By Airman 1st Class Ryan Conroy, 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 04, 2015
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Growing up in one of the most dangerous cities in America, Senior Airman Jonathan Thompson wasn't expected to live until 18 ... then a hurricane changed his life forever.
Thompson was raised, surrounded by tumultuous violence, in the St. Thomas projects of New Orleans.
"It was a place where arguments would escalate in the blink of an eye," stated Thompson, 31st Aerospace Medical Squadron bioenvironmental engineer technician. "You weren't allowed to show weakness and if it even appeared like someone was disrespecting you, you were expected to act hostile in response. Perception was everything and if you were viewed as weak it could cost you your life."
This life was normal for Thompson, his mother and his older brother. His childhood was met with unprovoked anger that only escalated further during the transition from middle to high school.
Thompson had no other option than to embrace his reality and conform to his volatile surroundings. He was a product of his neighborhood - angry and unbridled.
"When I was in that environment, I was a completely different person," said Thompson. "If someone showed any kind of disrespect toward me, it was a test and I had to act against it."
Celebrating someone's 18th birthday is a common coming-of-age event in most communities, but in the St. Thomas projects, it was an uncertainty. To give a sense of what survival meant to the community, in 7th grade, one of Thompson's teachers asked a classroom of students to look at the person to either side of them. The teacher shared that, according to statistics, the person to the left and right of them would be dead or in jail before they graduated high school.
To stay alive, St. Thomas residents depended heavily on their friendships for protection. According to Thompson, due to their unfortunate circumstances, the bonds he formed with his childhood friends made them family.
"Whenever you go through a life or death situation with someone, you grow so close to those people. By blood I have one brother, but all of my friends are like brothers to me," said Thompson.
Sadly, the city turned his extended family into a statistic.
"One of my friends lent his car to an acquaintance of ours who used it in a robbery," began Thompson. "He never told my friend when he returned the car. The person who was robbed recognized the car later on and retaliated. There were four of my friends in the car and everyone was shot to death in the middle of the street."
"I was angry and heart-broken all at once, because my friend died at no fault of his own," added Thompson. "I lost a brother that day because of someone else's crimes. I felt like my environment would take my life as well. I saw no end to the chaos I was living in."
Fast-forward two years, a hurricane was expected to make landfall soon, nothing uncommon for New Orleans residents. According to Thompson, every year a hurricane was forecasted to be the biggest one ever. This was executed to encourage evacuations.
"Evacuations cost money, which is one thing our community didn't have a lot of," said Thompson. "So, since storms had been exaggerated in the past, a majority of New Orleans residents decided to stay home."
Hurricane Katrina was not exaggerated and annihilated everything in its path.
"When Katrina hit ... it was awful. I can't describe the smells or the panic. The entire police force quit and people went crazy. There were murders everywhere, people were getting shot, robbed and beat up and it was just crazy," said Thompson.
Thompson and his family needed to evacuate - soon. Unfortunately, Thompson's mother was a nurse- assistant and was called into the hospital to work. She arranged for her sister to pick up Thompson and his brother on their way out, but his brother couldn't fit and caught a ride with someone else. Thompson made it out safely with his aunt in the packed car. They made it to Mississippi, where he held up with extended family with no way to contact his mother or brother.
"That was one of the hardest things I've lived through," said Thompson. "Communication was nonexistent. I heard the news and I saw what people were acting like in New Orleans and I was scared for my family. I didn't know if they even made it out alive."
For three months, Thompson had no answers to the relentless questions that haunted his thoughts. Then, he received a phone call - his mother and his brother were alive and they were moving to Texas.
"In that moment I felt relief and happiness like never before," said Thompson. "I was so thankful just to hear their voices again."
The Thompson family began to rebuild what the hurricane stole from them and started a new life in Killeen, Texas. The transition from the St. Thomas project housing to Texas was dramatic and Thompson had trouble adapting to the overwhelming change.
"I was so used to the violence where I was from, that I assumed it was normal everywhere else as well," said Thompson. "I learned quickly that everything was different and I needed to adapt to my new surroundings."
The opportunities he once only dreamt of before became real possibilities. His attitude changed, his schoolwork improved significantly and he started capitalizing on this unexpected opportunity for success.
"When I was growing up, I wanted to be doctor but I pushed that to the back of my mind because surviving was first and foremost," said Thompson. "But, when the hurricane relocated my family and me, I had a chance and I was able to enroll in community college."
Thompson beat the odds set forth by his former teacher - he celebrated his 18th birthday alive and free.
"My 18th birthday was the greatest birthday I've ever had," said Thompson. "I was able to change who I was, overcome the statistics and make something of myself. It was an amazing feeling. I look at Katrina as the best thing to happen to me because I don't know where I would be now if it didn't happen."
To go along with his new perspective on life, Thompson decided to strive for more than community college and searched for a progressive new life plan to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Joining the Air Force became the answer to his aspirations.
"My goals coming into the Air Force were to finish as much school as I could in six years to prepare myself for medical school," said Thompson.
What Thompson did not expect was how much the people he worked with cared for him.
"I wasn't used to people asking me how I was doing every day and if everything was alright," said Thompson. "It caught me off guard, in a good way, and I owe my supervisors for pushing me to meet the goals I set for myself."
In almost 6 years, Thompson has completed 90 college credit hours and was accepted into the University of Texas for the fall semester. After two years of pre-medical school, he plans to enroll in medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon.
"I know I was given a unique opportunity to change everything about myself," said Thompson. "That's why I work so hard, day in and day out, because I could have died, but now I have so much to live for."