Storytellers: Turn weakness into strength

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Tech. Sgt. William Gazzaway, 21st Communications Squadron, talks during the Storytellers event Oct. 2, 2015 about his son, Kadin, who passed away from leukemia at a young age. Gazzaway and four other members of Team Pete shared their story of resilience with the audience during the third iteration of the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Robb Lingley)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Tech. Sgt. William Gazzaway, 21st Communications Squadron, talks during the Storytellers event Oct. 2, 2015 about his son, Kadin, who passed away from leukemia at a young age. Gazzaway and four other members of Team Pete shared their story of resilience with the audience during the third iteration of the event. (U.S. Air Force photo by Robb Lingley)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The ballroom at The Club was filled with more than 200 people as they listened closely to each service members' story intently, sometimes laughing and sometimes crying.

Storytellers 2015, the third iteration of the event, had audience members mesmerized as they listened to the courage it took to tell such intimate and very personal stories of defeating overwhelming challenges.

Telling amazing stories of resiliency and words of encouragement were Col. Keith Balts, Air Force Space Command; Army Maj. Robert Callahan, North American Aerospace Defense Command; Tech. Sgt. William Gazzaway, 21st Communications Squadron; Tech. Sgt. Thomas Echelmeyer, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron; and Airman 1st Class Patrick Enriquez, 21st Contracting Squadron.

Taking the stage with an air of nervousness about him was Gazzaway, beginning his story with a little about himself and his family. He told the story of his son, Kadin, who passed away from leukemia at a very young age.

He continued with the story, as audience members sniffed and dabbed their eyes with tissues. He described the difficulties of going back to work and doing anything more than going through the motions. He turned to alcohol to cope with depression, got a DUI and subsequently got his award for Volunteer NCO of the Year taken away.

When he took the courage to admit he needed help and got counseling, things started coming together again for Gazzaway. When he got to Peterson, after all his ups and downs and mistakes, he decided to be a mentor for other Airmen going through tough times.

"If you ever think you've hit rock bottom ... know that you can do it, seek help," Gazzaway said. "It was that moment when I started talking to people when my life and my career started changing for the better."

Another Storyteller that day was not an Airman, but a fellow service member. Callahan talked about the process of finding out he had cancer in his leg and the best option if he wanted to stay in the Army was amputation.

After the amputation he found out he had a more aggressive form of cancer that required chemotherapy. After chemo, he had to regain his strength all over again, first learning to walk and then to run.

With intense physical therapy and training, Callahan was able to pass a pt test three years after the amputation and even deployed twice. He refused to be defined by the limitations often associated with being an amputee.

Sometimes when going through tough challenges in life, Callahan said we find ourselves lying awake at 2 a.m. dwelling on how hard things are at the moment.

"In those moments, it's important to remember that even though you feel you don't contribute at that time, there will be a time in the future," he said. "And if you're in those 2 a.m. moments, it gets better, hold on to that."

Other Airmen telling their stories were Balts, Echelmeyer and Enriquez. Balts began a project for his daughter while deployed to give his daughter a female perspective of females at war. Echelmeyer described the stress of his son having leukemia and the support he received from the Air Force community and people he didn't know. Enriquez told his story from humble beginnings, being homeless and joining the military to make a better life for himself.

With such amazing stories of resiliency, the room came to its feet in support of these service members and their courage.

Chief Master Sgt. Idalia Peele, 21st Space Wing command chief, reiterated the importance of making connections and getting to know your coworkers.

"All it takes is for you to provide that listening ear, one day," she said. "That's all somebody might need to save their life or change their path."

She said to be a wingman and help each other out, but to also not be afraid of seeking professional assistance.

Col. Eric Dorminey, 21st Space Wing vice commander, said he often gave the same advice when he was a squadron commander. He said, however, what he told his Airmen then came nowhere close to the effect Storytellers had with the intense stories and intimate atmosphere.

Storytellers made it real and very personal, he said. Every Airman has a story. Every service member has a story. Dorminey said to share your story because you don't know who you could help.

"As you leave here today, think about what your challenge was, or is, and how you might be an encouragement to others," he said. "Because then you can turn a weakness into a strength."