Meet Mischa Weibel, Air Force Veteran (Vol I)

February 14, 2016

Both my parents were in the Air Force most of my early childhood.  I was born at Langley AFB and moved to Luke right before my 2nd birthday. That’s where I grew up.  I went to day care and eventually elementary school on the base until 5th grade, when my parents retired. They retired in 1993, when I was 10.  When I got to high school, I knew I wanted to do Junior ROTC, if only to get out of PE (which I hated), but the high school I was supposed to go to didn’t have it. There was another school in my district nearby that did and I got a variance to go to that school instead, leaving behind my childhood best friend.

I loved high school ROTC and was very active in our drill team (marching) and color guard (flag ceremonies) and summer leadership camps, which were through the local military bases and run similar to basic training.  I attained a high rank within the unit and was even Group Commander for a time, which was the highest position in the school.  I was also awarded an ROTC scholarship, which I used to go to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to study Global Security and Intelligence.  I didn’t love college ROTC as much and I didn’t do well in college with no one looking over my shoulder and making me do homework. I eventually failed enough classes and my GPA dropped low enough to lose my scholarship.  I stuck it out at school for another year and a half, trying to salvage my grades, but was not successful and had to drop out when I ran out of money and couldn’t get student loans.

I worked for a couple of years and finally got tired of working jobs where I had no desire to work my way up.  I think I knew then, even before I could articulate it, that I didn’t want to just be a supervisor/manager.  I decided I wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t qualify for financial aid for another couple years due to my parents having money saved for my younger sisters to go to school, so I talked to a recruiter about enlisting.  I knew that the military would help me pay for school.

I had studied Chinese in college, I was really good at it and enjoyed it a lot.  I wanted to study languages again, and had even considered trying to attend the Defense Language Institute when I was in college because it was known as the best language school in the country.  And with my parents working around pilots and airplanes my whole childhood, I thought it would be cool to fly, so I applied for an Airborne Linguist position.  I went all the way through the process up to the point of entering the Delayed Entry Program, but when my recruiter couldn’t guarantee me the language I wanted, I backed out.

I continued to work jobs that I couldn’t see myself doing forever and about a year later, my company was going through some changes and needed to cut back in my department, and my boyfriend at the time and I were splitting up, the stars seemed to align and I talked to a recruiter again.  I told him that if he didn’t have an Airborne Linguist spot available, I wasn’t interested in any other jobs.  Because I had already completed the process including testing and physical exams, I went to the head of the line on the day it came to pick my job.  I just happened to be in there, waiting, right as the force-wide system came back up from updates and there was one Airborne Linguist spot available across the whole Air Force, leaving 3 days after I was supposed to leave my job. It felt kindof fate-ish.

My training was fairly uneventful, besides the fairly typical delays, but it took me almost 3 years to complete training due to the nature of the program.  I went to school for Arabic, which was my second choice and spent almost 2 years in Monterey, CA.  I spent another 6 months in San Angelo, TX, which was less than thrilling.  Unfortunately by the time I got to my first base at Offutt in Nebraska, there was not much use for Arabic linguists and the training flow there was very backed up.  People were waiting over a year to complete their final training and be qualified in our aircraft.  I was given an opportunity to volunteer for a new program that was just starting, called Project Liberty.  They were only taking people with certain language skills that weren’t in high demand and out of 30 people eligible, they were taking 25 whether we liked it or not.  I’d been in for 3 years already and hadn’t actually done anything yet, so I volunteered, just for the chance to not sit around for another year.  They told us we would be deployed within 6 months, but as always, the military was overly optimistic.  It was another 8 before I seriously started training, but in the meantime, I got a chance to do specialized training with the experts in the field I was stepping into as well as a 10-week French class for Arabic linguists (French is a very valuable second language for Arabic speakers since all of North Africa has a heavy French influence to their language), which I did extremely well in.  I also tested for and earned a promotion for the first time, the earliest I was eligible.

I trained in Mississippi, where our fledgling program was hosted by a National Guard unit that had done a similar mission on a slightly different aircraft.  Needless to say, our training was very rough around the edges.  I was deployed to Iraq before Thanksgiving 2009, my first time ever out of the country.  This was the best 6 months of my Air Force career.  We had a great group of people who loved what we were doing. We were the new kids on the block, trying to prove ourselves and show people what we could do.  There was so much to do and so many things to get involved in.  We were making things happen on a daily basis, building relationships and providing great support for the ground troops.

