The only thing I knew when I was 17 years old is that I wanted to be a pilot. In fact, little did I know about anything. I just knew I wanted to be in the air, in the military, like my hero, my grandfather. I had no idea that it would take me eight years and three service branches.
During my senior year of high school, I contacted Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), a commissioning program offered by all three military branches to train college students to become officers in the military upon graduation. I loved what I read and heard, so I applied for a scholarship. The application consisted of a physical fitness test, an interview with an ROTC detachment commander, and a review of my academics and extracurricular activities. During the application process, I completed the physical test, and thought I did well, and interviewed with the University of Maryland Air Force ROTC detachment commander, Colonel Moses, in his office in the now demolished Cole Field House.
During the interview, the colonel asked me various questions about my desire to serve in the military and my views on leadership, and I answered the questions as best I could. That said, despite a good interview and physical fitness test, my grades in high school were nowhere near scholarship material (I had earned a 2.7 unweighted/3.0 weighted GPA), so I was not awarded a financial scholarship. Disappointed, but understanding, I pressed on and enrolled in Air Force ROTC at The Ohio State University.
Upon arriving in Columbus in late September 2002, I had a brief orientation with ROTC and awaited my first physical training session, academic class, and leadership laboratory. I was very excited to be a part of the program and thought that I was so cool that I was “in” the military, despite not having a scholarship or a contract. But from my first class on my first day, I knew that I was in the right place. Captain Aubrey Whitehead, my instructor for my Air Science 101 class, which was the introduction to AFROTC for new freshmen, was a strong man with broad shoulders and a tight fitting shirt. He stood in front of the class and lectured us on something that I never forgot. “This is it,” he said. “This is the last chance you have to prove yourselves to the world. No one cares how you did in middle school or high school, but everyone, for the rest of your lives, will ask you how you did in college. Your GPA and your academic success here will stay with you forever. Remember that.” That class hit me hard and triggered something inside me that had been dormant since middle school.
I took the advice to heart, knowing I had a new start, a chance to rebrand myself academically, and I wanted to set myself up for selection to pilot training. It was time to turn on the jets…pun intended. My first academic quarter at Ohio State went very well, and my grades were tracking high for the first time in years. I worked hard during the semester, studying, meeting with professors, and hitting the library. I did my best, which is all I could do in my political science, world geography, math, ROTC, and engineering survey classes. After my final exams, professors began to post grades via an online tool. I was glued to the computer screen, hitting refresh on my browser like a Pavlovian dog. The grades started to appear.
Math – A
World Regional Geography – B+
Engineering Survey – B+
Air Science – A-
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I mean, of course I believed it because I had been earning good marks throughout the quarter, but these were grades I hadn’t earned in years. That said, my overall quarter GPA depended upon my political science class, a course in which I had struggled throughout the semester. I attended every lecture and discussion class, as well as read the necessary assignments and materials, but it just wasn’t clicking in my brain. I earned a D on one midterm exam, a C on another, so by my count, I was tracking a C- for the course…something that would be devastating to my overall GPA. I knew pilot selectees had really good GPAs, so I had to make something good happen on this final. Taking advice from Captain Whitehead, I met with the political science professor, Dr. Liddle, before the exam. I studied more. I met with him again and asked more pointed questions about the nature of the final. I studied as much as I could, took the exam, and held my breath. Now I was waiting.
University policy dictated that final grades for fall quarter 2002 be posted by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, December 17th. While visiting my dad’s office in Bethesda, Maryland (he was working late that night, as usual), I sat on a computer and continued my incessant refreshing of my grades page. Then it appeared. And what happened was one of my flashbulb memories of my life. I sat there, in awe, and shouted to my dad sitting across the office.
“B+! I GOT A B+ IN POLITICAL SCIENCE!!!”
I must have aced the exam because there is no other way I could earn that grade after the garbage I had earlier in the semester. My dad came running over, gave me a hug, and told me he was very proud of me. He’d always wanted me to be academically successful, and now I had proved that I could do it. And there it was, my final GPA for my first quarter in college: 3.50.
I had even earned a spot on the Dean’s List, which I later found out required a 3.5 GPA or higher.
I was elated and excited, particularly because I found out that the Air Force ROTC awarded students with financial bonuses for earning good grades. Except there was one problem. The bonuses were only for cadets with scholarships. But I was in for a much bigger treat.
