BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
Capt. Dane McKenzie, an Electronic Warfare Officer with the Air Force Reserve’s 343rd Bomb Squadron, has faced his share of adversity. From his humble beginnings as the son of a dairy farmer in Jamaica, he had to overcome several obstacles to achieve his dream of flying aboard the B-52 Stratofortress. McKenzie battled for his education, earned his U.S. citizenship and fought through injuries, always trying to better himself along the way. He took time from his busy schedule to tell his story.
Q: Tell me a little about your upbringing in Jamaica.
McKenzie: I was a country boy, my dad had a dairy farm and I grew up milking cows and raising chickens. It’s a lot of work. We had about 25 head of cattle.
Q: Did you think you might take over that operation one day?
McKenzie: No, no. I always wanted to fly. For me it was just a means to an end. I knew from the time I was four-years-old I wanted to fly. I took a flight from Jamaica to Miami at that age and it opened my eyes to airplanes.
Q: Did you think you wanted to fly military aircraft?
McKenzie: No, I just wanted to fly. I was drawn to military aviation later in life. I had an aunt serving, now a retired Senior Master Sergeant, in the Air Force and she came to Jamaica for vacation once. She encouraged me to join the Air Force after I completed high school or college. Once I was done with college I got in touch with her and she contacted a recruiter on my behalf. That’s where the journey started.
Q: Is college what brought you to the United States?
McKenzie: No, I went to college in Cuba. I had a full scholarship to study medicine, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. So I switched to engineering.
Q: So you realized a medical career wasn’t for you after you began your courses?
McKenzie: I didn’t even get started in medicine. I had a sister there studying medicine and as soon as I got there she helped me look at my options and I chose engineering. She had to help me, because everything was in Spanish and I couldn’t understand any of it.
Q: What was college in Cuba like?
McKenzie: It was difficult at first because I didn’t speak any Spanish, so I’d have to try and take notes and then go home and translate them from Spanish to English. So, it was rough for the first two years until I became more fluent. Fortunately, the Jamaican government had worked it out so that we didn’t have to take any of the political courses in Cuba, so I had a little extra time to work on my studies. Also, my course of study involved a lot of numbers and that made it easier. Languages change, but numbers never change.
Q: What happened after college?
McKenzie: After graduation, I went home for a few months, then moved to New York City. I was working there, when my aunt intervened and got me in touch with an Air Force recruiter. I scored really high on the ASVAB, but my options were limited because I was not a U.S. citizen, yet. So, I enlisted and went in open general. I wound up in public health.
Q: Which is exactly what you didn’t want to do, work in the medical field?
McKenzie: Right, it was exactly what I didn’t want. (laughs) It’s funny how things come back around.
Q: How long were you enlisted?
McKenzie: Five years, almost to the day of gaining my commissioning. I was able to gain my U.S. citizenship about a year into my enlistment. I extended after four years because my supervisor was really trying to help me become an officer and she said she needed about a year to get me in. Nine months after I put in my application, I was accepted. I was actually in Airman Leadership School when I got the news.
Q: Were you thinking of flying at that point?
McKenzie: Yes, I got picked up for a flying billet. I did the rated board. I transferred to the Air Force Reserve because the 343rd Bomb Squadron held the billet. It was a lot for me to get through because when I was in Officer Training School, I broke my foot. When you are in the pipeline, things are very delicate. An injury can be a reason to wash out, but fortunately I was able to push through even with a broken foot.
Q: What happened after OTS?
McKenzie: I made it to flight school and injured my knee. I was out of flying status for a year, but I paid out of pocket for private lessons. Flight school is very challenging and very competitive, so I thought it would be best to try and stay ahead. After completing that school, I went to Navigator school in Florida and promptly blew my eardrum out on my first flight. That set me back for three months but I eventually graduated and came back to Barksdale Air Force Base to specialize.
Q: Did you know you wanted to be an Electronic Warfare Officer?
McKenzie: Yes, I went to the Formal Training Unit at Barksdale for that job. It was at the FTU that I broke my ankle.
Q: Wow! Another school another injury?
McKenzie: It seems like every time I go to a new school I get hurt! (laughs) I should be scared to go to school, but I’m not. Seriously, in the Air Force today, school is vital. You have to keep advancing your education.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person looking to join the military?
McKenzie: I would tell them to be motivated and prepared, because you get out of the military what you put into it. Then, I’d tell them to just go for it. Follow your heart and your dreams. The military is a great place to be, in that you get more than just a job. You get camaraderie and life experiences that just aren’t available in civilian jobs. We’re part of a common fabric and you get the sense that you are working on something much bigger than yourself.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
McKenzie: The Air Force is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done. That’s what makes it so rewarding. And I really believe that everyone, deep down inside, has what it takes to meet that kind of challenge. If I can do it, anyone can do it.