No regrets part 1: Taking opportunity
Then, Airman Jeffrey Woolford, a crew chief, poses for a photo in his dress uniform shortly after graduating U.S. Air Force Basic Military Training. Maj. (Dr.) Woolford enlisted in the Air Force as an aircraft maintenance crew chief in 1989, and commissioned as an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot in 1998. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard
42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
1/15/2014 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Editor's note: This one of a six part series about the obstacles U.S. Air Force Maj. Jeffrey and his wife Nicole faced, and how the Air Force helped him persevere to his highest potential.
He did not become an astronaut, but since joining the U.S. Air Force in 1989 Maj. (Dr.) Jeffrey Woolford, who started his career as an F-16 Fighting Falcon on active duty and A-10 Thunderbolt II crew chief in the Maryland Air National Guard, accomplished more than most do in a lifetime, and he's not done yet.
"Growing up, I was always fighting that big question of who I was ... it became an identity crisis where I strove to figure out who I was, and that act made me feel better about who I was becoming," said the Baltimore native. "I thought, 'okay, this is not a novel path.' I was running against that person I could have been and I made that proposed opponent larger than life. Without that foundation of a little desire, I wouldn't be where I am today."
That internal competition to become better, led him to first become a crew chief in the Air Force.
Nearly ten years into his Air Force career, he became a pilot of the one of the very aircraft he once repaired. Years after that, he became one of just 12 pilot-physicians in the Air Force.
He didn't join the Air Force with the intention of becoming a pilot or a doctor, much less a pilot who is also a doctor, but he encountered a unique cross road in his life - the opportunity to make a choice.
The choice: take advantage of the educational benefits the Air Force offers, or continue his life as is.
He said he was doing well as a crew chief and enjoyed the job, but a rare conversation made him try something he never imagined doing.
It was a rare moment of downtime in the midst of a NATO Tactical Evaluation at Ramstein Air Base, when then Airman 1st Class Woolford met Capt. Richard Scobee, an F-16 pilot.
Woolford and Scobee had their headsets plugged to relay the mandatory pre-flight inspection information, but they finished before the tactical evaluation inspectors were ready for takeoff. With their headsets still plugged in and nothing but time and the sound of engines whirring around them, Scobee spoke.
"So probably out of sheer boredom, Scobee asked me, 'what are you doing with the rest of your life?'" said Woolford, reminiscing the start of his life-changing conversation with Scobee.
As he leaned on the left side of the Scobee's aircraft, engines still blaring and the smell of jet fuel and metal filling the air, Woolford paused.
At first, he was insulted. "'Who is this captain to ask me what I'm doing the rest of my life?'" Woolford recalls. "But I didn't ask him that. I just said 'I don't know, sir,' and I thought that coarse response would stop the conversation."
Fortunately for Woolford, it did not.
"No, seriously, what are you doing with the rest of your life?" prodded Scobee. "Are you in school right now?"
Woolford begrudgingly responded, "No."
"Why not?" persisted the captain, oxygen mask muffling his words.
"Well, because people like me don't go to school," replied Woolford stubbornly.
Silence filled their headsets as the captain took a breath, looked around and then straight at Woolford and said, "You need to take advantage of the opportunities you have in the military ... you need to go to school for whatever you want to be. I don't care what you want to be; just do something."
And then Scobee said the words that set the tone of the rest of Woolford's career: "Don't waste this."
At first, Woolford dismissed the conversation, but it triggered something -- something that bothered him enough to take his first college course -- biology.
"I did fine," he shrugged with a small smile. "I got a 'B' in it and thought 'I might as well get my Community College of the Air Force degree.'"
"At that point, it was off to the races," he added.
Thanks to his conversation with an F-16 pilot, he realized opportunity lies on the other side of a degree.
"Does a degree make you smart? No, but it does prove to others that you can learn."
With that realization, he set off to prove just how much he could learn. He had all the tools; he just had to use them.
"The Air Force made the Constitution's promised pursuit of happiness a reality for me. It took it from a theoretical concept to, 'it's right here in your face and if you blow this, it's your fault.'"