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How bad do you want it?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Keith Butler
  • 509th Operations Support Squadron commander

Like many kids, I loved fast jets and desperately wanted to fly them. Little did I know how hard I’d have to work for it. 

During high school wood shop, tragedy struck in less than a second. A grab, a jolt, then fluid; I just lost a fight with a table saw. I watched my dream of being a military pilot draining away as the blood poured down my arm. Lying in the surgery room that evening, the doctor told me I might lose three fingers. I woke up scared the next day to find my entire forearm wrapped up to the size of a boxer’s glove.

I graduated high school in 1991 with all five fingers (thankfully) but sustained permanent nerve damage along with striking out on attending the U.S.  Air Force Academy and Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Undaunted, I enlisted and found myself in front of a grouchy old Military Entrance Processing Station doctor scouring over my records, scrutinizing my right hand, unconvinced that I could serve. Again, my dream was slipping away until he asked what hand I wrote and shot with. I quizzically answered “Left.” Then he huffed “Well you can still shoot so I’ll let you in, but you’ll never be an officer.” Maybe the dream wasn’t gone for good. Maybe I’ll get another chance to play ball.


Six years later, I’m married, an NCO, and living a comfortable life. After some serious soul-searching, I decided to step up to the plate and swing again for those pilot wings. Thankfully I had great leaders who helped show me the way and I earned an Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program slot through ROTC. The dream started coming back, time to play ball.

During my commissioning physical; however, the doctor scrutinizing my records and examining my hand said, “I’ll clear you for a commission, but you’ll never be able to fly. Sorry.” Once again, the dream was slipping away. That night I decided that while I might fail by not making the cut, I would never quit. Bumping up against the age limit for pilot training, I crammed four years of college into two and a half. With hard work and little sleep, I earned those butter bars and scored a pilot training slot. The dream is getting closer to reality.

The last obstacle was the flight screening physical. For two days I was poked and prodded. Again, doctors combed through my medical records and studied my hand. With a pounding heart when called up to get my results, the director gave my right hand a strong handshake. He simply said “Congrats, now get to work.” I stared proudly at the big red “FLY” stamped on the front of my medical records. The red blood I spilled years ago was now the color of victory. I was going to pilot training. Homerun. 

It has been 29 years since I lost that table saw fight, with lots of success and failures along the way. I’m humbled for having earned my wings, flying F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-117 Nighthawks, and B-2 Spirits, along with the honor of squadron command. So as you read this and think about your dreams, I ask you…“How bad do YOU want it?”