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First Bath, Last Breath

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Danielle N. Merritt, commander
  • 9th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron

No barriers have been broken, and no pioneering firsts have been achieved. I don’t fly planes, and I don’t load bombs. Feeling like a legitimate Airman can be challenging when I am not calling in air strikes or digesting endless streams of intel footage. I often feel like a fraud when someone thanks me for my service and sacrifice. But I have learned throughout my career that I have wounds and earned them as honorably as any other person serving.

After college, I was merely looking to see a horizon beyond the flat fields of Kansas - never dreaming I would experience, in awe, the kaleidoscope of colors through the stained glass of Europe’s magnificent cathedrals. I did not anticipate walking in sandstorms in the Fertile Crescent nor going hand fishing on an Emir’s boat in the Arabian Sea. The Air Force has given me a treasure chest of precious and unique memories; from the bedside to the battlefield, the mission bore vulnerability and built camaraderie.

I started my career at the infamous Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland, hidden in the locked Labor and Delivery Unit. I spent my lieutenant years delivering babies, comforting moms, and playing photographer to the most intimate moments in a family’s history. When asked what I do, you could hear me sing, “I recruit future Airmen from the crib - from bassinet to BMT.” I will never forsake delivering over Skype with fathers deployed and on a grainy screen; I hold sacred the families that named their children after me. There is humbling that settles the soul in gratitude for the gifts of connection and occurrence, and the Air Force Nurse Corps mission presented me with that peace.

Yet, experiences didn’t stop there. While I continued traveling to other assignments and bundling new life, I also spent time “in the sandbox” and “undisclosed location(s).” Some war stories do evolve into tall tales. Still, I can assure you my most honest Iraq memory is having a critically wounded Marine tell me I “smelled nice” and that he “hadn’t smelled the fragrance of a woman in over six months,” just as they put him to sleep for the operating room. Often after a MASCAL (mass casualty), weeks later, reduced to only a tiny picture, a line on where they were from, and their assigned unit - all tucked on the back of Stars and Stripes at the expense of a life cut short - mail call brought a closure none of us hoped for. There is a grief that stumbles you along your path, changing you entirely and forever, even for those unknown, and the Air Force mission cost me that peace.

From May 2020 to January 2022, I served as a Legislative Fellow for the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Legislative Liaison (SAF/LL), working as a Congressional Liaison for the US House of Representatives. I was the initial point of contact to the United States House of Representatives for all matters relevant to the Department of the Air Force (DAF) services, US Air Force and US Space Force. This involved coordinating and preparing DAF principles for congressional engagements, testimonies, and committee hearings, briefing DAF senior leaders and facilitating military advice to Members of Congress to advocate for policy and funding to support the DAF's strategic objectives. Following the fellowship, I was Deputy Director of Congressional and Public Affairs, Office of the Surgeon General, directly responsible for the advice and counsel on all legislative matters to the United States Air Force Surgeon General. Despite serving this role during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a blast getting to brief top leaders on strategic engagements.

Today, I am serving alongside the esteemed Airmen of the 9th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron here at Beale, and this has been both my most difficult and most rewarding assignment to date. How is it that I have been captivated by christening a baby with their very first bath and overwhelmed by a soldier taking their very last breath, and somehow this is the heaviest burden? Oh, I know. It’s because now the fight is in front of me every day.

Hunkered in foxholes behind the front doors of the homes they grow up in or just captive to the enemy that lurks in the unkind thoughts of their mind, many people are battle-tested long before they take their oath. To be sure, there is an adversary across the world, but most are struggling at war within - and folks, our Airmen are not weak. It takes exhausting strength to compartmentalize your life - to curate what you show and share every day - to put aside what self-doubt and self-sabotage you harbor and show up every day to do the Air Force mission.

And there’s my unending burden. I want to know each of my Airmen. I don’t want to be reckless with the threshold of resilience, but I want all Airmen to know and believe they are worthy and capable of so much. I have but only a finite time in command, and I want them all to value the magnitude of time: time that has already passed and the lessons they can still learn, their purpose amid this present time, and the reality that time in the future is never guaranteed but not a hopeless pursuit.

So, to summarize both a grateful career and a heavy challenge, here is what I want to share about the most important lessons learned - and these should sound very familiar to my Squadron:

  1. You matter. Absolutely every Airman (and Guardian) matters. However, it is your responsibility to take pride in your professional role, believe in your personal worth, and rally around others struggling to see it in themselves. Please, never leave an Airman behind - and that includes you.
  2. The days are long, but the years are short. The daily grind demands the best of you - but please ensure you are being intentional with the rest of you. Take time for your physical health, spiritual well-being, the gifts of connection with family and friends, and the personal pursuits that bring you joy. There is no reason you cannot have a career well-lived and one you are proud of when it is time to leave - but you must be deliberate about your endeavors outside these walls and when you hang your uniform each night. I want that for each of you.
  3. Choose discipline over motivation. Motivation is a fickle friend that will leave you the minute it disrupts the comfort of convenience, the promise of ease, or the notion that it will last until the goal is met. You must wake up daily with a plan to be well-organized towards your goals - whether to be a more present spouse, parent, friend, or Commander … you will never regret doing the ‘hard/difficult/inconvenient thing.’ Likely, the only difference between where you are right now with any goal and where you want to be is the consistency of conscious effort. Make yourself proud - I know you can do it!
  4. Life takes thick skin and a soft heart. Others have transgressed against you, and you have transgressed against others. Sometimes, you will give everything to someone or something and get nothing in return. Those times, you must have thick skin. Other times, your blessings will be in perpetual bloom - including old opportunities and people circling back for another round - it is in these times you must choose to have a soft heart. The world needs you to have both - a balance of someone with GRIT who will not be outworked and one who can give GRACE in unmeasured quantities. I have never experienced someone saying they were too loved, too supported, or too forgiven. 5. Who are you… really? Do you live the Core Values? Do you know your personal values and boundaries? Save yourself from heartache and headaches by starting to define and defend your principles and values now. Trust me; warriors do not suddenly muster bravery on the brink.