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10 January 2023

Today I stopped by the Squadron for a brief meeting. I also was able to pick up the memorial bracelet for our fallen Airmen, SSgt Dante Banes. While I waited in the office for the meeting to begin, I placed the bracelet on my wrist and reflected.

I remembered the day my Commander (CC) and Director of Operations (DO) stopped by my apartment to give me and Michael the news. Michael and I had just gotten back from a trip to Jeonji for the weekend and were the last people from the Squadron to be notified. I thought the CC was meeting us to discuss possible elevated force protection measures due to rising activity on the Korean peninsula. I was way wrong. She told me, we had a death in the Squadron. She told me what she knew of the death. She shared with me his name and the unthinkable happened: I didn't recognize him.

Michael was sitting with us at the time, and he instantly knew who he was. He said they both played on the Osan soccer team together and how they related over being from San Antonio TX and enjoying Mexican food. He shared how the last time he spoke to Dante, he was taking leave to go back home to San Antonio to visit his dad. The team was expecting him to return this week to resume his position on defense.

My CC showed us a picture of him and Michael said, "Yep. That's Dante," then held back his emotion. I looked at the photo and all I could recognize was a familiarity. He looked "familiar" to me. I had seen him around but couldn't place or recall a single conversation with him. Michael told me that Dante appreciated when the Squadron brought him and the other shift workers leftovers from one of our picnic events. I listened, cried, then kept trying to recall, "I worked closely with his supervisor and program manager for most of the year. I know his Section Chief, Flight Chief and Flight CC. I know other members from his team. I visited the shift workers on nights when I was able to, how did I miss him?

It HURT and I felt ASHAMED to know that as a squadron leader, one who has been in the Squadron during Dante's entire time with us, the best I had was a memory of his face; that my husband, knew him and interacted with him more than me. It DEVASTATED me, to know that this young man may have been suffering while I was suffering, and if only I could have shared with him that he wasn't alone.

When I first arrived to my current Squadron in July of 2021, I had so much passion and energy to give back. I wanted to share the experience that I had, apply any skills I gained where they made sense and inspire others. I wanted to remove barriers for the Airmen. I wanted to learn and grow and try new things. But most importantly, I wanted to give to others what the past 3 years in my internship gave to me: confidence and empowerment within oneself. At that time, I thought the best things I could give the Squadron were my skills; what I could operationally do. The Air force invested 3 years in me to receive an education and network at an agency that only 4 people in my career-field are released to participate in a year. I owed them. I wanted to make the investment "worth it" to the organization I was outplaced to. I knew I wasn't perfect, but I really wanted to give the best I had. And while in the job, I learned quickly that there were so many "staff demands" that I felt that was where I needed to prioritize my energy. After observing firsthand, the impact that policies have on mission advancement and human well-being, especially for military members and those in marginalized communities I thought, "that’s where I can make the most meaningful impact and positive change—with the law, with regulations, with policy."

Turns out, while those things are undeniably important, I'm learning that there is a season for everything and that I alone cannot, nor is it my responsibility to resolve systemic issues overnight. Maybe not even in my lifetime unfortunately. But what I can do is not limit where significant impact can reside. To not reduce the value in significance, no matter how big or small it is.

One of the Airmen in my group therapy sessions mentioned, "when you’re going through these type of things (depression), don't look up. Look next to you and look down. Then you'll know you are not alone." When I reflected on what he said I realized, he's so right. All this time I was looking up and there was nothing there for me. It wasn't until I started looking down when I started to find community. I then wondered, "Why can't we look up? Is the Air Force ready to see humanity in their leaders? Does the Air force, desire this? Who gets to decide?

I joined the Air Force because I wanted to help people in this military community. I wanted to lead, mentor, and inspire. I wanted to grow, evolve and be challenged as a person. Serving in an operational profession was merely a means to be able to do that. But somehow, did I lose my way?

I think about Dante and the work I and others did to try and make improvements to the work environment. I wonder if there was anything more I could have done or if anything could have made a difference. I am learning to accept that I may never know. What I do know is that when I look at this bracelet I see his date of birth is 23 October 1996; he's the same age as my little brother.

Dante was a brother, a husband, a son, a teammate, an analyst, an Airmen and so much more. He was and still is, unequivocally significant.

I don't ever want to reduce or narrow the power of significance of an impact again. I don't ever want to not recognize the names or just be "familiar" with members from my team Again. And I don't ever want Airmen to feel like they can't look up. I want them to know that wherever they look, they can get on a path to get the help they need. That they are never alone and when they can’t carry it anymore, others will.


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