RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas —
If experience is the best teacher, some 200 students from a San Antonio middle school learned invaluable lessons last week from a group of Randolph Airmen with personal stories to tell and messages to impart.
The Dwight Middle School students visited Randolph for the new school year's first session of San Antonio-based GAMER, or Giving Americans Motivational Education for the Real World, a program that motivates inner-city youth to strive for success by exposing them to accomplished people in higher education, business, industry and the military. They experienced Randolph's sights and sounds and listened to enlisted Airmen and officers who encouraged them to make the right choices as they continue on life's path.
"I enjoyed what they told us about the Air Force in general," said Naudius Banda, 14. "The lessons I learned were to always keep your life on track and make good decisions."
The two-hour session started in the base theater, where students saw part of the video "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag," which tells the story of the international fighter training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. They also heard from Major Joel Neeb, 12th Operations Group Standardization and Evaluation Division T-38C Pilot Instructor Training Branch chief, who encouraged them to set themselves up for success "by getting on a path now to do the right thing and doing it as often as you can so you build a reputation of trust."
Major Neeb discussed the successes he has achieved - a fulfilling life as an Air Force pilot and as a husband and father. But he also told them he nearly derailed his life early on when he made some bad choices in high school.
"I didn't bring you guys all the way out here to brag about myself," he said. "I brought you out here because all those great things you just saw, all the cool things that happened to me, almost didn't happen. They probably shouldn't have happened because of some really stupid decisions I was making when I was just a little older than you guys."
Major Neeb, who coordinates the GAMER program at Randolph, said he made a decision to sacrifice school "just for the chance to be cool," so he skipped school, failed classes and drank on weekends. But he righted his path in time to earn acceptance to the Air Force Academy, where the regimen forced him to "stay focused on school" and he learned a valuable lesson.
"I was working really hard, I was doing well in school and I could still have fun," he said. "You have to set boundaries on the things you do for fun."
Major Neeb also told students about his bout with cancer, which was diagnosed in February, and how good decisions paved the way for a strong support system.
"I couldn't have made it through this horrible, challenging ordeal without the Air Force, my family and the background I established because of making good decisions," he said.
Students spent the rest of the session at Air Heritage Park, where they heard and watched presentations by Randolph Fire Emergency Services personnel and the 902nd Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog Section and listened to the life lessons of more Airmen.
Tech. Sgt. Sam Look, Air Force Personnel Center NCO in charge, special operations and test assignments, talked about his difficult home life - living with an alcoholic father and a drug-addicted brother - and how his lack of self-esteem caused him to make wrong choices while he was in high school.
He said he started to make changes in his life when he joined the Air Force, going to school and focusing on college, but the "real impacts" in his life started eight years later when he met his future wife and, after about a year of marriage, received a phone call from his brother, who asked for help after serving his sixth jail sentence. Sergeant Look was more than hesitant, but his wife told him she thought they could make a difference.
"I tell you that because, no matter what situation you could be going through at home, one person in a family can make a huge, huge difference in how that family evolves," he said.
Sergeant Look said his brother confronted his drug problem and now works as a foreman for a Colorado roofing company.
"All it took was one good decision, one person to reach out and help him to make some significant changes and it's impacted him positively and for the rest of his life," he said.
Sergeant Look said his father benefited from his brother's successes, dramatically curbing his drinking.
He said the Air Force's main impact on him has been to "feel positive and good about myself."
Maj. George Garzon, 12th Operations Group T-38C Branch chief, told students about how he parted ways with a friend from a wealthy family "who made some bad choices in high school," including smoking pot, and continued his partying lifestyle through college. He was unable to make the transition to a career and later committed a crime that landed him in prison for life.
"Whatever background you come from, you are in the driver's seat, right now, to make the right choices," he said. "There is no hundred percent direction for you to choose, but it is incumbent on you not to make the wrong choices."
Major Garzon encouraged students to find a job they love and satisfaction and a better quality of life will follow.
"There are a ton of doors open for you and there are probably very few that are closed to you already," he said. "These next few years will definitely define where you're going as far as doors that might close behind you."
Major Garzon also urged students to adopt the Air Force's wingman concept, especially as they make the transition from child to adult.
"Look out for each other," he said. "Find those friends that you're close to and help steer them in the right direction. Surround yourself with good friends and I guarantee you life will be a lot easier for you."
The program made a huge impact on Erica Garcia, 13, who hopes to be an Air Force attorney.
"I enjoyed every single thing," she said. "I cried when (Major Neeb) talked about his cancer. They all really inspired me."