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MSgt Kennedy
Master Sgt. Pitman Kennedy escaped civil war in Liberia as a teenager and is currently serving as a career assistance advisor and NCO in charge at the First Term Airman Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (photo by Niki Jahns)
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Airman escapes from Liberia to lead life of service in U.S. Air Force

Posted 6/19/2013   Updated 6/19/2013 Email story   Print story


by Amy Rollins
Skywrighter Staff

6/19/2013 - Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio -- A group of five certified Master Resilience Trainers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is training assistants so resilience courses may be offered across the installation.
The training is being incorporated into Professional Military Education, Airmen Leadership School (ALS), Wingman Day and training for specific units and organizations.

The following profile features Master Sgt. Pitman Kennedy, a career assistance advisor and NCO in charge at the First Term Airman Center at Wright-Patterson AFB.

Sergeant Kennedy is an Airman who exemplifies the training's identified resilience components: counting blessings; examining how one's brain reacts to an event; checking your playbook; balancing your thinking; instant-balancing your thinking; accomplishing goals; being mindful; drawing meaning from difficult situations; being spiritually resilient; being physically resilient; solving interpersonal problems; listening well; and responding in an active, constructive way.

A turbulent early life

Fleeing civil war in Liberia with little more than the clothes on their backs, a teenage Pitman Kennedy and his family walked back roads for a month in 1990 to reach neighboring Sierra Leone, bartering with farmers for rice and dried beans and drinking water from streams to sustain them, all while trying to evade rebel soldiers. The rebels, however, discovered them and at one point, a soldier held a gun to the teenager's head while the family begged and successfully pleaded for his life.

The unclean water made some of them sick, but the family of eight children, father, stepmother and relatives eventually reached a United Nations refugee camp, where they lived for two years and dreamed of emigrating to the United States.

Pitman Kennedy's mother, then divorced from her husband, already had ›ed the country and was living in Houston, Texas. As a naturalized citizen, she was able to sponsor the refugees to come over. A church paid for their tickets, but had to be repaid.

With no papers and having had to flee before he would have graduated from high school, young Pitman was working in a grocery store when he tried to join the Army, but was told by a recruiter he was ineligible because he hadn't graduated high school, had no documents and "wasn't smart enough."

"I guess she didn't think I had the academic acumen to survive in higher-level education; that was the fuel that lit my fire," he said. "That was it. I knew then that I had a huge challenge and that I had to make it and prove her wrong. That moment gave birth to my motivation and thus inspired me, that I could survive and achieve more than what I had even bargained for at the time. She did me a favor."

He earned his GED, pressing on to take the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and scoring well enough to enter the University of Houston. After accumulating 15 hours, he approached military service recruiters again, and this time spoke to an Air Force recruiter.

A life of service to the Air Force

Seventeen years later, Sergeant Kennedy has served the Air Force as a health services management apprentice and is now the career assistance advisor and NCO in charge at the First Term Airman Center (FTAC). He's also the head coach for the WPAFB men's basketball team as well as three local teams.

He is married to another Liberian he met in Texas, and they are the parents of a pair of teenagers and a 12-year-old. He's been involved with youth sports for 12 years.
Attitude is key, he acknowledges.

"The attitude to achieve and get better is what helped me - the courage to not quit and 'where there's a will, there's a way,'" Sergeant Kennedy said.

"I am thankful for life itself and the ability to provide for my family. Growing up as a kid in Liberia, a Third World country, we had very little, and we weren't as privileged. Yet we understood the value of hard work and strong discipline.

"Today, my emotions arise when I see my kids resting in peace in their beds and being able to enjoy the things that normal children enjoy.

"I am thankful for the opportunity to serve and am extremely humbled by that, understanding that only about 1 percent of Americans are serving in the Armed Forces. I feel like I have been given an opportunity to impact a lot of young people, both military and civilian," Sergeant Kennedy said. "Just making a difference in (young Airmen's) lives and careers, fuels my motivation all the time. I get excited when I get a new incoming FTAC class, or at the inception of any of my professional-enhancement seminars. I see it as another opportunity to positively impact careers and make a difference."

Deprived of his own senior year to play basketball and attend graduation ceremonies has inspired his extensive coaching career and a focus on education. His son graduated May 30 from Stebbins High School, walking on stage and getting the diploma that his father never did.

"That's why my son's graduation is so important to me. I would have loved to do that," he said.

Sergeant Kennedy's thoughts on resilience

· "We all have resilience and sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to reach it. Our courage levels coupled with our support system can have a huge impact on being resilient. That's why it is important to surround ourselves with positive Wingmen. The feedback that we intake affects our willpower or the lack thereof."

· "Value yourself. Find a purpose. Why are you here? What are you doing? What is the impact of your actions? I think some of us quit too early; we give up too early."

· "One of the unique things about the Air Force is we take care of each other . The Wingman concept is very important. Put time into finding the right mentor. Considering all that I have been through, I can proudly testify that I wouldn't be here today without some great men and women who served before me, reached down and pulled me up and said, 'You, too, can be a leader.' If I didn't align myself with the right people, I don't know if I would be here."

· "You have to be willing to take it on the chin from the right mentor. Your mentor must tell you the truth and hold you accountable if you're coming up short in some areas. You have to be able to take it. Be prepared to look at yourself in the mirror."
Moving forward, with gratitude

"I feel like every day is a dream," Sergeant Kennedy said. "I do not take this lightly at all. This country - my foster home - and the Air Force opened their arms to me and gave me an opportunity to live. This foster home has really taken me in and given me everything. That's where my loyalty lies."

He could return to Liberia for a visit, but is too afraid to, he said.

"I don't think there's anywhere else on this Earth that is as free as this country, although sometimes we don't see that or appreciate that. Freedom is only true right here, from my experience," he said.

He's reluctant to share his story, wishing to remain humble.

"I'm just grateful to be alive because when I was walking, it was typical for anyone to be taken and shot in the middle of the road, and I am not better than any of them. Looking back, reflecting on my life, why not be happy? And humble and grateful?" he said.

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