in my career.

The initial cadre was handpicked by a visionary, charismatic wing commander. He knew how to motivate people to achieve beyond what they thought possible and I became a believer.

One afternoon, Col. Ben T. Robinson's secretary called me to the front office because the wing commander wanted to talk to me. I was sure that I had messed something up. I followed him into his office as he instructed, all the while wondering what this was all about. As soon as we entered he turned and asked if I wanted to be a pilot. He elaborated the Air Force had a shortage of pilots and if I had the will, he'd support me.

This question came out of nowhere and I had been praying about how to address this goal with my supervisor.

Stunned by this question, I immediately responded, "Yes."

"Good then. Go figure it out," Robinson said, and that was the end of the conversation.

I was energized and this time I wouldn't let anyone or anything stand in my way.

First step was to pass the flight physical. Unfortunately during the initial check, I was told I didn't qualify. My ROTC commander was right all along, I was too small, so I hit the gym and gained the minimum weight required to activate the ejection seat.

Next I earned my private pilot license. In the end, it took over one year and two unsuccessful attempts before I was finally selected for undergraduate flying training, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I learned a valuable lesson about faith and determination.

How many times have you heard inspirational sayings such as, "Where there's a will, there's a way," or, "You can do anything you set your mind to?"

I grew up with them but I didn't always apply it and to be honest, I still don't always. It's only when we decide the goal is far too important to be dictated by fears, doubt or the unknown, that we seek to overcome every obstacle and put those proverbs into practice. For the master sergeant mentioned before, another promotion was not worth pursuing, he capped his potential. I also limited myself the first time I was truly challenged, but I realized during my first year in the Air Force that I wasn't content with someone else's limits. My former wing commander's slice of faith was all I needed to move forward.

I hope you never allow anyone to limit your potential. The Air Force is made of the best and brightest and we have so many opportunities.

Imagine your dream and as Col. Robinson simply said to me, "Go figure it out."

Enthusiasm is infectious and others will buy-in it when they see you believe in yourself.