Upon returning from winter break and excited to start winter quarter 2003, I was directed to report to the office of Colonel Brocki, our detachment commander. “Parker, I have some great news,” she told me. “The Air Force has awarded you a full tuition ROTC scholarship.” Clearly I was shocked and questioned how that happened because I had not applied for another one in the formal application process, which would happen later in 2003. Colonel Brocki told me that Air Force ROTC headquarters granted each ROTC detachment one scholarship to award to a new unscholarshipped freshmen. “We selected you, Cadet Schaffel.” I was amazed. I was stunned. I had no idea it was coming. “Thank you, ma’am, this is fantastic news,” I told her before saluting and leaving her office. I called my parents and told them the news. I got a letter from my dad stating how proud he was of me to have me as a son. I still have that letter.
Starting in autumn quarter 2003, the beginning of my sophomore year, I would receive a $15,000/year tuition scholarship. In addition, I would receive a monthly stipend, and money for books and other school fees…and that coveted bonus for grades. It was all coming together. My hard work was paying off.
The good news and excitement did not end there. A few weeks later, all ROTC cadets had the opportunity to apply to a variety of ROTC summer programs, paid for and sponsored by the air force, and they included some really cool programs like combat survival training and SOAR, the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) glider training school. But another one piqued my interest more than any other: Freefall, the USAFA parachuting school. It was the only program where, upon successful completion of five freefall parachute jumps, participants earned the coveted basic parachutist badge, something I could wear on my uniform for life.
Detachment leadership told us that ROTC headquarters would release the summer program selections at the end of March or early April. So, I waited. As winter quarter finished and I earned a 3.45 GPA, I joined an Air Force ROTC trip to Eglin Air Force Base, located on a large swath of land in Florida’s panhandle. We were scheduled to tour the base, visit some units, and get a feel for active duty. At some point driving along I-65, probably in Alabama, I moved toward the front of the bus and was talking with one of our ROTC staff officers, Captain Bill Kossick. I asked him about the results of the summer program selection. “I’m not at liberty to say,” he said. “But I can tell you this: you were selected for a program, and while I can’t tell you specifically, let’s just say that you’re going no farther west than Colorado Springs…and that you’re going to need a parachute.”
I thanked him, sat back in my chair, and smiled. I thought about all the things were really going my way: a great GPA, good status and ranking as a cadet, an academic scholarship, and now selection to jump school.
I was getting after it. I was making it happen.
I reported to the Air Force Academy on Friday, August 8th, 2003, and started ground training the next day until Monday, August 11th. I completed three jumps on Tuesday, my final two jumps on Wednesday, and had my wings pinned by an Air Force Staff Sergeant on the USAF Parachute Team by 1 p.m. that day. I made five successful jumps and earned my wings. When I returned from training, I met my grandfather, the retired Air Force major. I gave him the exact wings that my instructor pinned on my uniform a few days before. He immediately put them on his “US Air Force Vietnam Veteran” hat that he wore everywhere.
I entered my sophomore year with a full scholarship, a new parachutist badge, and a full head of steam to keep going and get after it. Academically, I did the best I possibly could, earning a 4.0 each of the three quarters for the year, each of which earned me a nice $400 academic bonus. Between my sophomore and junior years, I attended to Air Force ROTC Field Training, a five-week basic officer course at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Little sleep, lots of physical training, tons of stressful situations. You passed the time by keeping your mouth shut, which was difficult for me, and just waiting until the next meal. I was lucky enough to spend my 20th birthday there. I graduated 5th out of the 25 cadets in my flight and returned to Columbus for my junior year.
Now part of the upperclassmen, I was put in charge of the oversight, training, and development 15 freshmen and sophomore cadets. I loved every minute of it; it was the job I wanted upon returning to the detachment. During fall quarter 2004, I submitted my application for selection to pilot training. I had this unrelenting desire to return to the air and knew even more that I wanted to fly.
Friday, March 11th, 2005 was one of the greatest days in my life. In no rush for my 9:30 a.m. history class, I slept until about 8:30 a.m. When I woke, I noticed I had a voicemail and a missed call from the detachment’s main phone number. I checked the message and heard the voice of one of our staff officers, Major Budd Zinni. “Good morning, Parker, this is Major Zinni. I want to let you know that we received results for the aviation selection board and you were selected for pilot training. Congratulations. Please come by the detachment to fill out paperwork.”
