Courage, discipline; the road less traveled

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Heather Fejerang
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shawna Wise, a 6th Air Refueling Wing Airman Leadership School instructor, commands a room full with the newest Air Force non-commissioned officers. She leads them with a calm, disciplined demeanor and effortlessly steers them along a path of study, encouraging them to lead themselves.

“I don’t have a problem walking into a room and being able to get things done,” said Wise. “I’m not afraid to voice what’s going on when something's not right, I’m going to say something.”

Her leadership presence is so strong that one may think she’s naturally this way, but Wise’s path to becoming the ALS instructor at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, was not an easy one. It required her to courageously approach a chaotic life with discipline and perseverance.

“My mom grew up in a chaotic home where drugs were present,” explained Wise. “My mom loved us, but she struggled with mental illness and she self-medicated. A symptom of the self-medication was domestic violence between her and my step dad and that is how Joshua [my brother] and I landed in foster care.”

At the time her brother, Joshua, was two years old and Wise was five years old.

In order to get custody of her kids back, her mother had a very long road to recovery through rehabilitation, but the experience gave Wise a glimpse into what life with structure was like.

“I liked being in the facility with a bunch of kids and earning things like toys for good behavior,” beamed Wise. “I think that’s where my first yearn for structure came. I liked the care put into my environment there, I needed it to be less chaotic.”

Wise’s struggles did not end once her and Josh returned to her rehabilitated mother. Wise became pregnant at 17-years-old with her son, Lucas.

“I have always been against becoming a statistic,” said Wise. “I remember walking across the stage and my classmates remarking that they thought I had dropped out.  I had actually competed my credits a semester early so I didn’t have to return after I had Lucas.”

Now a teen mother in East Texas, Wise married her son’s father, Sam. This is where things quickly took a dangerous turn for Wise.

“Sam hit me while I was holding Lucas,” recalled Wise. “He was only 3 months old. I understood even then that I had to do everything I could to protect Lucas.”

This started her journey with the U.S. Air Force at 19 years-old. Wise signed up, went through basic and technical training and then returned to East Texas.

“I came home with the divorce papers in hand,” said Wise. “I waited until Lucas was safely in my custody to present them. Then we left for my first duty station.”

Wise, a young Airman and single mother, was shaped by her struggles, learning the importance of staying resilient, but she never could have prepared herself for the tragedy that would hit her family in the summer of 2016.

“My mom had reached out to me when I was stationed at Fairchild AFB,” Wise recalled. “She said Joshua needed our help to get back on his feet and I agreed to have him move to Washington with me.”

Wise’s family had struggled with mental health her whole life. Unknowingly to Wise, her brother self-medicated and coped while in her residence in Spokane, Washington.

“I told my brother I couldn’t enable his addiction,” said Wise. “I can’t have drugs around my kid or myself and I told him he had to leave. He bounced around between his dad’s family in California, our mom’s family in Texas and with me wherever I was stationed.”

“I struggle to think about the last time we talked,” said Wise. “He was angry with me and it breaks my heart that was the last time I heard his voice.”

In the summer of 2016, Wise lost her brother to suicide.

“My mom blamed me for Joshua taking his life. She thought if I had helped him, instead of ask him to leave my home, he would still be alive.” Wise recalled sadly. “My head knows I am not responsible for his decision to take his life, but often my heart tells me there is something else I could have done and he would still be here, which is untrue.”

Wise recounted the tragedies that occurred in 2016, and prior, with almost therapeutic recall. She expressed an understanding of how the loss of her brother has played a vital role in who she is today.

“I was a mom and big sister to Joshua, losing him felt like losing my son and best friend. This loss created a need for me to be a big sister and mother to someone that was no longer there and I often feel like a big sister and mom when I am coaching Airmen,” recounted Wise. “I can help them and prepare them for the challenges they’ll face as NCO’s - everything I’ve encountered has prepared me for this role and I enjoy it. I help them uncover their own path whether personal or professional.”

Just like the traits ALS instructors embody throughout the course – hardiness of spirit, courage, integrity and grit – Wise’s experiences pushed her to choose a direct approach on her life.

“All of these struggles and tragedies have shown me that you have to deal with anything that comes your way head on,” recounted Wise. “I’ve learned that there are no real shortcuts in life, no easy paths. All roads lead to the same destination, shortcuts just prolong the inevitable.”

Wise’s ‘no shortcuts’ approach on life has not only prepared her for her position as an instructor, but has healed her bond with her mother.

“My relationship with my mom now is nothing like it has ever been in my entire life and I’m relieved to be able to say that,” Wise explained. “My mom went to grief counseling after Joshua died, and it’s like I’ve met her for the first time. She still struggles with mental illness, but not as dangerous or volatile as it was before and our relationship has healed more than I ever dreamed was possible.”

Whether it’s barreling through life’s tragedies and challenges or helping the Air Force’s future leaders do so, Tech. Sgt. Shawna Wise will continue to do with courage, discipline and grit – carving a new path for leaders using the traditional core values.