PMA Forever

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Slightly official photo from Facebook

 

[dropcap style=”color: #9b9b9b;”]I[/dropcap] first met Aaron Burgstein on the edge of Ramstein Air Base’s vast flightline in Germany, just outside one of the hangars, the both of us bundled up against the wind and rain in our uniform Gore-tex jackets.

I was a 19-year-old one-stripe Airman, and one of the newest members of  the 86th Airlift Wing’s public affairs office. He was a twenty-something-year-old officer, and one of the newest members of the major command’s public affairs shop which was situated across the base.  The two of us were waiting for an aircraft to deliver a team of reporters being flown in to cover some military operations in Europe, and for their brief time at Ramstein, we were to be their public affairs hosts.

I was the first to arrive, showing up a full 30 minutes early. This was one of my first official tasks, and I was not going to be late.  At the time, I knew nothing about then-Captain Burgstein other than he had way more rank than I did. And having just come out of basic training and tech school where anyone with more than three stripes, and certainly every single officer, required super straight posture and the utmost military bearing, I didn’t dare relax, even as he made small talk as we waited.

Eventually, though, he took a call on his cell phone, and relayed the news that the aircraft was delayed.

“We’re going to be out here for at least another 30 minutes,” he said.  “Kind of a bummer, but at least we’re out of the office, and it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s true, sir.”

He leaned against the side of the hangar, and I instinctively relaxed a bit, too.

“Soooo … what do you think about Air Force public affairs so far?” he asked.

“It’s interesting … so far,” I said. “I knew a little bit about it before I enlisted. I spent time at my dad’s Reserve wing, with their public affairs shop. It’s the only job I wanted, and I wouldn’t sign until I got it.”

He nodded his head approvingly.

“Smart move,” he said. “It’s the best friggin’ job in the Air Force.”

The aircraft ended up being an hour late. In that time, he asked about my background and what I hoped to do during my military career, and he shared a bunch of reasons why I was going to love being in the public affairs career field. I learned that he was coming from Korea, where he ran the public affairs shop. I learned that he was a huge Star Wars fan. And for the first time in my new military career, I learned that officers can, in fact, be funny human beings who genuinely care about those around them.

We worked together many more times while at Ramstein. Whenever I had to head over to the command’s public affairs office, I swung by his desk to check out his latest gadgets: his space was literally covered with robot toys and Star Wars memorabilia. A few months after that first meeting, I met his radiant bride, Cindy, at one of the outdoor office barbecues. As a bride-to-be myself, we definitely had things to talk about, and months later, both Aaron and Cindy drove three hours to attend my wedding and reception there in Germany. It was in our reception hall where he announced to Martin and me that I had swept up the command’s public affairs awards, five in all.

“An award-winning Airman *and* a beautiful bride all in the same week!” he said. “Can it get any better?”

I eventually left for my assignment to Italy while he went off to places like New York City and Washington DC. Our paths crossed again at the Pentagon, where I was a staff writer for the Air Force News Service and he was the public affairs advisor for the Secretary of the Air Force. This meant we often attended the same events, and I frequently sent him my material for review and approval. By then, too, we were both parents to toddler girls, and our correspondence was a mix of official business and photos of our kids doing something adorable. In the fast-paced, dramatic world of military headquarters, working with Aaron was breezy and effortless. It helped that my articles were usually on point, and he seldom had any changes for me.

Except for that one time.

We were both attending the three-day annual Air Force Association conference in Orlando, Florida. The conference itself is the same each year: a lot of speeches and panel discussions about the Air Force, and an expo floor filled with booths reflecting the latest in Air Force and defense equipment and technology. That particular year, the top Air Force leaders made some pretty incredible announcements, such as extending basic training and requiring NCOs to learn foreign languages, and introducing a new uniform.

I had a lot of writing to do, but first, Aaron insisted I join him and his family (who traveled there with him) for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, my first experience in a place where dinner is frequently interrupted by thunderstorms and stampeding elephants. As we chatted about the decor, Disney World, our families, travel, and work, I mentioned how excited I was to have so much material coming from the conference.

“Glad to hear that. Just send over what you got,” said Aaron, encouraging as ever.

So after dinner, in the quiet of my hotel room, I pounded away at my laptop. I finished the article about basic training and the new language requirement, and focused in on my article about the new uniforms for women. At the conference,  the Air Force’s top four-star general had spent a good 35 minutes discussing the topic. Women were to get new uniforms and new body armor that would better protect their smaller frames. And there would be new boots, ones that better fit and supported women’s feet. I replayed my recorder at least a dozen times to get the quotes right, excited about all this groundbreaking information, amused that I could name-drop Manolo Blahnik, the general, and Air Force space technology in the same sentence, confident that this was the best dang piece of writing of my career to date.

I sent it off to Aaron around 1:30 in the morning.

His reply arrived via Blackberry shortly after 5 a.m.

