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If you don't like it, change it

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) --

My experience at Air Force Basic Military Training is seared into my brain. Though the specifics are slowly fading, I will always remember feeling every emotion on the spectrum on a daily basis, thanks in large part to “the monster,” my military training instructor, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Zien.

He was always lurking. He seemed to have an endless amount of energy; if we were awake, he was there. I remember seeing other MTIs and thinking, “Man, how bad is my luck that I drew Zien?”

It seemed the "I" in MTI stood for intimidation, rather than instructor, but as my flight progressed through the eight-week training, blind fear gave way to a profound sense of respect. His lessons on resiliency still resonate with me today, and during a recent trip to Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., those lessons from BMT were reinforced beyond what I could imagine.

It’s been more than two years since BMT, so I was surprised when I got a phone call from my old MTI. Zien had been working on a leadership newsletter to distribute to his wing, and called me to take cursory look before he sent it out. Along with the newsletter, he sent his autobiography. As I read through the chronicling of his past year, I knew I had to act. His story needed to be told.

Due to medical issues, Zien nearly lost his life. During his recovery, he relapsed into post-traumatic stress syndrome and attempted suicide. Once he made the decision to get better, he shifted his focus from his own pain to mentoring.

He mentors anyone, military and civilian alike, drawing on his near-death experience for inspiration. During my two days with him, he took a day to speak to elementary school students, told his story to the cameras at the Buckley AFB public affairs shop, and mentored the Airmen he works with in one-on-one sessions.  His message was consistent -- “If you don’t like it, change it.”

For a man who still fights his own symptoms daily, he was steadfast in his dedication to others. He would roam the halls of his work center, and with genuine concern, he asked coworkers how their day was. When Airmen mentioned being stressed or having trouble in their personal lives, he encouraged them to take action. He held conversations with them until they felt better about their situation.

His job at the medical wing was to heal, but he told me that's not the way he operates. He didn't want to sit idly by, knowing there was work to be done. As he observed his surroundings, he saw where improvements could be made and without hesitation, jumped at chance to make an impact. 

After spending a mere day at his work center, I observed firsthand as he assisted Airmen both personally and professionally. He made phone calls to clarify processes, offered advice and talked through situations with several Airmen, all before noon. He was no longer the intimidating figure I knew him as at BMT, he was an instructor in every sense of the word -- A true leader.    

“If you don’t like it, change it,” -- It was this message that I took with me. I now, like him, wake up with the deliberate intention of having a good day and making an impact. When something goes wrong or I get frustrated, his message echoes, and I change it.

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