I did it!
All of my hard work had come to pass! Everything I had worked for in the last three years all pointed to one goal: pilot training selection. I was selected for a spot in pilot training in the world’s greatest air force.
I succeeded. I got after it. I worked hard, gave everything I had, and did what I needed to do when it needed to be done. Nothing was going to stop me. I was going to fly planes in the air force and follow in the footsteps of the man I respected most in the world—my grandfather.
Because of my selection to pilot training, I also was selected for an ROTC summer program called Operation Air Force, which placed cadets between their junior and senior years in an operational air force unit, so the cadets could experience active duty for three weeks and get a better sense of what what active duty would be like in their specific career tracks.
I was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron, “The Gamblers,” at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, the home of the 20th Fighter Wing. I flew down to Columbia, South Carolina, and got a ride to the base in Sumter, with my sponsor, callsign Rider. I reported to his unit every day, sat in on operational planning meetings, talked with pilots about their experiences, and helped with scheduling and mission planning. Of course, my most coveted and memorable experience was when I got to fly.
The 20th Fighter Wing flew F-16 fighter jets, formally known as the “Fighting Falcon,” and informally known as the “Viper.” Most F-16 models are one-seater planes, in which the pilot does the flying, navigation, dogfighting, ground attack, and everything else. But there was one model, the F-16D, which had two seats and was used for training purposes. Each of the 20th Fighter Wing’s three squadrons shared this model on a rotating basis. So, as luck would have it, the 77th Fighter Squadron got the D-model in late July, and it was my time to fly. Although I no longer have the pictures of me in the plane, I will never forget that experience.
Geared up head to toe in a flight suit, boots, harness, G-suit, helmet, mask, and a gear bag, I climbed up the ladder with the help of the staff sergeant crew chief. I stepped into the cockpit and lowered myself down in to the seat, careful to not touch anything. I had already been through egress training, so I knew how to strap myself in. I placed the bag behind the seat, buckled all of the straps that now attached my body to the ejection seat and pulled out a plastic bag….in case I needed to barf, something which about 9 out of 10 people flying a fighter for the first time did.
The G-suit, which is almost like a second set of pants, has elastic straps on the tops of the legs, which pilots use to put mission plans and flight routes. I pulled the bag open and slid the bottom of it under one of the straps. Strangely, but not surprisingly, they had all new personnel practice throwing off the oxygen mask and pulling up the puke bag in one motion. The rule was simple: If you puked in the mask, you cleaned it.
After systems checks and an almost mission abort due to a technical error, we received clearance to take off. Just like in the movies, the crew chief came to attention and saluted as we went by. As cool as I thought it would be to return the salute, I let the pilot of my plane take it and return it. After all, he was the lieutenant colonel, not me.
“You ok back there, Parker?” Lt. Col. Scott Long, call sign “Chemo” asked me. (His call sign was Chemo because he had a completely bald head…by choice).
“Yes, sir. Doing great. Really excited for this.”
Then we all lined up and hit the afterburner. My hands in my lap, I watched the throttle shoot forward and we rapidly increased speed. In no time, we were in the air headed to some training range in the middle of nowhere. We flew in the “finger-four” flying formation, comprising a “lead element” and a “second element”, each of two aircraft. When viewing the formation from above, the positions of the planes resemble the tips of the four fingers of a human right hand (without the thumb), giving the formation its name. As I looked, I noticed we were the element leader…aka the ring finger.
Then, the fun began. Chemo turned the plane on a 45-degree angle and pulled back on the joystick, causing us to turn. I felt the increase in g-force on my body and felt the g-suit (on my legs), start to get filled with air. The idea of the G-suit is its connection to the plane, which has a sensor to track G-force. The more G-force there is, the more the plane pumps air into the suit, which helps you lock down blood flow in your legs. Doing that helps keep your body’s blood flowing between your heart and brain and not rushing down into your legs. If you lose blood flow to your brain, you go unconscious…not something you want when flying 700 mph.
So we start making some turns, and I notice the G-force meter in the plane is going higher each time. 3.7….4.5….5.2…
“You ok, Parker?”
“Yes, sir! Loving every minute of it!” And I totally was.
