JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Rain boots. An old pair of rain boots was the difference between Airman 1st Class Heather Pope realizing her dream of becoming an Airman or a lifetime of wondering what could have been.
It all came down to the dress code of the Raleigh, North Carolina, Military Entrance Processing Station, a facility that would be Pope’s gateway to the Air National Guard or a monument to her broken aspirations.
Showing up within days of turning 40, the statutory limit for enlisting, Pope stood toe to toe with the MEPS security guard wearing sandals.
“I can’t let you in,” the guard said tersely. “No open-toe shoes in the facility.”
With 10 minutes until a required test, it seemed the lack of a pair of leather kicks would end Pope’s military career before it began.
A tradition of service
Pope, a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, adjacent to Fort Bragg, grew up around the Army. Her father retired as an Army master sergeant, and her two brothers are active-duty Army captains.
Though she always had notions of joining the Air Force, she said the pace and cul-de-sacs of life diverted her ambitions.
Pope studied advertising and graphic design, earning an associate degree before returning to school for a degree in education. While earning her degree and even after teaching art in elementary and high school, Pope drove a school bus. The driving assignment would be a precursor to her Air Force billeting as a ground transportation specialist with the 176th Logistics Readiness Squadron.
“Transportation is in my wheelhouse,” she said. “I love driving buses; I love the communication you have with students.”
After years of service in education, Pope said she couldn’t shake her niggling desire to wear Air Force blue. Still, she had her doubts.
“I didn’t think I had what it took to be military,” she said. “I ran from it, but I grew up in it. It’s a lifestyle, and I knew it.”
Eventually, Pope’s doubts gave way to determination.
“I’ll never forget it, sitting in my car at a gas station; it was Dec. 19, 2018,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m doing this.’ I knew I needed to make healthy changes in my life. I knew I needed to do some work on me.”
Pope weighed 283 pounds. The mountain she had to climb to make regulation body composition was daunting, and the clock was ticking.
The drive to lose the weight
Pope got to work shedding the pounds. She saw a nutritionist and worked hard to stay focused.
“I started to get more physically fit and I made baby steps,” she said. “I said, ‘OK, I am going to lose 10 pounds and then 20 pounds.’ I didn’t think I could do it at first, but then the weight started falling off. I felt a weight lifted, challenging myself more. There were just so many benefits from it.”
Approaching the age of 40, she had lost 93 pounds.
“This dream of joining the Air Force isn’t so far away,” she said. “I can reach this.”
Unfortunately, an Air Force Reserve recruiter didn’t share her optimism, turning her away three times.
“‘You’re not going to make it,’” Pope quoted the recruiter as saying. “‘You’re 190 pounds. You’re not the 150 I need you to be to get in.’”
“I said, ‘That is where you are wrong,’” she recalled. “‘I know what my capabilities are. I know my potential.’”
Pope called recruiting headquarters to appeal her case.
“The lady answered, ‘Welcome to the Air Force, what can I do for you,’” Pope recalled. “I said, ‘No, it’s what I can do for the Air Force. You need me.’ She said, ‘Hmm, I like that attitude.’”
Still, she couldn’t make headway.
“I kept hitting a brick wall.”
With a grim outlook, Pope consoled herself that her efforts were paying off in other ways.
“Regardless of whether or not I got in, I was still making positive changes in my life, and I was going to continue on that path,” she said.
A social media algorithm placed Master Sgt. Jackie Gesford, Alaska Air National Guard recruiter, on Pope’s friend recommendation list. On a lark, Pope reached out to Gesford.
After some back-and-forth correspondence, Gesford disclosed the location of the units she represented.
“She said, ‘I am in Alaska,’” Pope recalled. “I said, ‘There’s nothing you can do for me, you are so far away, and I am in North Carolina.’ She said, ‘Don’t count me out yet. I’m a recruiter. I have heard your story. I know what you have done and how far you have come. I want to invest in you.‘”
Pope said Gesford’s belief in the aspirational Airman’s ambitions persuaded her to consider service in a location nearly 3,500 miles away.
“She gave me an opportunity that I am forever grateful for because she stuck with me for the eight months it took me to get down to 150 pounds,” Pope said. “I lost a total of 133 pounds to get in.”
Pope went to the Raleigh MEPS Oct. 27, 2021, to take entry exams and she completed medical screenings the next day, with her birthdate of Nov. 3 approaching. If she turned 40 before signing a contract, she would be ineligible to join.
On the day of testing, the MEPS security guard took issue with her sandals. He told her there was a store down the street where she could buy shoes. On her way, Pope got stuck at a light and decided to turn back.
Back at the MEPS parking lot, Pope thought of one last chance.
“I looked in the back of my car, and under a towel was a pair of rain boots,” she said. “I put those bad boys on, I walked in, and the security guard said, ‘Well, there’s not a cloud in the sky, but I guess those will work.’”
