Pathway to purpose

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Zachary Foster
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs

How do you find your purpose? For Air Force Master Sgt. Zachary Pletcher, 6th LRS POL quality compliance section chief, it took a journey around the world, a brush with death and an incredible amount of faith.

Pletcher grew up in a quaint town on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. He spent weekends visiting Monticello, learning the history behind one of America’s founding fathers, a subject he always found interesting.

During the summers he spent time in his grandparents' quiet antique shop, asking the stories behind each of the store’s oddities.

“I remember asking my grandmother about a set of aqua tiles she had in her shop,” Pletcher said. “She told me they were a part of an old church that burned down in Richmond; she’d saved those tiles for all this time because they were the last piece to a once long standing structure. She fixed and framed them, making sure to preserve their story for the next owner.”

Soon Pletcher’s curiosity for the unknown turned towards the world. At the age of 23, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

He found himself quickly learning and excelling as a fuels system technician at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, developing the skills that would be fundamental for his career.

His first taste of adventure came at his second assignment to Anderson Air Base in Guam, a tropical island filled with rich history and coincidentally one of the stops his grandfather made during the Second World War.

Pletcher recalled the time he’d spent hiking through the island’s jungle, searching for the mysteries left behind by former wars and imagining his grandfather walking the same path and swimming the same beaches.

“It’s really awesome looking back on the letters he wrote to my grandma back then,” Pletcher said. “I’ve read through some saying ‘hey, I’m in Hawaii’ and each of the islands in the Pacific, all the way to Guam. They traced his path across the world and reading them almost makes me feel closer to him.”

On one particular trek through the island’s dense forest, Pletcher deviated from the path and found himself deep within the tropical labyrinth. While attempting to navigate his way home, he stumbled upon an abandoned canteen.

Pletcher knew the island had been littered with improvised explosive devices from the Second World War and the lone relic was likely a trap, but he couldn’t help to think, “could this have belonged to my grandfather?”

With caution, Pletcher proceeded to toss rocks, sticks and anything else he could to probe the bottle, and after an hour he’d sufficiently proved its safety, stowing away the canteen and deeming it a souvenir from the trip. Proudly displaying it as a symbol of his adventure and a reminder of his late grandfather.

After returning home, Pletcher’s tropical lifestyle would quickly become a bedridden nightmare.

“I received a cosmetic jaw surgery at the island’s Naval Hospital,” Pletcher said. “There were massive complications that brought me in and out of the ICU for the next two months.”

An unknown infection coated the interior of Pletcher’s face causing constant pain and swelling. The nursing staff was able to periodically treat the symptoms but without a diagnosis any medication was ineffective.

At the time, Guam’s medical infrastructure was underdeveloped forcing the tests to be conducted nearly 4,000 miles away at the nearest U.S. island: Hawaii.

Pletcher’s condition continued to worsen and he was unable to make the voyage, all he could do was wait for the life saving results.

“My worst memory is being discharged from that hospital just to have the swelling come back the second I made it home,” Pletcher said. “My wife drove me back to the hospital but we didn’t have enough time to do surgery before the infection made its way to my brain. Two nurses came and held me down to a chair, the doctor came in with a giant needle and jabbed it in. There was no time for a numbing agent.”

His worsening condition confined the young adventurer to a gurney, trapping him in the hospital. All the medical staff could do at this point is make him as comfortable as possible.

“I ended up on a ventilator and near the end a nurse came in to tell me, ‘I just want to let you know they’re saying you’re not going to walk out of here. You should do what you can to prepare.’”

Pletcher had been born and raised a Christian. His Sunday’s were always spent at a church service with his family, praying and oftentimes teaching the children.

On his deathbed, Pletcher looked to his faith for guidance. Guidance on how to accept the likely possibility of leaving behind his wife and young children or guidance on how to continue fighting.

Almost as a direct answer to his prayers, his test results came in at the last second. Pletcher had been living with six staph infections, a death sentence if left untreated any longer.

“I ended up fully recovering but I had to come to terms with the fact that there was a good chance I wouldn’t walk out of the hospital,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think I would have gotten through that without my faith. God kept me here for a reason and that experience gave me a very different appreciation for life.”

From that day forward, faith became a pillar of the household. The family had a renewed attitude towards the world and took it upon themselves to share the compassion they’d received wherever and whenever they could.

“Since that experience I have a newfound compassion and appreciation for life, which made me want to serve in a greater capacity for my faith,” Pletcher said. “Now, my wife and I do everything we can to give back to the community that got me through that time- whether that be teaching or serving food to the homeless.”

Pletcher set out to make the most of his second chance, leaving the tropical island of Guam for its complete opposite: Alaska. His mission here was to discover for himself why he’d been given a second opportunity to take on life.

His first instinct was to dive into prayer, seeking a “calling” to study and preach the Bible- but it didn’t come.

Lost and confused, Pletcher reminisced on all the experiences that’d brought him to where he is. He remembered the fascination he felt learning about Monticello, and stories his grandmother told him about her antiques. He remembered the curiosity, sense of adventure and connection to the past he felt finding the canteen.

Suddenly, the idea to study history and tell, not just his family’s story, but the story of so many others arose.

“I am and always will be a man of faith,” Pletcher said. “When I was at a crossroads with the path I wanted to take in life, I prayed for a calling. I didn’t get that call- that doesn’t mean I won’t get it later in life, but I feel that was my sign that God wanted me to take another direction. That was how I knew studying history and telling my family’s story was my purpose.”

Since that day, the pursuit of education and the dedication to storytelling has taken over Pletcher’s life. In 2023, he earned a Bachelor’s of American History and he is currently pursuing a Master’s in the same.

Now, Pletcher uses the knowledge he’s amassed to host heritage events across MacDill AFB. He uses his passion for learning to empower different groups each month, creating atmospheres that both teaches and embraces every culture.