Flat tire

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
A steady stream of cars and trucks sped past along the highway as she looked down at the flat tire which seemed to embody everything going wrong in her life.

She felt her belly move, as the baby inside shifted position. Not long to go before the big day, and her husband was in the hospital with pneumonia.

"Perfect," she sighed, as cars continued to pass her.

Squaring her shoulders, Janet Driggers set her gaze down the road and started walking. It was a long way to the nearest service station, and it didn't look like help was coming.

"When I think back on it, it seemed to happen all in a day," Driggers, the 501st Combat Support Wing key spouse, said, as she sat across a table from Katy Shipman inside the Stukeley Inn on RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom. "It seemed like the events just fell like dominos. Everything just went wrong and the chips kept falling."

Shipman, a key spouse with the 423rd Medical Squadron, smiled and nodded. Adaptability and resiliency seem to be common themes associated with military permanent change of station moves, she said.

"I don't think we were mentally prepared for the challenges we would face right before we PCS'd here," Shipman said. "We have only been here for a year, and it's just starting to feel comfortable. As a key spouse, that is a goal for me - to help other spouses get through that."

As part of a standardized program across the U.S. Air Force, key spouses like Driggers and Shipman volunteer their time to establish personal and continuous contact with military families, while promoting individual, family and unit readiness. For Driggers, the motivation to serve as a link between spouses and wing leadership came from what she called her, "nightmare PCS."

"I just kept saying, 'when's the next thing going to happen," Driggers said. "It was almost laughable, at some points. We kept wondering what else could go wrong. We made it to Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida - they lost our luggage, of course, so we end up camping out in temporary lodging. There were issues closing on our house - the first one we had ever bought, and boy did we make every mistake I think you can make."

She laughed for a moment, reflecting on the absurdity of the compounding situation. However, the smile soon faded as Driggers paused and looked down.

"Then we found out that some of our best friends from our squadron back at RAF Lakenheath were killed in an F-15 crash," she said. "We couldn't get back. I couldn't fly because of my pregnancy, and I was just completely stressed with it all."

Driggers recalled sitting in her bare house on an inflatable mattress, waiting for their household goods to arrive and trying to figure out how she was going to solve all the issues that seemed to keep popping up.

"My water broke, of course," she said. "I remember thinking, 'I can't have a baby because our household goods are showing up in the morning.'"

Unsure of where to turn, the couple reached out to their squadron and explained the situation. All they asked, all they expected, was for someone to be there and accept their household goods.

"Come to find out, these people we barely knew opened their arms and welcomed us," Driggers said. "They finished painting the nursery, hung chair rail, left a 'Moses' basket, because we didn't even have a crib at that point. These strangers put our furniture together, filled our fridge with food and brought baby clothes."

She shook her head, still unable to believe how much the squadron did to help her family through a difficult time.

"How do you pay that back - you can't pay that back," she asked, rhetorically. "I was so touched by how they all came together it instills the belief that the Air Force is my family. There was no way I could ever pay that back, but it did inspire me to do the best I can for the rest of our Air Force career to pay it forward."

Since that day, Driggers has dedicated her time as a key spouse - helping and mentoring wherever and however she can. She has worked with fellow spouses at the 501st to raise awareness of the program and get more people involved.

"It's tough sometimes," Shipman said. "We run into problems trying to get people involved, especially when their spouses are deployed. I think it's important they know we all go through this together."

Driggers nodded. Having faced the same issue in the past, she said one of the best ways to reach out to spouses is to explain what a key spouse is, and what they can do for Air Force families.

"We are tethers to information, resources and people who can help spouses when they need it," Driggers said. "I also think every unit has an identity, and it's up to us to instill a sense of pride with the spouses of that particular unit."

Shipman agreed, as the pair exchanged ideas on how to genuinely build a social network of spouses within the 501st community. From business cards, to welcome letters and social media engagements the two key spouses discussed a plethora of ways they could reach out and support their Air Force family.

"I think it's important to think back to when you first got here," Driggers said. "What would you like to have known? Providing spouses with a 'pre-arrival' and 'post-arrival' plan could be really helpful, especially when trying to settle into a new country."

Reaching out to spouses without pressuring them was a primary concern for Shipman.

"They talk about how you marry into the military," Shipman said. "The military really becomes your lifestyle, but I want to make sure and respect the spouses who have separate lives outside the service. Maybe the spouse doesn't want to get involved, but I at least want to give them the option."

Driggers smiled and nodded. Looking toward her next move, Driggers said she was glad the 501st key spouse program was in good hands. She and Shipman both walked away from the table with realistic and sustainable ideas.

"I care about the Air Force, I care about our country and I care about our people," Driggers said. "If I can just do something to matter, even if it's helping one person, I'll be happy. I want to help in a way that continues to pay it forward."

Smiling again, Driggers said it was hard to believe that one flat tire and a series of unfortunate events could have led to one of her family's best assignments, and a future devotion to ensuring her family and the Air Force family are taken care of with equal care and passion.

"I am so grateful for where we are, and the people we met at the 501st," Driggers said. "I always try to bloom where I am planted, and the people at this wing really made it easy to do that. I am going to miss them all terribly."

Weeks later, as Driggers packed the last of her household goods into her car, she paused and looked down at the vehicle. She smiled and shook her head at the flat tire that now seemed to embody great days on the horizon.

"Perfect," she said, as she loaded the box into the car - ready to meet this new adventure head on.