Father, son journey to Black Beret

  • Published
  • By Altus S. Menifee Jr.
  • USAF Vietnam Veteran
When my children were very small, I took them to an air show featuring the Thunderbirds. This was the first time they were formally introduced to the Air Force.

As the Thunderbirds went through precision drills, my eyes filled with tears as my life as an Airman flashed before me. I looked down, and my son looked at me with such reverence and respect; I'll never forget that moment.

Fast-forward a decade, and my son was a senior in high school on the football team. Several college scouts were watching his progress, but with scouts you never know, so we weighed his options. Ironically, he came home from practice one day extremely excited after a Marine recruiter had talked to his team.

I realized at that moment the Air Force was a great choice for him. We discussed the honor and dignity one could only gain by serving their country. This naturally led into some of my incredible war stories from when I served.

We had long conversations about the Air Force, and with each conversation his conviction grew stronger. He wanted to do something big and challenge the world and all that it has to offer. So, we visited a recruiter.

While sitting with my son, the recruiter handed him a large stack of papers with jobs for which he was qualified. We looked through them, but nothing struck his fancy. Soon, the front door opened and in walked an Airman, clean as a whistle and sharp as a tack. He was wearing a black beret. My son dropped the papers, paused and said, "That's what I want!"

His career was chosen at that precise moment, and the task to achieve that goal was monumental. He accepted the task and I knew by the conviction in his eyes he would fight for his life to achieve a black beret.

In my son's junior year of high school, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes type II, along with reoccurring symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our family was devastated. My son dedicated his football life to me and played his heart out at every practice, every game, and every play. The team recognized cancer awareness month by wearing pink socks and wristbands. After the game, we met our son on the field; I noticed he was wearing a small pink sticker which said, "DAD." I couldn't hold back the tears.

When my son entered the Delayed Enlisted Program, we focused on his upcoming journey. Our family witnessed his swear-in, with tears flowing, as he said goodbye and boarded the bus to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Even with my health in question, we made the decision to drive to San Antonio to see our Airman graduate.

Early on a beautiful Thursday morning, we lined the sidewalk for the Airman's run. With much anticipation, hundreds of proud family and friends waited to catch a glimpse of their young warrior, who left home for nine weeks. There was so much excitement on that chilly morning. Finally, we saw the flight at the front of the pack and there was our son, running as graceful as a young, hungry lion. When he saw us, he flashed the biggest and brightest smile ever.

We were able to enjoy and embrace our son and the total experience. It was a total flashback for me, as Lackland looked so different from how I remembered it.

In February 2013, my son moved on to Battlefield Airman Qualification Training, and then on to Hurlburt Field, Fla., for Tactical Air Control Party training. He called home every Sunday and shared his journey with us and how excited he was to work hard every day to earn that coveted black beret. His motto was to keep his eye on the prize. To provide encouragement, I sent him a motivational text every day to help him press on and finish strong.

Once he completed the field training exercise, there was a huge sigh of relief. He completed the most arduous challenge of his 19 years. Of the 45 TACP candidates who began the journey with him, only 12 made it through.

With my health situation as it was, I wasn't able to fly. My family was devastated we would not be there to celebrate my son's graduation. We were always there, front and center, to applaud and congratulate our children on their achievements, no matter how big or small. This time would be different.

I made a conscious decision to be there, no matter how many miles apart we were. I wanted to participate in my son's proudest moment.

I decided to reach out to public affairs for assistance. Maj. Erin Dick, Air Force Special Operations Command public affairs officer, heard my plea and passed it on to the incredible staff at the 1st Special Operations Wing and TACP schoolhouse.

The impossible finally became possible. With a can-do attitude, not only did my family receive a DVD of the graduation ceremony and a TACP training video with my son in it, we also received a live feed of the graduation. This was all made possible through the professionalism, teamwork and selfless dedication of the 1st SOW broadcasting team. Their efforts exceeded my wildest dreams and expectations!

I salute you all for having touched my family and friends, we were able to share joy and tears seeing our Airman graduate from the best seat in the house. In that moment, every minute of service and sacrifice I gave to my country and all that my son will give, was and is worth it.