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Separating airman answers critics

'It doesn't have to be miserable. But to point that out is apparently taboo.'

May. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver speaks out about why he is...
Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver speaks out about why he is...: Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver ignighted a firestorm when he publicly quit the Air Force in a letter to Air Force Times. Now he responds to his critics and explains why he thinks the Air Force is driving airmen out.
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Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver said that, in writing his letter explaining why he doesn't plan to re-enlist, he wanted to spark a conversation about the burdens all airmen bear. (Courtesy Aaron Driver)

To some, Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver is a truth-teller, laying out the hard realities of the toll everything from repeated deployments to Mickey Mouse regulations have taken on rank-and-file airmen and their families.

To some, Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver is a truth-teller, laying out the hard realities of the toll everything from repeated deployments to Mickey Mouse regulations have taken on rank-and-file airmen and their families.

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To some, Staff Sgt. Aaron Driver is a truth-teller, laying out the hard realities of the toll everything from repeated deployments to Mickey Mouse regulations have taken on rank-and-file airmen and their families.

Others have called him everything from a selfish whiner to a cancer on the Air Force.

Driver’s very public breakup from the Air Force — in a letter published April 21 in Air Force Times — has gone viral, spawning a forcewide debate on issues such as why people enlist, the burdens deployments place on troops and what the military owes people for their service.

Driver, a 24-year-old radar technician, said in his letter that he has decided not to re-enlist in August after six years in the Air Force.

With no money and few options coming out of high school, Driver said, the Air Force at first looked like a great way to gain skills, earn money for college, and receive benefits such as health care and a pension after 20 years.

But repeated deployments to places like South America and Southwest Asia placed a severe strain on his marriage to his wife, Jennifer. Constant threats to cut benefits left him wondering if a key reason he joined the military was about to be yanked away from him. His duties were “mind-numbing and joyless.” And he felt his leadership unnecessarily went out of its way to make life difficult for airmen.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, Driver said, came in March, when his first sergeant read him the riot act at lunchtime over his out-of-regulation mustache. Coming during Mustache March — a forcewide event heavily promoted by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and celebrating a famed fighter pilot who proudly flaunted grooming regulations — the chastisement particularly rankled Driver and seemed contrary to the point of a morale-building exercise.

“Six years, multiple deployments and several mental breakdowns later, I am ready to put the Air Force in my past forever,” Driver wrote. “The Air Force has given me a lot, but what it took in return was more valuable. 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.”

Driver’s “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment touched a nerve — especially at a time when thousands of airmen worry that force reductions will eliminate their jobs.

And in a May 2 interview, Driver said he thinks the vehement reactions from some against his letter underline the cultural problems he was trying to point out.

“It seems the idea that we have to suffer and sacrifice — it doesn’t have to be miserable,” said Driver, a Savannah, Ga., native who is currently deployed from Hunter Army Airfield to Southwest Asia, but would not say exactly where. “But to point that out is apparently taboo.”

Some commenters responding to Driver’s letter pointed out that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been raging for years by the time Driver signed up, and said the deployments should not have surprised him.

“What did you think was going to happen?” one commenter asked.

Driver disputed the suggestion he didn’t realize that deployments would be a fact of life or that he would have to sacrifice in his career. The problem, he said, is that high ops tempos strain families — and the “suck it up” attitude only encourages airmen to ignore the problems and stresses they’re having. And at a time when high rates of post-traumatic stress, divorce and suicide are plaguing the military, that’s a dangerous message to send, Driver said.

“I’m certainly not a fool,” Driver said. “I knew what I was getting into. And most people do when they join. But when you try to mention that it’s becoming a problem and you’re suffering, you get told to kind of suck it up, make it work. And it’s even worse when they tell you that as the force cuts continue, the deployments are going to increase, and you’re going to have to do more with less. You can’t help but judge that sacrifice and say, is it really worth it?”

And after airmen have returned home from a deployment, the looming threat of another tour often prevents them from truly relaxing and reconnecting with their families, Driver said.

