Leadership Lessons: All the right reasons

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class George Santiago
  • 319th Medical Operations Squadron
The part of Massachusetts I grew up in wasn't what most people think of when they think of Massachusetts. Most people associate the state with Boston, the New England Patriots, fresh lobsters, etc. Sadly though, I didn't see much of that. The city I was born and raised in is called Holyoke, and in Holyoke, bad choices seemed to be what made us stand out.

I remember walking to school with a group of a few friends and losing one of them every year to something. One decided to drop out of school half way through 7th grade so that he could sell drugs with some of his cousins. Another one thought it would be a good idea to bring drugs into school with him and try to sell some during lunch. I didn't see him for two years after he got arrested outside of my classroom for possession with intent to sell.

In attempts to distance myself from peer pressure that could ruin me I turned to my home for asylum. The bad thing about this is that sadly my own family was also caught in the city's web of bad decision making. My mother was dumped by my father while she was still pregnant with me in Puerto Rico. One normal Monday morning he went off to work, kissed my mother goodbye before heading out, and left my mother at home. Then he disappeared for three weeks, leaving my mother with no money, no job, hardly any food, and no idea of what was going on. Later in life I found out he went on a drug binge. So (after leaving him) instead of moving on to someone better, she didn't. Her self-esteem was at such a low, she wouldn't recover for years. She ended up getting together with a man who not only was emotionally abusive to her but to me and my siblings who were born later in their relationship. I would come home expecting refuge and instead got a fully grown man threating to fight me because he apparently "knew" that one day I would want to "take him on." He sadly even convinced my mother to use my social security number to get a few things that they needed for the house, and then forgot to pay those things off regularly.

For years I struggled with ways to cope. I had to create positive role models for myself and I turned to movies and television families for help.  I looked up to these men, fathers that had integrity, whether they were fictional or not, families that valued serving each other over themselves. I continued creating my own role models for years until my first job. My boss, who was formerly a -captain in the United States Air Force, blew me away. He was an Airman, the best I have ever come to know. Without realizing it, he showed me what I needed to do to break a chain of bad decisions: join.

Without a doubt it took me a while to find myself and join for the right reasons. I didn't want to join ONLY because of him (even though he was a tremendous motivating factor), but because I was certain that it was something that I would regret not doing. I wanted to make myself and my old boss proud. Even though I wanted to find other motivating factors so that it wasn't just a "he told me to join" situation, I try and imagine what he would do in my shoes on a daily basis. Whenever I'm in doubt I try and imagine how he would handle my situation or circumstance. I had a feeling that the way he was, his persona, demeanor, character had something to do with his military experience, and I was right. Thankfully I was lucky enough to bump into others like him right here in Grand Forks. Right here in the Medical Group I bump into personnel and leadership that share qualities that I came to admire in him. I was especially lucky to end up with a supervisor that shares the quality I liked about him the most, his passion. Passion for what you do and who you are daily is something I admire a great deal. Also, having pride in who you are.

When I first told my family about my choice to join, they were a little skeptical and afraid. They remained supportive, but were unsure of what I was getting myself into, especially my fiancé. Now I come into work feeling proud of what I'm doing. I'm proud of whom I'm becoming, which is a stark contrast to how I used to feel some days growing up, and my family sees that. It sometimes feels surreal when I look at where the Air Force has taken me compared to where I believed I would end up. I have my first mentor to thank for that. He opened my eyes to what I needed to do and there's no way I can thank him enough. All I can really do is try my best to make him proud by showing him that not everyone has to be a product of their environment.