Proud to be an American

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Capt.) Levi Welton
  • 436th Airlift Wing

I joined the Air Force for the uniform but stayed for the mission. Yes, I’ll admit that I answered my nation’s call not because I fancied myself a warrior but because I thought it’d be cool. One Zeydie (Yiddish for grandfather) taught physics in the Air Force in World War II, the other served in the Navy. My Uncle Chuck served in the Air National Guard and then as a peace officer in Point Lobos National Park and my granduncle Lt. Barney Welton was a C-47 pilot against the Nazis. Further back, I have ancestors who served under President Lincoln and also during the American Revolution. So putting on my dress uniform made me feel cool and connected to my family. It also made me feel like a superhero. 

I don’t know why I’ve always loved superheroes. Maybe it’s the colorful uniforms or the superpowers. Maybe it’s how good looking they always are or the fame and adulation they receive. But the more I think about it, the more I feel it’s because superheroes never seemed tethered to the gravity of a hum-drum life of inequality and monotony. As soon as life got boring or unfair, they’d fly off to save the day. Something I wish I could’ve done thousands of times throughout my life. And something the Air Force motto - “Fly, Fight and Win” - tells me I still can do.

I remember being in Officer Training School with two roommates I, as a rabbi, probably never would have had if not for the Air Force. One, a future surgeon from the Church of Latter Day Saints and the other a tall Catholic man with a decorated military history. We bonded, swapped jokes with each other after curfew and shared snack bars, photos of our loved ones and one rickety toilet which we had to keep silky smooth and pristinely clean or risk being booted from boot camp. “How’d you get your beard waiver?” people would accost me as I marched around our base with a face full of hair. “Oh, he’s part of special ops,” my wingmen would say with a grin. “Spiritual special ops.”

But it got me thinking: Where else in this God blessed country are folks from different backgrounds forced to become family? Only 1% of my countrymen serve and yet my flight had women and men of all colors, sexual orientations, spiritual beliefs and cultures. We were indeed of different states of mind yet united by the shared camouflage we wore upon our hearts. And, suddenly, I got it. I was surrounded by superheroes. 

It didn’t matter why they served. Whether for a career, to be a noble guardian of freedom and justice, or just because the uniform made them feel cool, they were all still serving the greatest democracy on the planet. And, for that, they deserved respect and thanks. For isn’t service before self the ultimate definition of a superhero?

Suffice it to say, when I see the Red, White and Blue unfurling in the wind, I feel my heart swell with pride. I think not of my country’s history of slavery or past failures. I look to the current superheroes serving in the military and think of all that we can be. The Air Force gifted me with a lot. Waking up earlier in the morning than I thought possible, free passes to museums and discounts on car insurance, combining heart and mind into strategy, a religious focus on the details of victory and - above all else - the importance of teamwork. 

As a chaplain, my job is to advocate for the liberties of people of all faiths or none. As one of my mentors and fellow chaplains, Lt. Col. Brannon Bowman once told me, “We don’t aim for a culture of tolerance. We must foster a culture of mutual respect.” While I may have joined because I thought it’d be cool, my fellow Airmen inspired me to stay for the mission. For I want to be part of a mission connecting with all kinds of people, standing united with those so different and yet so much the same, and pledging rhetoric to never leave an Airman behind, to never falter and to not fail. In other words, to be a superhero.