What is the Air Force Family

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Derek Thompson
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

We hear it all the time, especially from the chain of command: the Air Force is a family. But what does that actually mean? On Nov. 6, 2023, my life changed forever, and I discovered precisely what it means to call the Air Force my family.

That day started like any other: I woke up and went to squadron PT, volunteered in the pharmacy, and was home to have dinner with my wife before I knew it. We went to bed early after a very normal day. But then everything changed. At approximately ten o’clock that night, my wife woke up to me gasping for air, taking my dying breaths right in front of her. She immediately called 911 and started giving me chest compressions. During all of this, I stopped breathing completely. 

First responders were there within five minutes of receiving her call and fought to get my heart beating again. While this was happening my chain of command started to arrive at my house. My acting Commander, the Fire Chief, and assistant First Sergeant did their best to comfort my wife, someone they were meeting for the first time, while I was put on a gurney and loaded in the ambulance. They followed her to Jackson County Memorial Hospital where I was taken for further treatment. They stayed with her until I was stabilized enough for a medevac to Oklahoma City.

I had arrived at Altus AFB only 46 days prior and my wife had arrived just three days prior. Her first day of work with her new team, her new family, was that same fateful day.  Her new family immediately stepped in to take care of her. My wife’s boss, the Manpower Office Chief and her co-worker, responded to her frantic texts at eleven o’clock at night and joined her at the hospital. At three o’clock in the morning, they helped drive her to Oklahoma City so she could be at my side in the ICU. Her boss drove her car and co-worker followed so that she would not have to worry about transportation and instead could focus on me.

My commander and a fellow First Sergeant’s wife again demonstrated the meaning of the Air Force family. During the rush to get my wife to Oklahoma City to be with me, she had not worked out care for our dogs.  Without request, my commander and fellow First Sergeant’s wife stepped in to take care of our dogs for the two weeks I spent in the hospital.  My Fire Chief and his wife came all the way out to Oklahoma City just to check on us and grab us a few things my wife had not had time to grab.  

MSgt Joe Weidenbach, a fellow First Sergeant I had met only a few weeks prior, was assigned as our family liaison officer. A role in which he demonstrated that it wasn’t a job, but a position of trust to be a direct part of that family. Constantly at my wife’s side, he ensured she had all the information she needed, fielded phone calls, provided updates to the chain of command, acted as a brother to her as she sat by my bed. He listened and provided comfort while she navigated this dire situation.

Meanwhile, her squadron started a donation pool, providing money to ensure she and my family did not have to worry about food while at the hospital. Unbeknownst to us, a meal train was put together to keep us fed once we transitioned from the hospital back to our home. After hearing about the tragic situation we found ourselves in, people we had never even met took time out of their day to prepare food for the meal train so my wife could focus on me.

While I lay hospitalized, my wife’s phone was continuously dinging with well wishes from people who cared for and were worried about me. Prior Chiefs and Commanders, some of whom are now retired, fellow First Sergeants, and countless other peers sent their love and support. Some even donated to the meal train, while others leant a sympathetic ear or offered comfort to help her find some peace in a very turbulent time.

Two of our very close friends, whom I met fifteen years ago while we served together at Little Rock AFB, came all the way out from Mississippi to spend a few days looking after us. Their presence alone lifted our spirits significantly, not to mention the care and support they provided during their visit.

We found out at the hospital that I had suffered from sudden cardiac arrest, with no explanation as to what could have caused it. I was without a heartbeat and not breathing for approximately twenty minutes.

This event has changed my life.  It has changed my perception and understanding of what family and community truly means. There are no words to express how grateful we are for our Air Force family. People whom we had never met, had only recently met, or whom we’ve known for years were willing to help us when we needed it most. This experience showed me how the Air Force family will band together at a moment’s notice to love and support someone in need, and they do so out of genuine concern and compassion. There is no other job in the world that has a community like this, and I am so honored to call my wingmen my family.