After a few more air maneuvers, some of which were done by hand signal between the pilots, Chemo came back on the radio. “Parker, you have the controls.”
That statement was the predecessor to me taking control of the stick and throttle, and his acknowledgement to me that he was prepared to transition control to me. I slowly gripped the joystick with my right hand and throttle with my left hand, and provided the standard response: “I have the controls.”
“Ok, Parker, the plane is yours. Let’s keep the throttle where it is, but why don’t you go ahead and test out the joystick. Remember the plane is fly-by-wire, so it’s sensitive, but try it out.” This was everything I dreamed of. Here I was, a 21-year old ROTC cadet, getting the first taste of my life’s dream, flying close to 700 mph over the open skies of South Carolina. It was actually happening, and I was so happy, so thrilled to be a part of it. I could actually say that I flew an F-16 fighter jet. I only wanted more.
After about 30 seconds, Lt. Col. Long took back the controls to continue conducting maneuvers. “Sir, you have the controls,” I said. “I have the controls,” he responded.
But he continued. “Parker, are you ready to rock and roll?”
No hesitation on my part: “Yes, sir.”
The next thing I know, he’s banked the plane at a 90-degree angle; we’re basically flying sideways. He pulled back on the stick and threw us into an extremely tight turn. The G-meter start to spike. 6.0…..7.0….7.5…..7.8. The G-suit tightened, I controlled by breathing, and tensed my muscles, holding on to my consciousness.
We pulled out of it.
“Damn it! I wanted 8 Gs that time!” Chemo shouted.
We bank the other way, and he pulls back again.
I tensed up, locked my muscles, and tried to gain some semblance of what we were doing in the air.
“Yes! That’s what I’m talking about. 8.1 Gs on that one!”
Once more, he rolled us back, and we hit 8.2 Gs.
Did I want to throw up? Yes. Had I turned on the extra oxygen to help prevent myself from vomiting? Yes. Had I vomited yet? Nope.
We eventually make our way back to the base, aligned in formation, and landed the plane. We pulled into the taxi area and Chemo cut off the plane. I made it…and I didn’t puke. The plastic bag was still in the same place on my leg as when I first put it there. We hopped down the ladder and I got a high five from Chemo. As we walked back from the flight line to the squadron headquarters, we were joined by the other pilots on the mission. One of them, a fairly rotund major, callsign Joker, came over to us.
“Hey Chemo, how’d he do?”
“I kicked his ass up there, but he hung in for every bit,” he responded.
I’ll never forget that. It was almost as if I had made it and been accepted into the fighter pilot community. Walking back up to the squadron headquarters with those four other pilots was one of the most amazing, humbling, and incredible experiences I’ll ever remember. I was so excited to finish school and join the real ranks, eventually flying one of these planes on my own.
Unfortunately, that was the last plane I would ever fly.
A few weeks after I returned from Shaw AFB, I had to obtain a full flight physical to get medically cleared to be a pilot. The test is more invasive than normal medical tests for officer screening, and understandably so. There is a big difference between putting you behind a desk and letting you fly a $100-million-dollar aircraft. I arrived at Brooks AFB, San Antonio, Texas with eight of my fellow Ohio State cadets who had been selected for flight school. The physical was two days long and consisted of every test imaginable: EKG of my heart, eye dilation, urinalysis, blood analysis, etc.
The very last “test” I had was a meeting with physician to talk about my medical history. The Lieutenant Colonel flight surgeon asked me if I took any prescriptions, and I responded that I did. I described the medication Elidel, which I brought with me to show him, something I had used since I was a teenager for some dry skin I had on my nose. While I wasn’t swallowing any pills, I wanted to disclose the information because the Air Force’s first core value was “Integrity First.” I assessed that, as long as I was honest, everything would work out. “This isn’t pre-approved for air crew, but don’t worry, I can get you a waiver,” he said. “It won’t be a problem.
A few weeks later, in September 2005, I returned to school, and shortly after the quarter began, most of my fellow cadets had received their medical clearance letters. I had not. A week later, Master Sergeant Todd Fewell, the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of our ROTC detachment, told me that my medical clearance hadn’t come back yet and that he was worried about not only my flight status but my commission.
