DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
It’s 2010 and Airman 1st Class Leonard James’ phone vibrates silently in his pocket; he quickly reaches down and sends the call to voicemail.
“I was in class and we weren’t supposed to have our phones,” the now staff sergeant recalls.
James was at Port Hueneme Naval Base, California, a technical training base for Airmen selected for vehicle maintenance career paths. The Air Force wasn’t what James planned for himself, but his high school sweetheart and fiancé, Mesha, was pregnant with their first child, McKenzie Harmony James, and he felt the Air Force would help him support his growing family.
His entire life changed forever with that 2010 phone call, and James began the battle which would change his entire outlook on life, including his reason for serving in the Air Force.
“I met Mesha in eighth grade. I saw her in physical education class and thought, she’s pretty cute,” James said through a coy smirk. “She didn’t really like me at first. She thought I was a little too cocky, a little too arrogant or something.”
Eventually, through persistence and a few well crafted, “Do you like me? Yes or No” notes passed between classes, James and Mesha started dating and became best friends.
“We were one unit, we were a team, and I loved it,” James said.
James was all smiles knowing he would soon be a father and had the love and commitment of Mesha; who was waiting for him to finish tech school and return to Memphis, Tennessee for their wedding. His smile eventually faded when he returned the call he ignored during class.
“I went on lunch and I called the number back,” James said. “It was Mesha’s sister. She told me, ‘Mesha’s been in a bad car accident. A semi-truck driver was drunk behind the wheel and ran her off the road. Her car crossed over the median and rolled into a deep ravine.’”
“She didn’t survive...her or the baby,” James continued after a pause.
In disbelief, he returned to class but not without catching his leadership’s attention.
“There was this female major, she was a commander at the tech school…. She noticed me.” James said, “She took me to the side and asked me if I was okay and I told her what happened. She just said, ‘Don’t give up. This is a hard thing to go through but you’ve got to keep going and don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to do here.’”
The major helped James take leave, so he could return for the funeral.
“It wasn’t until I was at their funeral and I’m looking at that headstone saying, ‘Rest in Peace’ that it truly set in that they were gone,” James said. “The depression...it was strong. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to sleep, I didn’t want to go anywhere or see anybody.”
While his feeling of hopelessness didn’t translate to thoughts of suicide, he found himself not truly living. It took the support of a wingman for James to finally snap out of his depression.
“I had one good friend. He was my true brother,” James said. “He basically said, ‘I don’t want to see you go down a path that you’re going to regret,’ and he was there for me every step of the way. To this day I tell him, ‘Man, I owe you. I owe you my stripe man.’”
Over time, with the support of friends, leadership and counseling, James regained his footing and took back his life; a recovery he views as his second chance.
“I’m big on second chances,” James said. “To know that this commander, who didn’t know me at all, and my friend who wouldn’t let me go it alone, took the time to just be there and make sure I was okay, that felt good. It gave me hope. I felt like that was my second chance and I had to take it.”
Ten years later, James’ story of love, loss and recovery forms the cornerstone of his leadership philosophy and the foundation of his “pay-it forward” mentality.
“I ask my guys all the time, ‘You good? You okay?’ and if they’re not, we talk about it and figure it out,” James said. “All my Airmen know that if they have an issue, I’m there for them, whatever they need. You want to talk, I’ll talk. You want to see a movie, I’ll see a movie. You want to climb rocks, I don’t climb rocks, but I’ll do it with you if that’s what’ll put a smile on your face.”
James hopes to cross train from vehicle maintenance into a career field where caring for Airmen can be his fulltime job.
“I think the wingman concept is very [important],” James said. “It’s so important for us to just ask that simple question, ‘Are you okay?’ It’s something I’m passionate about and something I know from personal experience makes a difference.”
James returns to Memphis to visit Mesha and McKenzie once a year. Now with two children, his excitement of being a father is fulfilled, and his loyalties extend to his wingmen, ensuring someone is committed to them, just as he was to those he lost.
“You never know what that person right next to you is going through,” James declared. “Take that initiative to say, ‘Are you okay? Are you fine? Do you need help?’ We have to be there for each other, whether we’re on duty or off.”