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Home : News : News
NEWS | June 26, 2017

Commentary: I Joined for the Boots

By Chief Master Sgt. Jessica M. Bernardi-Clancey Robert D. Gaylor Noncommissioned Officer Academy

Growing up there was one thing I could always count on, my dad's boots.

Whether it was combat boots from his time in the Army, or work boots from his power plant job, if dad was home, his boots were by the door. Some days they were a sign of excitement, a chance to hang out, go swimming in the lake, or take a long bike ride. Other days, they were a sign of anxiety because I did poorly on an assignment or test. Sometimes they were just a simple sign the family had to be quiet because my dad worked the night before. Whatever the day held, my dad's boots were a constant.

Everything changed when I was 11 years old. My dad and his boots moved out. I saw him every chance I got, but it was never the same. The comfort and security the boots brought were gone.

Fast forward to August 1995, I worked as supervisor at Hardee's making $400 a week, living with my mom in a small town in Indiana. Life wasn’t bad. Out of the blue, I received a call from my friend Jason I hadn't seen in a while. He was a few years older than me. I thought it was strange he was calling me.

Jason told me he just returned from Air Force basic military training. He asked if I would be interested in talking to his recruiter. I answered his question with a question, "Will I get boots?"

In February 1996, I got my boots. Shortly after, I graduated BMT in April.

The first day of tech school I was in a classroom with three of my friends and nine other people. There was a senior master sergeant with us who thought it was a good idea to go around the room and find out why everyone joined. People gave answers like money for college, family tradition, pride in our country, or a need to be a part of something bigger. These were acceptable answers. Then she asked me, "Airman Basic Bernardi, what made you join the Air Force?" Without hesitation I told her, "Ma’am, I joined for the boots."

She was not pleased. Her eyes squinted as she explained to me that all the other Airmen in the room gave thoughtful answers about bettering themselves and pride in their country, and the best answer I could give her was the boots. There wasn't any point in arguing with her. The best reason, the biggest reason I had for joining the Air Force was for the boots. The boots represented the comfort, security and safety I felt I lost years ago, and this was my opportunity to get them back. So, with as much dignity and respect as I could muster, I responded, "Yes, Ma'am. I joined for the boots." With that, she stormed out of the room.

I have often thought about that moment. I loved my black leather combat boots. They were symbolic to me, and reminded me of a great part of my childhood. Though it wasn't perfect, it was right for me. Now, 21 years later, I am back where it all began. A lot has changed. Our boots are no longer black leather. We no longer starch our uniforms. I am now a chief master sergeant. Looking back, I do not think I could have explained why getting the boots was so important to me.

From the experience, I learned:

  • When asking questions, you might not always get the answer you expect, but that doesn't necessarily make the answer wrong. Sometimes you need to ask more questions.

  • Don’t change your answer to suit or follow the group. While your answer may not be well received, if it is your honest answer, it holds value to you.

  • Sharing your story can help others.

  • The safer the environment, the more people will open up and let you in.

  • Do not to try to make people feel inferior because they don't value the same things as you.

  • The hardest lesson I learned came from the man who wore the boots. Take every opportunity you get to spend with the people you love. When it comes to time, there is never enough time with the people you love.

I lost my dad in September 2016. Since then I realized the comfort, security, and safety were always there. They didn’t come from the boots. They came from our bond. They came from our hearts. It never hurts to have a pair of boots by the door.