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Afghanistan through the eyes of an E-1

Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, pose for a team photo in front of a C-130J Super Hercules at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2014. The team was deployed from their home base in Scotia, N.Y.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Gary J. Rihn/Released)

Airman Gerald Mesick (second row, third from left) was among this group of 109th Airlift Wing Airmen who deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. This photo was taken Feb. 28, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Gary J. Rihn/Released)

STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. -- As a traditional guardsman, it is very rare to walk out of Basic Military Training with anything less than two stripes. Unfortunately, this was the predicament I had fallen into.

Coming home from my tech school in Fort Lee, Va., I would often have to stop higher ranking personnel mid-salute and explain I was merely a slick sleeve. Shortly after, I was often questioned whether or not I messed up in tech school, and when I explained it was in my contract to enlist as an airman basic, I was often met with disbelief. From the start of my career as a guardsman, I felt I had to prove to others I was not a mess up.

Shortly after returning home, the opportunity to deploy to Bagram, Afghanistan, fell into my lap. I didn't hesitate to volunteer, and within a matter of days I was already put on the primary list to deploy. A short three months after my return home from Fort Lee I was on my way overseas.

It was my first experience outside the country, and I was both nervous and excited. I was far from experienced in foreign cultures, active duty military and my own AFSC (Air Force specialty code). My experience was rare for any branch of the military -- according to the Army, I was a "boots on the ground fuzzy". The phrase referred to the OCPs, Multi-Cam, uniforms being similar to ACUs, and the Velcro where I would put my rank was left patchless, leaving a fuzzy space on my chest.

Within the first 30 minutes in the Bagram Pax Terminal, we were hit with an IDF (indirect fire) attack. I remember hitting the deck with my hands over my head, shaking with nerves, and asking myself what the hell I got myself into. My naive excitement to deploy blinded me from the gripping reality of the real-world dangers of Afghanistan. Not only did I have to worry about my lack of experience as an Airman, I now realized I had to worry about this real-world scenario I had only heard about on the news since I was 9 years old.

Now on active duty orders, I was naturally looked at by some of my co-workers as nothing more than a liability. Many saw my rank and underestimated my abilities to work hard and learn fast, resulting in my team chiefs assigning me to the most brain-dead and meaningless tasks of every mission. In my first few weeks I was assigned solely to the task of chocking vehicles as they pulled up to the aircraft ramps. To be honest, I initially didn't mind at first, I often second guessed myself from the beginning, and I couldn't blame my supervisors for doing the same. On top of that, we were getting IDFs frequently and in my mind, I didn't want the stress of possibly messing up during work while stressing over the surprise of our next attack.

I settled in and grew bored of my meaningless tasks, and gradually asked for more responsibility. At first, this was hard to achieve, I was an E-1 and a guardsman nonetheles; active duty personnel didn't want to train me and only saw me as dead weight. Not only did I have to prove to myself that I could handle the high-paced, deployed environment, but I had to prove that to many of my co-workers.

Luckily, I deployed with a great group of people, and many were quick to help me with training, CDCs (career development course) and morale. When some NCOs seemed annoyed by the idea of training me, there were plenty more NCOs and Airmen to help me out and build my confidence. I quickly learned a lot about my AFSC, what to do, what not to do, and the difference between home station and deployed location. It was a great confidence boost, and much of the stress I initially experienced within my first few weeks overseas quickly faded away.

I no longer questioned myself during the work hours, and I could focus on the rest of the craziness around me, my state of mind and my family. After two months in Bagram, I was promoted, and when we got a new rotation, I was now looked at more as someone to watch and learn from as opposed to someone to watch and worry about. I met a lot of great people and made many friends within my six and a half months in Afghanistan.

In a short six months, I learned a great deal about my AFSC, the Air Force and myself. I had a lot of crazy and incredible experiences in my short time overseas that I wouldn't change for the world. I feel deploying so early in my career has only helped me, and I suggest that any new Airman who gets the opportunity I did should seize it.