AFAF not just for chiefs, widows

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- In 2004, when I first signed up to give money to the Air Force Aid Foundation, I pictured retired chiefs and widows living at an old-folks home. My donations would ensure they had a place to live or food, or at least reduced their out-of-pocket expenses. A few months later, I, instead, became a recipient of the aid.

Early in my Air Force technical training at Fort George G. Meade, Md., I found out my mother had lung cancer. Since Fort Meade was only 30-minutes from home, my chain of command entered me into the Humanitarian Reassignment and Deferment Program so I could stay in the local area after graduation and be near my family. Luckily, my mother went into remission around the time of my graduation, and I left for Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. in November that year. Her scans were clear.

A few months later, she relapsed. The cancer came back even stronger than before. After extensive chemotherapy she was "cured" again, but that didn't last long.

At a routine check-up, her doctor found a large tumor hiding behind one of her lungs. It was missed by previous scans and was so large and had its "fingers" in so many areas of her chest that it was inoperable. Mom declined further chemotherapy treatment and decided it was her time. She began working with a local hospice center, took her medications and spent time playing with her granddaughter and the rest of the family while she could. I didn't know. She and my father called me one evening to tell me. I don't remember sleeping for a few days afterward.

While working in a two-man shop at Cannon, my co-worker was deployed, I was entrenched in an accident investigation, and I just received orders to Spangdahlem. I couldn't make it home to visit. I called a couple of times a week when I could. Mom could only speak for a few minutes without getting winded, but she listened as I talked about my job - new projects I was working on, training, etc. She made me promise her that she could take me to the airport when I left for Germany.

She got very weak very fast. I wanted to go home to see her, but I couldn't get away from work. Additionally, my Dad told me she was doing well, considering, and that I needed to concentrate on my work and preparing for my permanent change of station.

Early one morning in late March, I received a call from my brother, Patrick.

"She's waiting for you," he said.

He told me Dad had been keeping the truth from me - not so much lying, but he didn't want to admit Mom was so sick. Patrick said Mom was very close to dying.

I went to my flight chief and said I needed to get home. He had me book a flight; I could leave as soon as I needed. I forget the exact figure, but I do remember that a last-minute ticket from Albuquerque, N.M. to Baltimore, Md., cost more than $1,000. I was a 27-year-old, single airman first class living in the dorms; and after paying student loans, insurance and car payments, I had almost no cash. We went to the first sergeant to find out if there was a way I could take out a loan or borrow money from one of the base organizations to get home.

The first sergeant asked if I had ever heard of the Air Force Aid Foundation. I then relayed my visions of contributing to the old-folks home. He chuckled, made a call and sent me to the Airman & Family Readiness Center. I sat with a counselor, explained the situation and was sent to the Information, Tickets and Travel office. Within the hour, I purchased a ticket using money granted to me by AFAF. All I needed to do was sign a promissory note that I would pay the money back. I was on my way home a few days later.

My cousin picked me up at the airport, I changed into my service dress uniform - Mom always loved seeing me in uniform - and we headed for my parents' home in southern Maryland.

With a finger pressed to my lips to silence family members at the house, I made my way through the kitchen to surprise Mom, who was lying on the couch, bathed in the afternoon sun through the bay window. When she saw me, she cried and said, "My Matthew!"

I spent almost a week with her, separated only by sleep and the occasional food run, before I had to go back to Cannon. Days later Patrick called again. She died.

The first sergeant called the A&FRC to request another ticket for me. The A&FRC said that it was highly irregular to loan money to someone a second time, especially if they were in repayment status, not to mention so quickly after the first loan. The first sergeant and commander vouched for me, signed the necessary paperwork and sent me through the same steps to get another ticket home.

I'm not a retired chief, nor am I a widow; but if it weren't for AFAF, I never would have been able to say goodbye to my mother in person, let alone been able to return home for her funeral a week later.

It's 2010, four years after my mother's death, and when I sign the AFAF pledge form, I think not just of the chiefs and widows, but of a nameless airman first class trying to get home to see his or her mother, father, brother or sister before they die.

As long as I serve, I will support the Air Force Aid Foundation.