The next day, Thursday, October 13th, my detachment received a letter stating that I needed to obtain a private dermatologic consultation regarding my “condition.” I called a local dermatologist and scheduled an appoint for the following day. I drove to his office, met with him, and explained my situation. I told him that I had dermatitis and that I used Elidel to control it. As long as I used it, it wasn’t even noticeable. “I can see that you’ve got a little, and it’s probably something that you can control with over-the-counter stuff and not a prescription,” he told me.
He wrote that in a letter, stating the condition I had, but noted that I didn’t have to use a prescription to control it. He sugarcoated the language, and I hoped it would work. I gave a copy of the letter to MSgt Fewell, who told me that after submitting it, the Air Force Medical Command had 45 days to review the document and provide its response.
Medical command didn’t take 45 days. They took seven.
Thursday, October 20th, 2005 was one of the worst days of my life. And I knew it early on. Thurdays were uniform days, and the plan of the week directed us to wear our service dress uniform that day. I was proud of my service dress. I had earned a full rack of ROTC ribbons, including awards from the American Veterans and the War of 1812 Society, physical fitness ribbons, honor and merit ribbons, and more. I wore a blue and yellow aiguillette (an ornamental braided cord), representing my membership in Air Force ROTC’s Arnold Air Society. But most importantly, atop my ribbon rack, I had the two badges I was most proud of: the basic parachutist badge and the cadet pilot badge, the latter of which I wore to signify my selection for pilot training. I put on the uniform and stood outside my bedroom door, looking at myself in a long mirror that hung on the opposite wall from where I was standing.
It was at that point that I knew.
I knew it was the last time I was ever going to wear the air force uniform.
At about 2:30 p.m. that day, as all of my fellow cadets were in our weekly Leadership Laboratory class, I was directed to report to Colonel Huhn, the officer who had taken over for Colonel Brocki. I reported in, saluted, and sat across from the colonel, who sat in his chair behind his desk. To my left was Major Caraway, my instructor for my Air Science 401 class. Sitting next to me on a small couch was MSgt Fewell.
The colonel started speaking. “Cadet Schaffel, I am sorry to say that the air force has decided, on account of your skin condition, to medically disqualify you from AFROTC and honorably discharge you. You no longer, from this point on, will attend Leadership Laboratory or physical training. You can choose to remain in the Air Science 401 class at your discretion.”
I don’t really remember what happened next. I probably said something, as did some of the other officers, but I didn’t hear them. I only remember looking down at the floor, choking back on my own tears, which I was fighting to keep inside me. I stood up and noticed that Major Caraway’s elbows were on his knees and his head was in his hands. As I walked out, I noticed that MSgt Fewell was crying. I hadn’t noticed it until that point, but it seemed as if tears had been coming down his face for some time, perhaps because he knew what was coming the whole time. It was rare for a cadet to be deeply respected by a 20-year enlisted man, but I knew I had earned it from MSgt Fewell. I walked out of the colonel’s office, through the lobby of our detachment, and headed toward the stairwell. As luck would have it, I saw my two of my best friends, Andrew Galusha and Jason Brenner, two fellow cadets with whom I was planning to commission in a few months.
They stopped me at the top of the stairwell and asked me what happened because they knew of the pending decision. I could only get out a few words.
“It’s not good.”
I walked down two flights of stairs and out of the ROTC building and crossed the street to the business campus. I stopped at the first bench I could find. I sat down and started bawling. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever cried as much as I did at that moment. I cried, and I kept crying, until I had nothing left.
I cried because I lost everything I had worked so hard for. Everything was gone. My life’s dream was gone. No pilot training. No commission. No air force. I had nothing left.
I called my parents. Somehow, through my broken and cracked voice, I told them that the air force was discharging me. They were sympathetic, and expressed their disappointment in the situation as much as they could be over the phone. But that was not the hardest phone call to make. That title belongs to the phone call I made to my grandfather, the one who was going to commission me into the air force. The one whose footsteps I planned to follow. The one who had already brought a new air force uniform, so we could both be on the same stage, at the same time, with both of our hands in the air, repeating the same lines of the same oath that he swore when he commissioned in 1955.
I tried to get the words out, but it was just so difficult. I started bawling and, through muffled slurs, told the news of my discharge to my hero. I don’t remember what he said or what happened after that, other than somehow stumbling back to my apartment and upstairs to my room. I stood in the same mirror in which I looked earlier in the day. I stood there for probably 10 minutes with tears streaming down my face and looked at my wings and my ribbons. All of the accomplishments I achieved—my pilot selection, basic parachutist badge, various awards, etc.—were all perfectly aligned on my blue jacket. I took off my air force uniform off for the last time. No letter to a Senator or appeal letter would do me any justice. I received my discharge in November.