“Even when you’re home and you’re relaxing, in that dwell time in between, it’s always, when is the next one?” Driver said. “Is it going to happen randomly? It’s just that dread. It had a big part on affecting me mentally. It was even hard to enjoy time at home, because you’ve got the next one sitting right there on the horizon.”

At some point, Driver said, he and other airmen have to start thinking more about themselves and their families than what they owe the Air Force.

“I’ve always said, service before self,” Driver said. “But when there’s no self left, there’s obviously going to be no service. You’re going to have to take care of that self.”

Driver said that, in writing the letter, he wanted to spark a broader conversation about the burdens all airmen are bearing, and didn’t want it to be primarily about his own personal experiences — which he acknowledged are less stressful than those of many other airmen.

“I obviously have not had it as bad as a lot of other people have,” Driver said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to your family. And when your family spends so much time without you, that has a big impact on your life. Some people are OK with that sacrifice, and some people aren’t. But I know a lot of people that, there’s a certain breaking point when it’s just too much.”

Several commenters criticized Driver for focusing so heavily on the benefits when he signed up, and for ignoring that a military career is a life of service.

“Did this guy really think that he was just going to get great pay, benefits, retirement and a career skill without sacrifice?” commenter Dan Gerke said. “Duty, patriotism and an exchange of sweat and equity were apparently not part of his dream.”

Driver said that attitude ignores the reality that many people join the all-volunteer force because of its benefits, which are regularly being threatened with cuts.

“A lot of the people that reacted in a negative way had these absolute ideas in their mind, like, you have to join because of patriotism to be right, and if you didn’t, you’re wrong,” Driver said. “You don’t have to disregard your own needs to be in the military, and you certainly don’t have to deny reality to be a good [noncommissioned officer], as a lot of people accused me of not being. It says a lot when the initial reaction to someone that speaks up is, tell him to suck it up, shut up or get out.”

But for roughly every commenter who criticized Driver, there was another who understood where he was coming from, and said he had made good points that were worth debating.

“The Air Force DOES NOT NEED unthinking, blue-bleeding, pain-enduring, regulation-following cheerleaders,” commenter Mathew Lowrey said. “Listen to this airman’s critique, and ask yourself if he could be right. Face some facts, critics: The Air Force RECRUITS [and] did not only pitch selfless service in its recruitment efforts. And you, dear critics, are proving this airman’s point.”

And while airmen are struggling to maintain their home lives, Driver said, it doesn’t help when leadership unnecessarily picks fights over minor infractions — such as his mustache.

Much of the debate online centered around Driver’s mustache anecdote. In the interview, Driver said it was his attempt to start a discussion about misplaced priorities on the part of some Air Force leaders.

“It was an example — a poor one, I admit — of the style-over-substance attitude that’s become so prevalent,” Driver said. “You’ve got a lot of these [Air Force Instructions] that don’t make a lot of sense at the end of the day. And anytime you try to bring up, what’s the reason behind it? It’s always defended with the argument of the slippery slope, the idea that if you have one thing go, it’s all going to go. But at the end of the day, the slippery slope argument doesn’t make a lot of sense, because I guarantee you, if you let me grow a mustache, I’m not going to just stop doing my job.”

Driver said that he’s worn his mustache for several years, and received an award for serving as his unit’s official monitor for this year’s Mustache March contest.

“So you go from being rewarded for it, and it’s a big morale booster, and I got everyone in the shop to grow one, and it’s something that built camaraderie and we all enjoyed it, and then to have it treated at the end kind of as this big problem, just misses the whole point,” Driver said.

Driver said he was glad his letter set off the conversation he had hoped for, and said he does not regret writing it. He said that much of the reaction he personally received was positive. His fellow airmen were supportive, he said. He showed the letter to his supervisor before it was published, he said, and after it came out, his commander came by and asked him if he was OK.

After Driver leaves the Air Force, he hopes to start his own landscaping business.

“I’ve always been into horticulture and landscaping,” Driver said. “I do a lot of food growing, and fruit trees. Hopefully, we’ll see where it goes.”■

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