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Your piece of the puzzle matters

Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney, a 302nd Airlift Wing photojournalist, takes photos on the flight line at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, July 3, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Frank Casciotta)

Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney, a 302nd Airlift Wing photojournalist, takes photos on the flight line at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, July 3, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Frank Casciotta)

A leaf, mentioned by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney in her commentary "Your piece of the puzzle matters," floats in a river near Maunawili Falls in Hawaii in 2008. She said she fell in love with photography while taking photographs like this one. (U.S. Air Force photo courtesy photo by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

A leaf, mentioned by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney in her commentary "Your piece of the puzzle matters," floats in a river near Maunawili Falls in Hawaii in 2008. She said she fell in love with photography while taking photographs like this one. (U.S. Air Force photo courtesy photo by Staff Sgt. Heather Heiney)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

When I was 10 years old I hand-wrote a short story about a slave girl’s dreams of a kinder world and fell in love with writing. Then, when I was 21 years old I took out-of-focus photos of a giant yellow leaf drifting down a stream in Hawaii and fell in love with photography.

Since those moments, storytelling is all I’ve wanted to do.

Luckily, I was able to join the public affairs career field right off the bat and I’ve gotten to tell so many amazing stories. Like the one about a colonel with multiple sclerosis who fought to continue serving. Or the one about Airmen who came together and helped after a devastating flood in Louisiana. Or the one about what it’s like to fly through a hurricane and how it smells like hot asphalt.

Getting the words just right in a story or perfectly preserving a moment through a photograph makes me feel like I’ve leapt off the side of a mountain and I’m free falling with my arms wide open. Or, for those of you to whom that sounds terrifying, they make me feel the same way I felt the other day when I watched my six year old swim across the deep end of our pool by himself for the first time.

I love my job.

Yes, some days it’s, “I love my job, I love my job, I love my job,” as I close my eyes and rub my temples. Some days I have a four year old in my office at 7 p.m. pulling keys out of drawers, throwing them at me and yelling, “I just want to go home,” because I have to finish my work, his daycare is long closed, my husband is away on temporary duty and I think it’s too late to ask for help.

On days when nothing is going right and the struggle is real, I remind myself of why this is worth it. For me, it’s worth it because being in the military and telling stories about what our incredible men and women do every day makes me feel like I’m contributing to something greater.

It also helps that as PA I get to learn about what everyone else is doing throughout the wing and see how all those little puzzle pieces fit together to become our mission as a whole. My husband is security forces and he doesn’t always get to see that bigger picture. Sometimes he’s felt like he just scanned ID cards at the gate all day and in the monotony of that it’s easy to forget that each scan is a small and necessary piece of keeping the installation safe. He didn’t choose security forces like I chose public affairs, but over the years he’s come to see clearly why it matters and it’s also become all he wants to do.

It is so critical for each of us in the military to understand why we serve, how our individual piece contributes to the bigger picture and why what we do is so important. If we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, we won’t give our very best effort and if we don’t give our very best effort, we start to let things slip and then we start to fail.

Through my work I’ve had the chance to see that what every single one of you do matters and that without your puzzle piece, the mission could not be accomplished. I hope you can see it too. And whether you serve because it gives you a sense of purpose, or because it gives you opportunities you couldn’t get anywhere else, or because of the financial, medical or educational benefits – remember that reason, especially when the struggle gets real.