After the grieving process, I regained my determination to commission in the military and serve my country. I spoke with the Army ROTC battalion commander, an army lieutenant colonel, who told me that his program would love to have someone like me with outstanding physical fitness and a 3.7 GPA. I enrolled in Military Science 402, the army’s equivalent of the air force classes and began the program in January 2006.
My time with the army would not be as exciting, memorable, or positive as my time with the air force, for several reasons: the army was mandating that I attend basic officer training again, although I had already done it with the air force; was not willing to provide me a guaranteed spot in intelligence training, despite my extremely high GPA; and most importantly, accused me of sexual harassment for a one-time flirt with a female cadet. (For the record, an investigation was launched, and the girl reported that she, in fact, had no problem with my flirting and that she did not report it. The report was made from another male cadet, formerly in Air Force ROTC now in Army ROTC and a cadet with whom I had a long history of problems.)
Following a chastising by the battalion commander, who was not interested in my side of the story, I flew home to discuss the situation with my family. I decided it was in my best interest to disenroll from Army ROTC. Since I had signed a contract a few weeks before, I would receive another discharge from the military, my second in six months.
So, my senior year of college had gone like this:
September 2005: Set to commission in the air force and go to pilot training
October 2005: Disenrolled from the air force
November 2005: Received official discharge from the air force
January 2006: Enroll in and begin Army ROTC program
February 2006: Disenroll from Army ROTC and request discharge
April 2006: Received official discharge from the army
Despite the ups and downs my senior year, I had two months to figure out what I was going to do after college. Luckily, my good grades and my gregarious nature landed me a job with Ameriprise Financial as a financial advisor. While I enjoyed the job, I still wanted to serve the United States, so I applied to various positions in the Intelligence Community and received a conditional offer of employment in December 2006. I completed the background checks and security processing in the spring of 2007 and began working as a military analyst for the government that summer. While I hadn’t commissioned in the military, at least I was serving my country.
A few months after joining my office, I met a manager who was a captain in the Navy Reserve. Upon telling him my story of my ups and downs when trying to commission, he told me that the navy had a “back door” called the direct commission program. Basically, the program took civilians with equivalent work experience in select fields (like intelligence, engineering, public affairs) and made them officers in the navy reserve in those respective fields…no basic officer training, not really anything other than an application and an interview.
On December 5th, 2007, I reached out to the local navy officer recruiter and said I was interested in the program. I took the Aviation Selection Test Battery, which includes a section on “officer aptitude rating” (I earned a 57; 35 is the minimum score necessary to commission as an officer) in January 2008, and the next month, completed the application package and had an interview with four navy captains. In March, my package went to a selection board along with two letters of recommendation.
On April 9th, I received an email From Lieutenant Commander Joe Phillips, the recruiter with whom I had been working:
“Parker, the Intel results have been posted. You were not selected, HOWEVER, your package was “tabled,” which means it will be reviewed at the next Intel selection board (date TBD). We should not have to update anything prior to that next board, but if we do, we’ll let you know.”
I had tried again to commission, and failed again, but at least there was a little room for hope. They would consider me again at a secondary board the next month. Except, that wasn’t going to happen. “I misspoke yesterday by saying the INTEL “tabled” applications would go to board on May 1st,” read an email from Chief Petty Officer Rhonda Denton in LCDR Phillips’ office. “The current information available from the command is that the next board is still to be determined.”
Then it was May. Then it was June, and I finally found out that the next intelligence officer selection board would be convening in October. I hoped they wouldn’t need anything of me in the meantime because I was heading to Afghanistan for work in August. With no good news coming while I was overseas, I responded as best I could, hoping that I would receive some good news at some point. The email traffic stopped, and I waited.
I returned from Afghanistan on Monday morning, October 20th, 2008, three years to the day since I found out I would be discharged from the air force. Having just returned from civilian service in Afghanistan, I felt like that day was slightly better, as I had at least done something close to military service. Upon arrival, I went to my parents’ place, gave my family a hug, and went to dinner that night with them and my roommate Mike. Two days later, my friend Joe and I started a celebratory, coming-home road trip, which would take us through Ohio, Michigan, and Canada, and part of the trip consisted of me stopping at The Ohio State University to assist my agency with a recruiting event that Thursday.
