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NEWS | Oct. 2, 2008

Service Before Self

By Master Sgt. Charles Gardner 1st Airlift Squadron Superintendent

Mortar and rocket explosions, heavy machine gun fire, never-ending helicopter activity, aircraft taking off and landing 24 hours a day ... these are just a few of the things I experienced during my short, four and a half month deployment to Iraq. I wasn't tasked to go, but looking back now, almost six months after my return to Andrews, I'm grateful I did. That's right, grateful to serve my country and grateful to serve with my fellow Airmen! 

Many of my friends, military and civilian, thought I was insane to volunteer for a deployment. Being an AEF enabler, not actually assigned to an "AEF bucket", the chances were slim that I'd be tapped for one. Instead of waiting and hoping for something to materialize, I actively pursued the opportunity to do my part. I knew it wouldn't be a popular decision with my wife, my kids nor my commander, but something inside gnawed at my conscience and I knew as a professional Airman, it was what I had to do. The timing of my notification was impeccable; I was going to miss Halloween, Thanksgiving, two of my children's birthdays, my wife's birthday, Christmas, New Years, my birthday and Valentine's day, almost in that order. Indeed, I left on Halloween evening with some sense of guilt but a greater sense of curiosity and pride. I was taking my commitment to country to another level from when I raised my right hand many years ago. 

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the number of service members that said they were there for the same reason, a compelling desire to be part of something bigger than any individual. I was fortunate to be assigned to a joint unit and had the opportunity to work with some of the finest members from all services. Some of them, like the Army and Marine Corps, had to be there because it was their turn. Despite that fact, not one of them complained even as several of them were on their third or fourth deployments. Granted, some had pulled duties in areas one would consider more "austere" than Balad Air Base but Balad was no Armed Forces Recreation Center I can assure you. They call it "Mortaritaville" for a reason. 

Another thing I found fascinating was the number of us that weren't content only doing assigned jobs but who spent many of our off days volunteering at the Air Force Theater Hospital. Most worked at the helicopter pad where they'd bring in wounded military personnel and civilians. Far too often the wounded were children, a fact that precluded some of our folks who were parents from participating at the pad, vying instead to work restocking medical items in the warehouse or at bedsides. Regardless of where in the hospital you ended up, every contribution was appreciated and not just by the staff, but by the patients themselves. There were many times I shook hands with or was kissed on the cheek by Iraqi families whose members had been treated at the hospital for all manner of injuries or ailments. 

The most profound thing I came away from Iraq with is a better sense of what service before self really means. It's not about doing something you don't want to do because the Air Force asks you to. It's not even about volunteering to deploy when you don't have to, although that brand of selflessness is part of it. What it means is doing things you know are right because morality and dedication to your country speak to you. In the broader sense, it's about sacrifice on many levels. In my case it represented my family understanding that it was my duty to go and sacrificing that time with me for the furtherance of a fledgling democracy. It was my unit's members taking up the workload for one member of their squadron to better an unstable situation abroad. That's an entire squadron contributing for the good of the United States of America. We're privileged to be a part of a "Profession of Arms" that's the backbone of what made our nation great and continues to be the catalyst to spreading peace and prosperity worldwide. 

Service before self reads singular, but in reality it's about the sacrifices you, your families, and your units make everyday to aid our nation and I'm exceedingly proud to be part of this. I hope you are too.