As my days in Las Vegas drew to a close, my coworkers arranged a going-away party for me… at Star Trek: The Experience.
Before leaving for the party, I checked my email, and discovered a message from the base education office. Apparently, the results of my last CLEP test had come in, fulfilling the final requirement for my Associate’s degree in Emergency Management. Effective June 1st, I was finally a college graduate.
I made my way down to the Strip, and to the Las Vegas Hilton. Inside, my friends and colleagues from throughout my squadron were gathering, to wish me farewell. We had reserved a large section of the dining area at Quark’s, and the friends I’d made over the years as a regular patron came over as well. Even the actors in alien costumes, though they still wouldn’t break character. After three years of trying, I never did get them to break character.
After ordering my favorite dish on the menu for the final time, I was asked to say a few words. I thanked my friends for standing by me through the tough times I faced over the past year, and when I announced that I’d finally completed my degree, everyone burst into applause.
When we’d all finished eating, many of us went upstairs for the museum and rides. Most of the people who’d come out for my going-away party had never been to Star Trek: The Experience before–indeed, had barely even watched the shows while they were still on television–and it was, as billed, an experience for them.
After my going-away party, I started my leave time, though I didn’t leave Las Vegas at first. My high school was holding a reunion that year in Las Vegas; since we went to school in Germany, and most of us were stateside now, Vegas was chosen for the location in a poll of the alumni. This would be my tenth graduation anniversary, and although I spent my senior year in Iowa, nearly all of my friends were from my old school, and many of them would be attending.
Rather than a simple dance and mixer like the stereotypical high school reunion, my former classmates planned out a full three-day event in Vegas, with groups for shows and activities–including indoor skydiving–as well as the traditional dinner and dancing. While a few of us lived in Vegas and Southern California, I hadn’t seen any of my old friends in a decade. Spending three days with them, and getting to spend that time engaging in entertaining and exciting activities, was great, and I was glad that I was able to attend the reunion before I left.
But, leave I must. The day after the reunion ended, I headed out to the airport. I was taking leave en route, and stopping to visit my family in the Midwest for about a week before continuing on to Turkey. Just in case something happened to my luggage during the numerous flights I had to take between Vegas and Turkey, I put my uniform into my carry-on bag, boots and all. Unfortunately, I forgot to remove the Gerber multi-tool from my belt before packing it, and it was confiscated by TSA at the airport in Las Vegas. I protested, arguing that I was traveling on military orders and that it was obviously being removed from my military uniform. I even pointed out that I held a secret security clearance, and was no threat at all. The TSA agents were unrelenting, and I lost the tool. I have little doubt that it ended up going home with one of the agents, as it was a very nice, expensive tool that had been issued to me at Nellis several years earlier.
Although her birthday was still more than a month away, I brought the present for my niece, Elizabeth, with me. Since I’d be halfway around the world when her birthday actually came, and since I’d see her during this visit anyhow, I decided to give it to her early. Elizabeth was on a pretty big Spider-Man kick at the time, and she was blown away when I told her that there was a Spider-Girl. Seeing the look on her face when she tore open the wrapping paper and realized that I’d given her a Spider-Man mask and silly-string web shooters made my entire trip.
Soon enough, it was time for me to leave again. I flew to JFK airport in New York, where I caught a connecting flight to Turkey. It was a long, boring flight, and eventually, after another connection in Istanbul, I landed in Adana, Turkey. I was met by my sponsor, who I soon learned was also my supervisor. He took me to the base and got me settled in my dorm room.
The next day, I started inprocessing and adjusting to my new home. Once again, I would be working in the warehouse. Unlike Nellis, the flight was so small that it would only be myself and my supervisor in the warehouse… which was twice as large as the one at Nellis.
Not long after I arrived, my new unit underwent a major inspection. Although I’d been through several of these inspections at Nellis, most of my new colleagues had never experienced one. My supervisor and I worked many long days, and we managed to get the warehouse cleaned and organized. My experience at Nellis proved invaluable; I was recognized as a “key player” by the Wing Commander, and my flight was singled out as having performed exceptionally well during the inspection.