While walking with a colleague across the Oval in the middle of campus, I received a phone call from LT Harper, my new recruiter, at about 2:30 p.m. “Parker, hi this is Brian Harper. I have some good news for you.”
I stopped walking. I listened.
“Congratulations. The board selected you for direct commission.”
That was all I needed to hear. “FUCK YEAH!” I screamed, before I immediately apologized to the lieutenant for my language. He said he understood and appreciated my excitement. I stood there with my mouth open, a big, gaping smile. “Thank you, sir, this is great news.” He told me he would be in touch on next steps. I called my parents, and most importantly my grandfather, to tell them the news. But I knew I wasn’t out of the water yet because I had to complete something that had stricken me before: a physical.
About a week later, I received the email containing information on how to schedule my physical, which would have two parts: a standard appointment with a nurse to go over my medical history and collect blood and urine samples; and and an appointment with a physician. I completed the appointments in December without any issues. But, then the communication went silent. January. February. Then it was March.
I never lost hope during this time, despite it had now been about 15 months since I started this process, and six months since I found out that I could commission. Still nervous, I emailed: “LT Harper, I heard from some other selectees that some good news came in for them today. Is there anything about which you can inform me? Thanks again and I hope all is well.”
The response was not what I hoped for:
“Parker, do you by chance have a copy of your exit physical from the Air Force? It seems the Navy wants to see it.”
I told LT Harper that I didn’t have any of the documents from the physical, which was a lie. I had them, but I didn’t want to disclose anything I didn’t have to. If they found them on their own, that’s one thing, but I wasn’t going to provide incriminating information about myself. He told me that all he probably would need was a DD-214, the standard discharge form for military service members. The next problem was that, because I never served any time on active duty, I didn’t have a DD-214. And again, I feared I was stuck.
Another month went by with no communication from LT Harper, so I requested another update. Seemingly out of the blue, he responded: “I’m trying to get an answer about your air force physical. Do you have some kind of skin condition?”
Just what I was dreading. The air force was going to bite me again, and that damn dry skin was going to prevent me from commissioning in a third branch of the armed forces. But not so fast. I had learned my lesson in 2005. And that lesson was still very real and very visceral. Almost four years before this, I told the truth about my condition and it prevented me from obtaining my dream. I was not going to let that happen again. In my response to LT Harper, I chose my words carefully, and this was my exact response:
“LT, I do not. I told the Navy medical people at Bethesda [Naval Base] that I was discharged from the air force for having some sort of skin condition when I was 21 years old. However, I haven’t had any problems/issues/anything at all for about 3 years (since I was 22). I don’t have any condition now and do not have a prescription or use anything over the counter.”
I lied. Simple as that. I learned my lesson. I learned that being honest about that would keep me out. I was determined to commission and I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen. If that meant lying about my dermatitis, then so be it.
Now it was May and the navy medical command was requesting specific information about my “skin condition.” Fine. I’d do what they asked, but again taking a cue from a past lesson learned. In 2005, I saw a dermatologist, described my condition, and disclosed my medication. This time would be different.
I scheduled an appointment for late May with a internal medicine doctor named Alan Pollack. I had never seen him before but he was my grandmother’s and mother’s doctor, so he knew my family well and had heard considerably about me. I scheduled a physical with him and, upon meeting him, told him that I was applying to the navy and that I needed him to determine two things: his assessment of my physical readiness for military service and his determination if I had any “skin lesions” of any kind. I told him nothing about my dermatitis and nothing about my prescription cream, which I was still using. He laid me down on his exam table, poked and prodded as doctors do, and said very simply: “You seem fine to me and I don’t see any skin lesions.”
My response was simpler: “Thank you, doctor. Could you please put that in a letter for me so I can send it to the navy?” I had the letter that after a few days and it stated exactly what I asked. We sent the letter in to the medical command.
As luck would have it, on June 12th, I received another damning letter from yet another military medical command. This one, from the navy stated, in different words, the same message I received four years before from the air force. I was disqualified from military service due to dermatitis.
