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Overcoming enormous odds – learning to perservere

An Airman poses for a photo

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Knef, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron contractor officer representative, poses for a photo at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Oct. 8, 2019. Knef shared a story about how a couple of bad decisions could have derailed his career, but instead gave him motivation to be successful in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jayden Ford)

An Airman sits in the cockpit of a C-130

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Knef, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron contractor officer representative, sits in a cockpit of C-130J at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Oct. 8, 2019. Knef shared a story about how a couple of bad decisions could have derailed his career, but instead gave him motivation to be successful in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jayden Ford)

An Airman poses for a photo in a C-130

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matthew Knef, 314th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron contractor officer representative, shares his story about overcoming odds and learning to persevere at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Oct. 8, 2019. Knef shared a story about how a couple of bad decisions could have derailed his career, but instead gave him motivation to be successful in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jayden Ford)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --

My Air Force story is one unlike any other. It’s a personal testimony of how hard work and perseverance can overcome enormous odds. It’s a story of how a couple of bad decisions could have derailed a promising young Air Force career, but instead created the rocket fuel which propelled a real life Air Force success story. 

I am the walking, talking, thriving, embodiment of what resilience is all about. The trials and tribulations I faced have shaped the man, leader and Airman you see today.

In April 2007, I received a DUI at my first duty station — Hurlburt Field Air Force Base, Florida. I was an 18-year-old Airman 1st Class and had only been on base for a couple of weeks. When the designated driver decided to take an alternate ride home, I made a foolish and irrational decision to get behind the wheel of my car to drive myself and my other inebriated co-workers back to the dorms. 

In retrospect, it is evident how immature and reckless that decision was. I cared about the wrong things in life and obviously wasn’t ready for the responsibility of being independent and making adult decisions. 

While I knew the next several months were going to be tough, I also knew that I put myself in this mess and the only way out of it would be to put my head down, not ask too many questions and work my tail off — that’s exactly what I did. 

It seemed like no matter how hard I worked, I could not change certain people’s perspective of how they viewed me. All they saw, it seemed, was the kid who got the DUI, not the person who had  a genuine passion for being a part of the Air Force.

I deeply hated the negative perception that followed me, but also understood its origins. In my heart and mind I knew that wasn’t the Airman I was.

Becoming frustrated with it all, in February 2008, I decided to drive my car off base to get something to eat. When I returned to base, I was stopped for driving with a suspended license. In the weeks following, I was given an Article 15 and reduced to Airman Basic.

At this point in my career, it would have been really easy to just give up on both myself and the Air Force. My squadron could have given up on me, but they didn’t. They saw the potential in me that I knew was there — I just needed to start showing it.

I had been in for roughly one and a half years at this point and my whole career boiled down to two terrible decisions. At this low moment in my life, I made a vow to stop feeling sorry for myself, stop making excuses and to always be accountable for my actions. 

The road ahead was not going to be easy, but I was just grateful for the opportunity. At this point I had already finished my CDC’s ahead of schedule and wanted to take full advantage of every opportunity I had to better myself.

People began to see me for what I was able to bring to the team — not just the rank. I was put in for an Achievement Medal for my superior performance during my deployment.

I was given back a stripe early and removed from the control roster in May 2009. People were finally beginning to see me for who I truly was and it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I worked so hard to rebuild a tarnished reputation and have carried that with me throughout the rest of my career.

Looking back at the trials, tribulations and the achievements that have brought me to where I am today, I am very proud of the resiliency I have shown and grateful for opportunities to excel. I can truly attest to the fact that I have lived up to the vows I made in 2008.

I have not received any form of paperwork, judicial, or non-judicial punishment since the transgressions over 11 years ago, and I have become a highly accomplished Airman over my 13 year career. 

I have transitioned from a time of fighting for my career and proving doubters wrong, to being a key decision maker and a pivotal asset to the team. I didn’t get to where I am today by luck or happen stance. I believe I am standing here today for a purpose and I believe that purpose is to serve. Serve my country and serve my fellow Airmen by way of example — demonstrating that extraordinary results can be achieved in the face of adversity. 

The challenges I have faced have instilled in me the sense of importance in leading with empathy.  Through various travails I have encountered, I believe the number one priority as a leader should be placed on building trust.

We all have weaknesses and struggles — even leaders. Leading from a place of empathy and compassion is not leading from a posture of weakness, but a posture of strength. Leading from this position breaks down communication barriers that nearly always impede a cohesive team. Embracing what makes Airman vulnerable will only build the trust they have in us.