Pushing back and lifting up

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

A seething Military Training Instructor stood glaring at the dorm room, disgusted with its condition. He confronted one of the trainee’s, leaning in only inches from the young troop’s face.

“Trainee Waddles, how could you let this happen!,” he yelled. “This is an embarrassment to me and it ought to be an embarrassment to you!”

Most Airmen would regard any moment like this as a negative experience, but for Staff Sgt. Solomon Waddles, the event was an opportunity.

Waddles had been in the Air Force less than two weeks. Even so, when that MTI singled him out, he took it not as a setback, but as a call to action.

“He saw something in me that I had not, and he expected me to be a leader,” said Waddles, smiling as he recalled the event.

That event, and Waddles’ response, provide insight into his take on resiliency: hard times are just opportunities.

Finding mentors

Waddles approach to resiliency and leadership hinges on the importance of helping, and getting help from, other people.

He remembers feeling like an outsider during his first weeks at Basic Military Training.  Waddles felt surrounded by other trainees who grew up in Air Force families and had been planning to join for years.

Though he had grown up in the shadow of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Waddles knew very little about the service.

“You had guys that could tell you about every plane in the Air Force and that just wasn’t my background,” he said.  “I began to question whether I belonged.”

His encounter with the MTI planted the idea that he may have what it takes not only to be a part of the Air Force, but to be a leader.

“It may sound funny, but he became a mentor to me,” said Waddles. “He was like a mirror that showed me leadership qualities I couldn’t see.”

Others mentors followed.

In 2016, Waddles commanding officer, Lt. Col. George Cole, III, called him on the phone and offered to start his candidacy for Officer Training School.

Waddles was selected to attend OTS, but the entry process dragged on for years. By 2019, Waddles still had no OTS date and Cole had transferred to a new duty station. 

Thoughts of leaving the Air Force Reserve crept in as Waddles neared the end of his enlistment.

A surprise phone call from Cole changed his mind.

“He told me I was an officer, it was just a matter of time,” said Waddles.

He added that the help he received from mentors like Cole and his MTI were critical in making him feel like part of the Air Force family.

It was a lesson he never forgot and one he intended to pass on to others.

People first

Waddles had leaned heavily on his mentors to remain resilient when things were not going well. Those mentors were shaping Waddles own leadership style, one that centered on service to others.

“It might sound like a cliché, but I truly care about people,” explained Waddles. “Every time I made a career decision, people were at the heart of it.”

Shortly after getting chewed out by his MTI, Waddles went over to his flight. Flustered and frustrated, he knew he had to try and display the leadership his MTI saw in him.

So, instead of laying into them, he offered a pep talk with tears in his eyes.

“I just told them we were better than this, that we could be great,” he said.

Waddles explained the decision to try and uplift his fellow trainees comes from his belief that the mission won’t happen without people that care.

“Every organization is made up of people and it is going to survive or fail based on how they perform,” said Waddles.

Learning to fight

Uplifting others and taking strength from mentors has served Waddles well, but the results were based on the idea that the tougher times get, the more important it is to fight back.

Waddles learned that lesson early in life being raised by a single mother.

“My mom was a fighter,” said Waddles, breaking into a huge grin. “Whenever there was a problem, she might get down, but she never gave up.”

Waddles borrowed from that mentality in his own life and career. Even as he thought a date for OTS may not come and his career was over, he pushed harder, earning 307th Bomb Wing Airman of the Year in 2018.

“It’s easy to get down, but if you stay down, then it’s easy to develop a victim’s mindset,” he explained.

Avoiding that attitude paid off and Waddles is scheduled to begin OTS later this year. 

Lesson learned

Waddles said the culture shock he experienced joining the Air Force and the long wait for OTS all served to help him recognize and hone the leadership skills needed to be an officer.

As for resiliency, Waddles said mentoring and taking care of others will always be at the core. 

He also said staying physically fit plays an important role in helping him maintain his outlook on life, as does his sense of spirituality.

“You shouldn’t just exist,” he said. “There’s a purpose for everyone.”

Waddles has found his purpose in the Air Force. A place once so foreign to him has now become a home.