For four years as a cadet in the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (Det 842, best in blue!), I continuously joked with my girlfriend — now wife — that if she wasn’t careful I’d take her to some remote place like Del Rio, Texas, home of Laughlin Air Force Base. In July of 2011 I was assigned to the 47th Operations Support Squadron at, you guessed it, Laughlin Air Force Base.
For those who have never been there, Laughlin AFB is located approximately six miles from the U.S./Mexico border in lower Southwest Texas. Del Rio is a border town in every sense of the word, and is not generally the place that most 22 year old newly weds think of when they are starting their lives together. Despite Del Rio’s isolation and unavoidable small town tendencies and general mistrust of outsiders (like us), we spent two great years there and I look back at my time there with great fondness. This is due 100% to the people that I worked with there and the opportunities I was able to take advantage of.
It was at Laughlin that I met three incredible people who have had lasting impacts on my life. My commander, Major Rafael “TX” Garza, the first Chief Master Sergeant Allen “AT” Teesdale, and my dear friend and fellow officer, Sierra “SS” Spencer. There were countless others who had an impact on me as a leader and as a person, but it was these three who taught me the most.
From the moment I met him, I knew Major Garza was going to be one of the long lasting influences on my professional career. A prior enlisted officer with more than twenty years of service to his name, Major Garza was my first real mentor. From the moment he assumed command, he entrusted and empowered Sierra and I with greater responsibilities than we had ever had before. TX knew that in order for us to learn and grow, we had to be given opportunities both to succeed and to fail. Most importantly, he was there to teach and guide us through those successes and more importantly, through our failures. Rather than give us an assignment with exacting details on how to accomplish our task, he would give us a task and let us handle things on our own. He knew from experience that our job was volatile, and that at any moment, either Sierra or I could be in command and be expected to lead competently. Sure enough, the occasion came for both Sierra and I to assume command in his absence, and thanks to his leadership and mentorship, we were both setup for success.
Every cadet at some point during his/her training is told “find a good Senior NCO, and learn from them”. Chief Teesdale, or as I refer to him to this day, “Chief”, was that person for me. Chief had a passion for what he did, and a passion for taking care of the men and women under his charge. He knew the ins and outs of everything, always had plans and ideas for how to do things better. Most importantly and most impressively to me, was his willingness and patience to work with a young officer like me, especially when the burden of command fell to me. Chief had been in the Air Force as long as I had been alive, and to use a sports cliché, has forgotten more about the Air Force than I will ever know. Yet, as any good senior NCO will do, he took the time to explain things to me, and always supported me when it came time to make decisions. His passion for the job and for ensuring that our people were set up for success has inspired me to take care of those around me in a similar way.
Finally my dear friend Sierra. Before my wife and I were able to move into our house on base, we were shuffling between hotels. The day I met Sierra, who was the only other officer my age doing my job at Laughlin, there was going to be about a four hour period during which time my wife and our puppy had to be out of our previous hotel and couldn’t yet check in to our next. Without having even met her, Sierra offered to let my wife and puppy go spend that time at her house, and handed over her key without hesitating. It was a gesture that meant the world to me, and from there our friendship only grew. Professionally, Sierra was my role model. Even though we were at the same stage in our career, I knew then that Sierra had a talent and a drive that would take her far. Her enthusiasm and tenacity for the job was otherworldly and quickly drew the attention of our career-field. As soon as she was able, she volunteered to deploy and quickly found herself in Afghanistan, where she did amazing work. All of this was balanced with being one of the funniest people I knew. She and I just got along well, and she and my wife similarly got along. Sierra was simply that person who I knew I could count on for anything, and for whom I would do anything for.
You will never see Del Rio on a list of desirable destinations to spend any significant length of time. Yet, as with anything else, it depends on the people who are there with you that can make or break anyplace. I was fortunate there and have always looked back on my time there with fondness and nostalgia.