Once the inspection was over, I wanted to get involved with some of my favorite off-hours activities. Although I’d finished my Associate’s degree, I still wanted to keep learning, and I enrolled in computer technician certification courses. I also sought out the local Boy Scout troop, to volunteer as an adult leader once again. I really enjoyed working with the kids in the program at Nellis, and I wanted to continue to give back to the program that taught me so much in my own youth. The last scoutmaster had transferred to a new base, so I ended up taking over in that position. It was a smaller program, with only a handful of boys, and it was more difficult to arrange activities for them, but I think we did a good job for the kids with the limitations that we had.
I was also able to participate in a graduation ceremony at Incirlik for my recently-completed degree. Dozens of others were also graduating with me, and I realized that I was the lowest-ranking person participating in the graduation. Even if I had been promoted to Senior Airman two years earlier, rather than demoted and re-promoted, that still would have been the case. That was a point of pride for me, and it also garnered the attention of my Wing Commander, who was presenting the diplomas with the wing’s Command Chief Master Sergeant. So far, my superiors had seen nothing but good work and accomplishments from me, and I wanted to keep it that way.
I spent my birthday on a trip to the ruins of a Crusades-era castle, which was built on a mountaintop overlooking the ruins of an ancient Roman village. The trip was incredibly memorable, and there was an abundance of artifacts in view. Unfortunately, much of what had been there had been pillaged over the centuries, so most of what was left was in ruins.
As the year drew to a close, and I prepared to go back home on leave for the holidays, I received an email informing me that one of the officers I’d worked with at Nellis had been killed in Iraq. This was the first person I’d known that had died in combat, and it was difficult and heartbreaking.
I flew home for the holidays on the military rotator flight out of the base. We stopped for a few hours in Germany to refuel, then continued on to Baltimore International Airport. After I arrived in Baltimore, I arranged for my return flight to Turkey; it was all on a space-available basis, since it was a military flight, so there was always a possibility that I wouldn’t get my return flight because it was the holiday season. I needn’t have worried, though, because as an active duty member, I was fairly high on the priority list.
With my return flight secure, I caught my connecting flight to Des Moines, Iowa. My mother met me at the airport, and drove me back to her house in Ellsworth, a small farming community about fifty miles north of the state capitol. I was glad that I had packed the suit I’d had custom-made for myself while I was in Turkey. I brought it to wear for mass on Christmas, but I learned I’d be wearing it much sooner: my sister, AnnaStacia, was getting married the next morning.
I’d already known my sister was pregnant, and that the baby was due while I was in Iowa, but I didn’t know that she was planning to marry her boyfriend of the past five years, or that they’d postponed the wedding until after I’d arrived on leave so that I could be there. I also didn’t realize that my sister had scheduled to have a caesarean delivery of the baby the day after that.
The wedding was a simple civil ceremony, held at the court house in Ames, the city closest to where my sister lived with her boyfriend. I ended up becoming the de facto photographer, and took a number of pictures of my sister, her new husband, and my niece, Elizabeth. The next day, I took even more photos of the newest addition to the family, my niece, Olivia.
I stayed for a couple more days, but my plan had been to drive up to Wisconsin, and my return flight was scheduled to depart from Madison. I drove up to Madison with my mom and Elizabeth, and stayed at my Aunt Nancy’s house. At Elizabeth’s request, I wore my dress uniform for mass–which I’d brought along, just in case I needed it–rather than my new suit. I spent a few days with my mom’s side of the family. Then, it was time to return to Turkey.
My life had improved dramatically over the past year, and 2006 had been pretty good for me. I still had one more year left on my enlistment, and while I was hoping that I’d be able to reenlist and recover my military career from its near-disastrous end in 2005, I was still okay with it ending after six years. I had grown and matured significantly, and I was better prepared for the challenges that still lay ahead.