[Editor’s note: Surplus Today had the pleasure of interviewing several veterans from past and present wars to be part of our featured article in this issue. I chose the theme of Honoring Our Veterans, in part, because it precedes the month of November, the month we observe Veteran’s Day. As the Editor, I try to reflect our mission of support and help to our troops. We all owe a debt of gratitude for those who served to keep us free. The photograph of statues is part of the Korean War memorial that reads: “Freedom is Not Free.”  I hope you find these interviews as inspiring as I did.]

Senior Airman Tony Yeary, USAF

I served in the U.S. Air Force. I served under Air Combat Command, 1st Fighter Wing, 1st Equipment Maintenance Squadron. Originally, I started considering the Army when I was 15 because that was the branch my grandfather served under during the Korean War. For a while I figured that was the direction I would go. However, I had two relatives who both served with the Air Force and they strongly suggested that I consider going there. What finally won me over was the perceived quality of life, educational benefits, and it seemed like the branch that I would best fit into.

I began as a structures technician working the F-15 airframe. We would repair anything relating to the aircraft’s structure, to manufacturing new panels, to creating new hydraulic lines. We were also tasked with corrosion control, which involved removing corrosion and painting the planes. Later I was trained on the Low Observable system of the F-22, which is the system that makes the aircraft appear smaller on radar.

My basic training was at Lackland AFB outside San Antonio and my tech school was at Pensacola NAS. My primary assignment was at Langley AFB in the Virginia peninsula. While stationed there I had TDYs to Key West NAS, Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, and Hill AFB, Utah. Just before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I was deployed to a bare base in Saudi Arabia to support the invasion. Along with my normal duties, I worked with a team that built disposable fuel tanks for the F-15’s during the war.

During Iraqi Freedom we worked around the clock to keep the planes in the air. Some things happened that put our hair on end, but looking back we were not in as much danger as we thought we might have been. For example, the C-5 we flew in on was repeatedly shot at as we were landing- but they were terrible shots and completely missed us. We watched them do this to other planes as we stood on the flightline and no one was hurt to our knowledge. A few weeks later, two spies were caught in our hanger; apparently they were trying to access our capabilities. I can only assume that they were not very good at what they did. Then, during the invasion, we had to suit up in our chem. gear because Saddam launched scud missiles at us. Spoiler alert: he missed by several hundred miles. They were not supposed to know that we were there, but they must have had an idea. I’ve always wondered whether our op-sec was really, really good or really, really bad.

On the way home we had a layover in Ireland and there were protesters waiting for us. They isolated us in a wing in the airport to separate us from them. It didn’t bother us very much. When we got home, we were received by members of the press and family members when we stepped off of the plane on Langley’s flightline. It was very heartwarming moment and it made us feel that we were appreciated.

I would say that organizational and leadership skills were among the most useful skills I learned. Also, you learn to work with people of all kinds, regardless of who they are or where they come from. I learned environmental awareness, problem solving skills, and Being able to communicate clearly and honestly unbound by political correctness is a good skill too. I also learned a skilled trade which led to a good paying career on the outside as well.

My perception going in was very patriotic and perhaps a little naïve. Although I do not regret my time with the Air Force –and I would do it again- I do not regret getting out and doing other things with my life. I will say that I miss it a lot more than I thought I would. There were bad times sure, but there were a lot of good memories. I made many friends while I was in –true friends, mind you– and for that I feel blessed. I know that I am never truly alone. Sometimes I still wish I was in and it causes me to seek out other ways to be involved. Besides, you can leave the military, but the military never really leaves you.

There are lot of differences between perception and reality with military equipment. Take Die Hard 2, for example. There is no ejection seat in a cargo plane. If there was, Bruce Willis would have splattered through the canopy of the aircraft. Movies involving military aircraft in general bother maintenance Airmen. Iron Eagle is inaccurate. My big pet peeve is “Hollywood stealth”. A plane does not go invisible with the push of a button. It doesn’t go invisible at all. The depiction of a veteran being slightly overweight and refusing to shave clean (Bruce Campbell in Burn Notice comes to mind) is oftentimes true.

Since joining the Airforce, I’m far more organized, polite, cautious, cultured, environmentally aware and confident. My advice to would-be soldiers is to think it through long and hard. Make sure that it is something that you really want to do. Remember that you are doing it for yourself and your country. It’s not a job at all really, it’s a whole other lifestyle. It’s a labor of love.