“This is definitely one of the best dang pieces of writing in your career to date,” he wrote. “Highly entertaining and informative. But, no. I can not approve this. Not today. Not ever.”

I was stumped.

Clearly he recognized my brilliant writing. Clearly he recognized that this was important information that would appeal to a good percentage of the Air Force population. But nevertheless, he wasn’t giving it his blessing.

I scrolled through the email chain, thinking I missed something. Nope.

I knew that Aaron probably had his reasons, so I wrote something back like, “Roger that, sir.”

But nevertheless, I was confused.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out the reason via a link Aaron sent me. It was a breaking news story about an Air Force one-star general who was obsessed with women’s feet and was found guilty of harassing female Airmen underneath him by offering workplace foot massages.

Air Force general. Shoes. Women’s feet.

Aaron knew that case was about to make headlines. No need to have a clueless staff sergeant put out a similar headline, no matter how innocent and unrelated the facts may be.

“Thanks for the save!” I wrote back. “Would have hated getting the boot for such poor timing.”

“No problem. It’s my job to keep you in step,” he responded. “This job definitely keeps us on our toes.”

Aaron left his position at the Pentagon during my deployment in 2007. During my last year in the active duty Air Force, he attended the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, writing a thesis about incorporating communication strategies into operations. Every now and then, he messaged me on Facebook with questions regarding the then-new social media policy my office produced, and shared how amused he was to stumble across my name down there during his studies.

“Just found another article you wrote about Air Force social media,” he wrote me. “Pointed out to my classmates, “Hey, I know that NCO!”

It was a reason he was the first person listed as a professional reference on my resume when I left the military. I knew I was fortunate to have someone like him in my corner, and I appreciated that he truly had a birds-eye view of my whole career, from my early days at Ramstein to my time at the Pentagon.

And even though I was no longer wearing the military uniform, Aaron was still interested in whatever was going on with my life. Social media made it possible to keep in touch easily and frequently. He enjoyed this blog, and sent kudos whenever something I wrote resonated with him. As he got promoted and his family moved from assignment to assignment, I followed along, living vicariously through his photos, pretending to be witty with my comments, and always shaking my head at how quickly his two girls were growing up.

In 2010, he sent a note that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. For the next several years, he posted about his fight against it. In the midst of surgery and treatment, he and his family continued their lives full of PMA … positive mental attitude. He shared this attitude via frequent posts about the top three things about his day. Many times, they were just simple things: a walk to school with his daughters, some cookies that were left out in his office, or the opportunity to go for a run. Eventually, he returned to the Washington DC area, and we were able to meet up for dinner before he and the family moved to Hawaii for his next assignment in 2013. Martin had just returned from Air Force basic military training, and we got such a kick talking to him about it, especially since Aaron knew us when Martin was a Bundeswehr officer.

That was such a sweet visit, and unfortunately, it was our last.

The brain cancer returned while they were living in Hawaii. The Air Force quickly moved the family back to the East Coast where Aaron could receive the very best treatment. Always the communicator, he kept right on sharing throughout his journey, and when he got too sick, his wife Cindy continued to post updates about him. It was both heartbreaking and frustrating to see him get so sick, but at the same time, the two of them never stopped remaining positive. Even his final post contained his classic PMA “top three” things: he told his wife he loved her, his daughters assured him he was the best dad ever, and he passed away peacefully in his home surrounded by his loved ones on Jan. 27.

Col. Aaron Burgstein was buried today at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. Needless to say, I wish I could have been there to pay my respects. Since the moment I learned of his death, I’ve spent a lot of time online reading the comments and posts made by mutual friends and colleagues — we shared almost a hundred of them. It’s been wonderful to read all the good memories about him, and to realize that the friendship and encouragement he offered to me, he offered to everyone in his path. His reach and influence was … is … so vast.

While rereading some old messages and emails, I found one he wrote to me shortly after I got hit by a drunk driver in 2011. In addition to the initial concern for me, he also wanted to do something as drunk driving was becoming an issue at his base, and he was concerned about his Airmen.  So he wrote a commentary as a commander, and he wanted my take on it. I provided some feedback, and we had a classic back-and-forth on how to best communicate such a message across a variety of platforms.

His final message in that chain:  “And in case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m really glad you are here to have this conversation,” he wrote.

That was Aaron. Thoughtful. Kind. A dedicated military officer. A wonderful human being. A friggin’ awesome friend.

He will be missed.

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Need more proof how awesome he was?

The blogger at J. Q. Public did an excellent job summarizing what Aaron meant to a lot of people.

His college alma mater Ursinus College wrote an article about his personal courage during his fight with brain cancer.

And the following links are to Aaron’s own commentaries written for the Air Force:

Leaving the Kids at Home

Overwhelming Support in a Time of Need

Standards of Courage

DUI from a Commander’s Perspective (page 30)

Leadership — It’s Not Rocket Science