Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver with his wife, Jennifer. (Courtesy of STAFF Sgt. Aaron Driver)
Tired of waiting for deployments to slow down and other hardships of military life, Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver of Savannah, Ga., explains in a letter to Air Force Times why he won’t re-enlist in August:
Six years ago, fresh out of high school, I joined the Air National Guard. I was working a dead-end job making $10 an hour, no insurance, and no way to go to college without loans. The decision was a no-brainer: Learn a skill, earn money for college, and have access to health care. I had every reason to join, and the recruiter knew that.
I met my future wife right before I left for basic training. We managed to stay together through the year and a half of basic and technical school, only for me to get home and be activated for a six-month deployment. I proposed before I left so that she would know I was serious about being together.
I returned and faced the same dilemma as before. Luckily, I scored a full-time active-duty position preserving my coveted benefits.
Six years, multiple deployments and several mental breakdowns later, I am ready to put the Air Force in my past forever.
I am not trying to paint a negative picture of the Air Force — I am simply telling it as it is. The Air Force has given me a lot, but what it took in return was more valuable. With so much in the news about the military, from the scandals to the budget, I think it is important to tell it from the perspective of the enlisted member. If the Air Force plans on maintaining an enlisted force, leaders would be wise to listen to the enlisted perspective. They successfully chased me away, and I know I am not the only one.
My plan was simple (or so I thought): Stay in 20 years and retire with a good pension and health care for life. I would be 38 with time to start a second career.
That unsinkable plan started taking on water pretty quickly. My wife and I had talked about kids, but we were going to wait until the deployments slowed down, if ever that would be. My good pension was becoming more of a dream every day as the financial situation in Washington got worse. The separation from my wife caused problems but was a reality that we accepted as necessary to live comfortably. We had food, shelter and health care. We bought a house, two cars, a flat-screen TV. At 25 and 23, we were living the American dream.
The doubt grew stronger during a recent six-month tour to Southwest Asia. The deployment was no different than any other one before it: My wife and I missed each other, but we were handling it well. The work was mind-numbing and joyless. The leadership was terrible and went out of its way to make everything difficult. The news constantly reported on budget cuts and shrinking military benefits, which really cheers you up while you’re deployed. Emails came in daily assuring us everything was OK and reminding us the mission always comes first. All of it very ordinary, casual and expected, and it was the life I accepted.
Then I had a moment of clarity I will never forget; I was sacrificing my life for money. I had been lured in with promises of money and support and was trapped. I had lost sight of what was truly important for the feeling of security. I had come to accept, without question, my reality because of fear. Fear that was constantly strengthened with every news report about the economy and entrenched with every thought of being poor. I had settled for unhappiness.
Even worse, I had made that decision for my wife. She was living a married life without a husband. Our life was more depressing than I had allowed myself to see.
The catalyst for this epiphany was one of the silliest things to happen to me. First sergeants are the military version of rabid human resources advisers in the corporate world. They walk around and make sure nobody is comfortable or breaking the dress code. My unit had a particularly square individual in this position.
One day at chow I felt obligated to sit with him and my supervisor (I didn’t want to seem rude), and I noticed he was staring at my mustache. Regulations force you to have a Hitler mustache. Most first shirts don’t have an issue as long as you’re not doing anything extravagant, but I knew my first shirt was going to say something. The lecture involved talk about core values and my military duty.
In that moment I realized that I was not going to subject myself to an environment where an old man can decide my fate and lecture me about mustaches and morals just so I can buy things I don’t need to make me feel better about a life I am not enjoying.
I was ready to stop being dependent on the military and discover who I really am. I had been held back, limited, and sucked dry of all happiness. That first sergeant may have been crazy, but he helped me realize that I was crazy, too.
So now I am waiting for my enlistment to be up in three months so I can take off the uniform and put back on the best-fitting clothes I own — myself. My wife is elated, and my future looks brighter every day, even without the so-called “security” I had been so dependent on.
So let me ask a question of those making this military what it is — whether Congressman or commander: What do you expect from one who leaves his family for months to work in an environment designed to stifle happiness, with no freedom, trapped in an overbearing, lawsuit-frightened workplace with power-hungry leaders, all while hearing about pay cuts, getting kicked out, loss of retirement, Tricare increases, and more threats of war?
I hate to be the one to tell you, but you really have this all wrong.
I do not plan to re-enlist in August because I know my life is short and my time too precious to waste, simply for money. I am going to be at home with my wife and able to grow a mustache without anyone trying to tell me how to groom it.