A little background on the program, the Army had requested more video coverage overhead and the Air Force couldn’t buy/built UAVs fast enough.  So someone decided to build more surveillance planes from a type of aircraft that had been used a few times very successfully for similar applications, the Beechcraft King Air 350, a small, twin turbo-prop executive jet.  Beechcraft didn’t have the ability to output new planes for the Air Force in the amount that they needed for the initial stand up, so 6 aircraft were bought on eBay.  A seventh was in production with Beechcraft at the time, still being assembled and was purchased from the owner prior to being complete, while Beechcraft basically turned over its production line to the Air Force for the next 2 years, totaling 42 aircraft.  The insides were gutted and large steel equipment racks were put in to house all the computers and electrical equipment it could carry.  The program went from concept to operational in 6 months, an amazing feat which earned the program a chance to compete for the Robert J. Collier trophy, given by the National Aeronautic Association, 2 years in a row.  This is a very prestigious award in the aviation industry for the “greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.”

After my 6 months in Iraq, I came home, went to leadership school to become a supervisor and a language refresher course, and then was selected to return to Mississippi to become an instructor for my crew position for the people getting ready to deploy.  This is highly unusual because most people don’t get to be instructors until they have years of experience, not 6 months deployed, but there was so little experience in our program that I was lucky enough to get this opportunity.  It was great and loved being an instructor and working with the National Guard.  Again, we were breaking down barriers and making stuff happen.  I did that for 6 months, leaving behind my boyfriend of 3 months, Brandon, who would later become my husband.  We were working constantly, there was training happening 7 days a week just to meet the demand for trained crews to fly our airplanes overseas.  Instructors were working 6 days a week, 10-12 hour days with only one day off a week, if we were lucky.  It was still a great time, but I didn’t have time to do that and maintain a relationship, so I broke up with Brandon and focused on work.

At this point, the Air Force decided to make our program permanent and we all got the opportunity to apply to leave our previous jobs and become part of the program officially.  It was a difficult decision to give up being a linguist since that is what I joined the Air Force to do, but this was a very exciting new opportunity to be a part of something that had never happened before, I loved my new job and I was good at it.  I was transferred from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska to Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, California.  This was a nice move for me since my dad was from Chico and I had a lot of extended family in the area.  I got settled and bought a house and went right back to working my tail off.  We all thought the program would normalize once it was made permanent and got assigned to a base, but the demand for trained crews was only increasing overseas and we were still very understaffed for what we were being asked to do.

Eventually, I started missing Brandon and we reconnected.  We got extremely lucky and he was chosen to deploy with Project Liberty, as well as managed to get an assignment to transfer to Beale.  This is extremely rare for couples who aren’t married in the military, and if it hadn’t happened that way, I’m not sure if we would have stayed together.  I deployed two more times to Afghanistan, 4 months to Bagram in early 2012 and then another 8 months, 4 spent in Kandahar before I was transferred back to Bagram a second time.  Both times, I was lucky enough to deploy at roughly the same time as Brandon.  Again I tested for promotion and made it the first time, very rare at this level, but had to wait almost a year to actually rank up.  In December 2012, while Brandon was on his second deployment, my dad went in the hospital and didn’t come out again.  Brandon and I were still not married at the time, if we had been, he would have been sent home on emergency leave to be with me while I was going through that.  That really rough situation motivated us to reconsider marriage and when he returned in April 2013, we drove to Reno and eloped.

The rapid growth of the program led to a lot of leadership issues, with people of higher rank being moved in to run the program that had very little or no experience and it became increasingly bogged down with red tape and less and less enjoyable to go to work.  With the pace at which we were working and dealing with personal issues with the death of my father, I started struggling at work.  I failed an evaluation and instead of helping me to recover and get back on my feet, my unit mishandled the situation and set me up for continued failure, whether through malicious intent or just ignorance is still unclear.  They chose to give me a poor performance report, which is highly unusual for the type of evaluation I failed.  This negative report not only cancelled my promotion, but also made me eligible for the Force Reduction initiatives in 2013.  My unit’s actions and mishandling of my situation had a direct impact on me being forced out of the military, but by that time, it was more of a blessing in disguise and I was ready to be away from the terrible leadership that was spreading throughout the program.  In September 2014, I was separated from Active Duty with an Honorable discharge, a year and half earlier than my contract.

Meanwhile, Brandon also left the Air Force as his contract was up and we had already decided that he would go back to school to finish his Bachelor’s at Sac State.  So that left me the task of finding a new job to support us.  I was actively searching for 6 months when I met an HR recruiter at Vision Service Plan through my Veterans networking program at the Roseville EDD.  Elayna Campbell is fantastic at her job and was able to see the sum of my varied experience outside of its very specific context and recommended me to a department within their IT program.  I’ve been working there for 5 months now, working a combination of asset & financial management, for a great boss who appreciates my work ethic.  I have also accepted a position with the Air Force Reserves doing ground Intelligence back at Beale.  My husband is 2 years away from his degree. We still live in the house I bought when I moved to the area.  We have 2 dogs and 2 cats that we dote on and in our free time we really enjoy the restaurants, beer & wine and outdoor activities available in California.  We are both very happily out of the full-time military and are doing research into starting our own business.