Because of her considerable weight loss, Pope had extra skin. MEPS screeners wanted paperwork from the nutritionist, including bloodwork, which she didn’t have. Her file was kicked back three times.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not accepting this. I’ve done too much work,’” she recalled with a crack in her voice.
Pope sought out the administrator staffing her file.
“She’s walking with my folder to deny me a fourth time,” Pope recalled. “I said, ‘Ma’am, please listen to me. Can we go to your office to talk?’”
Pope explained she hadn’t had surgery; it was by sheer will that she took the weight off.
“‘I’m here, and I want this,’” she told the administrator. “She said, ‘Why now?’ and I said, ‘Why not now?’ She said, ‘You’re 39.’ I said, “Yeah, and I will be 40 in two days.’”
All her work and all the reasons she wanted to join came into focus that day.
“It’s not just a paycheck for me. It was something I wanted – to serve my country and attain a goal I wanted all my life, and now I have an opportunity to grab it, and it’s right there in front of me,” she said.
The administrator wondered why Pope would abandon her teaching job to join the military.
“She said, ‘But you have a career,’” Pope recalled. “‘I said, ‘Yes, and it’s personal growth and development.’”
Finally, the administrator stamped Pope’s file, and she signed a contract Nov. 2, 2022, raising her right arm and swearing to defend the constitutions of the United States and Alaska.
The Wild Blue Yonder
Pope shipped off to Basic Military Training at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to face the strident mentorship of a young military training instructor – the term the Air Force uses for drill sergeants.
“I left April 19 and ventured into a whole new world,” Pope said. “It’s quite interesting being put on your face by a 27-year-old.”
With young recruits, MTIs are working with wet cement that can be cast with a little pressure. In the 40-year-old Pope, the cement was quite fixed. At times, reshaping her would require a hammer.
“‘It’s easy to mold an 18/19-year-old coming straight out of their parents’ home, whereas in your 40s you are accustomed to your own rules,’” Pope said before quoting her MTI. “‘We’re going to break that. You’re job as an Airman is going to demand much of you, mentally.’”
Pope earned a disciplinary letter of concern for leaving a water bottle, a cardinal sin in the hot training environment. Her MTI required Pope to write an essay explaining why it was important to keep hydration nearby.
Pope said training taught her that seemingly small things could play out to have significant consequences. One dehydrated and heat-injured troop could jeopardize an entire military operation.
For Pope, the continued reconditioning was elemental and difficult.
“From grade school, you’re tying your shoe a certain way,” she said. “In BMT, they teach you to tie your boots a different way. It’s a reprogramming of what you’ve always known. I used to lead with my right foot, and now I lead with my left.”
Shortly before graduation, Pope got stuck on base due to a bus ride that took longer than expected, and she was recycled to another squadron for a week and a half. She would have to repeat the harrowing capstone Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training – or BEAST.
Pope, facing the challenges of BEAST again, decided to be optimistic, figuring the added training would be beneficial for facing possible future combat scenarios.
Pope said the delay was a serendipitous setback because she was able to help an Airman who had a medical reaction to the chemicals from the sanitation procedures after the exercise, meaning she wouldn’t be medically cleared to graduate.
Using the experience she gained advocating for herself at MEPS, Pope volunteered to take the recruit down to the medical group for clearance with a few hours until graduation. After tap dancing on enough desks, the recruit was cleared for graduation.
Upon returning to the squadron, they encountered columns of training units marching to the parade field for the graduation ceremony. They jumped into random flights to make the trip to their graduation and ascension to full-fledged Airmen.
Pope said the Airman thanked her for risking her graduation to help her.
“She looked at me and said, ‘If you had been selfish, I wouldn’t be standing here today at graduation,’” Pope recalled. “She said, ‘Thank you for being a great wingman.’”
The strength to persevere
Though Pope could run a mile and a half in a relatively rapid 14 minutes, 5 seconds for the physical fitness test, she couldn’t do a push-up and could muster only 15 sit-ups.
To work on her PT, Pope volunteered for the 4-6 a.m. entry controller shift, the most unpopular tour because it didn’t allow for a lot of rest. Pope used the time to work on her upper-body strength.
With work and time, Pope could do 18 push-ups and 28 sit-ups.
The perseverance paid off, and it would eventually influence her pupils back at home.
“I’ve had quite a few students say, ‘You’re my inspiration, and I’m joining,’” she said.
When returning home from technical school, Pope took the time to change into her military uniform, ducking into a bathroom and pulling out her camouflage uniform and boots from an overstuffed carry-on bag.
Waiting outside the security gate was her 8-year-old, Meredith. She was astounded to see her mother wearing the uniform she had earned. She touched the uniform, said she was proud.
“Everything I went through that was a struggle, in that moment it was well worth it to see her and how she embraced the Air Force uniform,” Pope said.