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Long Ranger Resilience: When a door closes, a window opens

Photo of Col David Anderson looking on in an audience.

U.S. Air Force Col. David Anderson, 307th Operations Group commander, listens to a presentations at StrikeWerx in Bossier City, Louisiana, July 7, 2020. Anderson has used his resiliency skillset to navigate a career that has seen everything from Pentagon staff assignments to combat tours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ted Daigle)

Col. Anderson in dress blues speaking with another person.

U.S. Air Force Col. David Anderson, 307th Operations group commanders, speaks with his predecessor, retired Col. Rob Burgess, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, June 6, 2020. Anderson's military career was nearly derailed before it started, but his resiliency mindset allowed him to overcome obstacles and make his dream of being a pilot a reality. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Celeste Zuniga)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

Some people spend a lifetime wondering what they want. Col. David Anderson is definitely not one of those people.

Even as a two-year-old, the 307th Operations Group commander knew he wanted to fly.

Anderson spent his formative years cultivating that dream, learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft while still in high school.  By his senior year, he had gained admission to the U.S. Air Force Academy with the intent of becoming a pilot.

Then, the dream shattered.

Torn apart by a family crisis, Anderson went out with a few friends one evening to blow off steam. A lapse in judgment and the ensuing consequences resulted in Anderson losing his admission to the USAFA.

Devastated, Anderson tried to pick up the pieces. He still had two things going for him: a love of flying and a never-say-die attitude. He refused to let his mistakes stop him from achieving his dreams and he began looking for ways to embark on a career that seemed dead before it had even started.

Anderson’s USAFA liaison knew how badly the young man wanted to be in the Air Force and pointed him toward the Air National Guard.

 “If I couldn’t be an officer, that was fine,” said Anderson. “I was going to enlist because I just wanted to serve.”

With the new blemish on his record, he knew he would have to work harder to sell himself. Ultimately, he gained entry as an aircraft maintainer in the Air National Guard.

Even in that dark moment, struggling just to gain entry into the Air Force, Anderson used his resiliency mindset began to begin forming a leadership style that would come to serve as his trademark.

“That moment was a blessing in disguise, because it taught me a lot about forgiveness, even though I didn’t necessarily deserve it,” he explained. “It ultimately made me a better father and a better leader.”   

The new Airman took advantage of this time to absorb every drop of knowledge possible about the aircraft he worked with. However, his trek was not over; he knew he could go further.

In 1995, Anderson was determined to give his dream of flying another try. He joined a Reserve Officer Training Corps program for prior enlistees and was able to successfully commission in December of the next year.

“I was so thankful for that opportunity to see that even though often times a door closes, a window opens,” he said.

That lesson in resiliency stuck with Anderson and he took full advantage of the opportunity by earning admission into pilot training.

It was while a student-pilot Anderson met his future wife, ultimately following her to a little-known corner of the Air Force aviation community: helicopters.

The couple set out on their respective careers, growing their family and searching for new challenges and adventures in each duty assignment.

Anderson and his wife had one daughter by the time he was stationed in Korea in 2003. His volunteer work at local orphanages there led the couple to adopt another daughter in 2014.

Just like Anderson himself, his family has proven to be resilient as well, having changed locations several times due to his career.

“We’ve moved 12 to 15 times, depending on how you count it,” he said. “At some point they just adopted an ‘all-in’ mindset of ‘we’re in for the adventure.’”

That resilient mindset has proven necessary as they adapted to a career that has seen Anderson transition from the Air National Guard, to active-duty, and finally, to the Air Force Reserve. Along the way, he has done everything from Pentagon staff assignments to having enemy rounds strike the canopy of his helicopter while extracting wounded U.S. soldiers during combat tours.

Through it all, Anderson used his resiliency skillset to look for the good in each situation and grow as a leader. That mindset transformed even seemingly mundane events into growth opportunities.

Anderson recalled his first trip into a South Korean convenience store. Hungry, but unable to read the labels, Anderson wandered the aisles, bewildered and confused.

“I thought, ‘This is what it must be like to be illiterate’”, he said, recalling how that seemingly insignificant moment brought unexpected insight.

Anderson took a few chances and got dinner that day, but he gained much more than a full stomach. His ability to learn from the situation helped cultivate his ability to be empathetic while still accomplishing the mission.

Last year, Anderson had the chance to retire but his love of learning and need for new challenges brought him to the 307th Operations Group. Suddenly, he was a helicopter pilot leading B-52 Stratofortress aircrews.

“I call this my mid-life crisis, but what a great mid-life crisis to have,” he said, laughing. “Some guys get a new car, I got a new jet!”

Anderson’s intensity and can-do mindset never let him give up on what he felt in his heart was meant for him.

“Being part of the machine, donning the uniform, and being part of everything that goes into supporting your country is everything to me,” he said.

Although his career is an uphill battle, having to manage large groups of people and solve problems in a new environment, Anderson wouldn’t have it any other way.  He continues to grow and learn his resiliency skillset by solving problems and seeking ways to improve himself and those around him.  

“The new job is a challenge, but I thrive on that,” he said. “My definition of hell is being bored.”