A Veteran Story: You Can Always Make a Difference

Disclaimer: This is a guest post. I am honored to have Air Force Veteran Sharon Chaplain share an amazing story here on The Butterbean Legacy. This wonderful story is solely hers, and I take no credit for it. All images are the intellectual property of the author.


 

Sharon Chaplain is an amazing, accomplished woman. As a teenager, she knew she wanted to make some major changes in her life, and she did just that by joining the United States Air Force after graduating high school.


As a shy young woman, she had no idea where this decision would lead her, but she rushed bravely into it, knowing it was her ticket to a better life, away from the small town in which she'd grown up. Sharon went on to have a successful military career and is now helping youngsters just like herself realize their potential.


Here at TBL, my mission is to help my readers improve their lives. Sometimes it's with health advice or recipes. Sometimes it's with natural body care or cleaning recipes. Sometimes it's with tips for a happier life. I think Sharon's inspiring story fits that bill perfectly. Without further ado, here is her inspiring story that is sure to bring a smile to your face this Veterans Day.


 

Do you remember that kid in gym class: the one who was always the last to be picked, who never understood the rules, and was usually the one who cost you the win at the end of the game? Well, I was that kid. I was always that kid, no matter the grade, the school, or the game. In order to pass gym class in my school, all you had to do was show up prepared, and that’s all I did. I was what I call now, anti-athletic. I was also so desperately shy and quiet that teachers would read my lips when I did speak. I even threw up from nervousness in class a few times, which had to be a joy for everyone around me.


Now that we’ve established how far I was from being military material, imagine the surprise when I signed up to join the Air Force! After graduating from high school, I commuted to school but realized 2 things. 1.) College was really expensive and 2.) If I didn’t do something drastic, I would be stuck living with my parents in a small town forever. It wasn’t what I wanted for my life, but I had no idea how to change it. So, I talked to military recruiters, took some tests, passed the physical (much to my amazement), and was scheduled for basic training in November.


No one believed I would make it through basic training. I didn’t even believe I’d make it, but I knew I had to give it a shot and try my best. There was no alternative.


I got to Lackland AFB in Texas, thinking I’d made the worst mistake of my life. Each day was filled with exercising, studying, cleaning, and getting screamed at. Each night was filled with crying. Then I realized the experience wasn’t much different than being at home (except for the exercising), plus I was getting paid. Some girls complained and cried when they couldn’t do certain tasks, prompting yelling from the training instructors (yes, just like Full Metal Jacket). That’s when I decided they’d never hear me complain or see me cry-I’d keep trying even if I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give up because then I’d be back living in that small town with no future.


December 19th, I graduated basic training and left for technical school at Chanute AFB in Illinois. In March I received orders to my first base! It said: Osan AB, ROK. What state is that? I asked everyone. No one knew. One of the teachers laughingly told me I was going to South Korea. Where was that? This had to be a joke. But it was no joke. And in April, I boarded a plane in Rochester, NY, and flew to New York City, then to Chicago, then to California, to Alaska then Japan, finally landing in Korea 24 hours later. THIS is the worst mistake of my life, I thought. But I knew I couldn’t get back on that plane and go home; I knew I had to move forward, so I went through customs and hoped for the best in my new home.


Living in Korea was different than living in the US. The things we take for granted here were not available there, and adjustment was challenging. Despite that, I really enjoyed my job. I worked on the flight line, tracking aircraft data, talking to the mechanics who worked on the planes each day. We worked 10 hours 5 days a week, and during “exercises,” we worked 12 hours, carrying 35 pounds of chemical gear everywhere we went, sometimes wearing gas masks too.


Just after getting to work on January 18th, radio announcers told us US military forces were bombing Iraq. We were at war! What did this mean for us? No one knew. About 3am Sunday morning we were woken up and told to get to work ASAP. It was a walk I’ll never forget. Korean winters are cold, and as I neared my building on the flight line, I heard my Falcon Chief (the senior enlisted in charge of the mechanics) tell someone to “Check under all the vehicles for bombs.” Unbelievable fear hit me. This wasn’t a drill. This was real. The base was locked down. We were ordered to stay put (no going to Iraq for us)- to defend the peninsula in case North Korea invaded.


I began getting letters from civilians stateside, wishing “soldiers” overseas safety and peace. I wrote back, telling people I was in South Korea, encouraging them to write me, but they didn’t. One day, I received a package from a 9-year-old girl near Rochester, NY, asking what the desert was like. Not expecting a response, I wrote back, saying I didn’t know because I was in South Korea. The first line of her next letter was: “I don’t care where you are, I just want to write to you” and I was overjoyed! A penpal!


For nearly a year, I’d seen a lot of ugly, so what could I tell this little girl about Korea that wouldn’t scare her? I searched for beauty and positivity, and found my own mood lightening in the process. Then suddenly, the correspondence stopped. I was heartbroken. I returned to the states, became a civilian, got married and settled into a new life, all the while wondering what happened to my little penpal.


I began speaking at schools about my time in service. I also wrote about it in a writer’s group. One night in early October, I told them about my penpal. A hush went over the room, and one by one, the members agreed that now was the time to find this little girl. All I had was her picture-no name or address anymore. One of the members had a connection at a local tv station and before long, I found myself sitting in my living room, telling one of the top anchors about what a difference this girl (now a woman) had made in my life and how I’d like to find her and thank her.


My story aired at 10pm on a Friday night. Secretly, my best hope was for a local teacher to recognize the picture and remember the name so I could do an online search. Early afternoon the next day, I received a text: “Sharon they found her.” Before I could respond, another text came through: “She still lives in the area.” And then: “She wants to meet you.”


About a week later, I finally met and thanked my penpal. As we held hands across her couch, she told me how much my letters had meant to her, as she was struggling with her parent’s divorce. “I never thought you’d remember me. I was just some young kid.” Tears came to my eyes. “Honey, I’ve been searching for you for over 25 years!” I explained how much her letters meant to me at a time when I, too, was struggling and afraid.


Now when I speak to the students I have even more purpose. I ask them if they’ve ever been told they’re too small or too young to make a difference. Hands shoot up every time, no matter the age group. Then I tell them my veteran story, ending with, “The next time you feel like you can’t make a difference, remember my story and the impact my penpal had on me. You’re never too young or too old to make a difference.”


Link to Sharon's story: https://13wham.com/news/local/local-air-force-veteran-seeks-long-lost-pen-pal


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