I didn’t understand. Dr. Pollack’s letter said I was fine and it was very explicit about my lack of condition: “Specifically, Parker has no skin lesions or evidence of any skin disease.” But I don’t give up. I was going to fight and I was not going to take no for an answer because I found a small glimmer of hope at the bottom of the navy disqualification letter. Paragraph five stated that they would reconsider the decision if they received a copy of my DD-214 a letter from me indicating any current medications I took.
So, that evening, a letter is what I wrote.
My first sentence bluntly asked for a reconsideration of the decision, based on four criteria:
- Dr. Pollack’s indication that I was in excellent physical condition and had no skin lesions of any kind;
- My certification that I did not take any medications of any kind, although I was lying;
- A University of Arizona medical study that indicated dermatitis tends to disappear as people reach adulthood, comparing it to the air force discharge letter recommending me for service if my condition was nonexistent; and
- My lack of DD-214 from never having served on active duty.
I printed out the letter and the three supporting documents and mailed them via hard copy to the medical command. The remaining days in June ticked by as I anxiously waited for a response. I’d go to work at 7:30 a.m., check my personal email and voicemail repeatedly, and leave saddened at 4 p.m, knowing that if I hadn’t heard from LT Harper by then, I wasn’t going to hear anything that day.
Most days, I would return home by 4:30 p.m. and ride my bike for an hour or two. I’d ride for miles through the distant suburbs of Washington, DC, just thinking, hoping…perhaps even praying…that I would get some good news and that all of my hard work would eventually pay off.
June 26th was my 25th birthday, and I spent the weekend at my parents’ lake house with Joe, my then-girlfriend Cameron, and some other friends. It was a fantastic weekend that ended with a great concert on Sunday night. But that weekend would not come close to the celebration I would have a few days later.
On Tuesday, June 30th, I emailed LT Harper again, checking in on any status. He responded a few hours later, around 1:30 p.m. telling me that he didn’t know anything, but that he’d send something as soon as he did. I drove home from work, sat on my couch in the living room, and pulled open my laptop to check my email again. I logged in. I had another message from LT Harper, something he didn’t do often unless he was replying to one of my inquiries. His email contained no text, only an attachment. I clicked on it and started reading it line by line.
“Based on a review of available medical information, subject applicant DOES NOT meet established physical standards due to chronic atopic dermatitis, chronic seborrheic dermatitis.”
Damn it. AGAIN!
But I kept reading.
“A waiver of the physical standards IS DISAPPROVED for Unrestricted Line.”
Keep reading, there was more.
“A waiver of the physical standards IS APPROVED for Restricted Line/Staff Corps only. The waiver code to be assigned is HCB.”
The intelligence corps was part of the restricted line.
I was approved.
I did it.
I made it.
Eight years, three military branches, discharges, contracts, ups, downs, and everything in between. I was granted a waiver and was approved for military service. Beaming with excitement, jubilation, and energy, I went for a run outside and found myself in a clearing surrounded by woods. I screamed. Just screamed. Bliss. Happiness. It all came out. Eight years of trying. And it finally paid off. I yelled. I cried. I’ll never forget it. It was there and it was real. I did it. I accomplished my goal.
I got after it. I never gave up. I never quit.
August 11th, 2009 was one of the greatest days of my life. I drove to Andrews AFB, Maryland, about a 45-minute drive from my home in Virginia. My grandparents, parents, and brother met me there. After checking in with LT Harper and signing the necessary paperwork for my eight-year commitment in the navy reserve, we went outside near the flight line. I was wearing the navy summer white uniform: white, short-sleeve shirt; white pants, white shoes, and a white cap. On my uniform, above my left breast pocket, a piece of metal glistened in the sunlight: my basic parachutist badge. Across the runway, I noticed some F-16s, my favorite plane, lining the taxiway. I looked at my badge and looked at the planes. I smiled.
I stood in front of a flag pole, and across from me was my hero, my grandfather.
Major Arthur Sturm, US Air Force (Retired), with a smile on his face, raised his right hand, and I raised mine. He spoke, and I repeated:
I, Parker Jeffrey Schaffel,
Having been appointed an Ensign in the United States Navy Reserve,
Do solemnly swear to support and defend
The constitution of the United States
Against all enemies, foreign and domestic,
And that I bear true faith and allegiance to the same,
And that I take this obligation freely,
Without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion,
And that I will well and faithfully
Discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter.
So help me God.