Through Airmen's Eyes: A coin to remember
Air Force Airman 1st Class Mariah Alexander, 633rd Medical Support Squadron pharmacy technician, reflects on her first year in the Air Force at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Aug. 23, 2012. Alexander was presented with a coin that belonged to her stepfather, retired Chief Master Sgt. Eugene Burroughs Jr., who passed away three weeks before her Air Force Anniversary. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Teresa Aber)
Posted 8/30/2012 Updated 8/30/2012
by Airman 1st Class Teresa Aber
633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
8/30/2012 - JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
It was just past 11 o'clock at night, July 30, and Airman 1st Class Mariah Alexander was beginning to fall asleep in her dorm room.
Suddenly, the phone rang. It was her mother, retired Chief Master Sgt. Yolanda Burroughs.
"At first, I wasn't going to answer because I was trying to go to sleep," said Alexander, who works as a pharmacy technician with the 633rd Medical Support Squadron. "But then I thought about how she's never called me that late, so I answered the phone. She said, 'I have some bad news.'"
Alexander's stepfather, retired Chief Master Sgt. Eugene Burroughs Jr., had just died of a heart attack.
"I couldn't believe it," Alexander said. "I kept saying, 'Are you sure? Can you check again? There's no way.'"
Alexander grew up with three Air Force parents. She was raised primarily by her mother and stepfather, and spent summers with her biological father at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany.
"My stepdad raised me, and disciplined me - everything that a dad would do," she said. "And it was awesome to also be able to spend summers with my dad in Germany."
Though all three of her parents are retired, they were still there to offer advice as she went through basic military training, tech school and coming to her first duty-station at Langley Air Force Base, Va. Her mother and her stepfather both served as military training instructors. She learned facing movements, and how to salute in their garage. They ran around their neighborhood singing "jodies."
"We did not do her any favors or make her life easier because we were Chiefs," said Alexander's mother. "We set high standards and made her work. Gene called it 'home training'. He was quite the disciplinarian, and she used to say she lived in the BBC, the Burroughs Boot Camp. It was our joke with him."
When Alexander graduated basic training, all three of her parents came in uniform to show their support as she carried on the family military tradition.
"My mom's dad was Air Force, everyone in my family has been in the military, so just being able to carry on the legacy is amazing," Alexander said. "I love to make them proud, and for them to be able to say, 'My daughter is in the Air Force too.'"
Alexander reached her one-year mark in the Air Force August 23. At the request of her mother, the 633rd Air Base Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Trae King presented Alexander with a coin her stepfather had been saving for just such an occasion. When she presented the coin, King read off a few of Burroughs last text messages to Alexander before he passed, including what Alexander called his well-known "chief advice."
"Have I told you I'm proud of you lately," the text began. "I am!! No expectations, just high hopes that you achieve all you desire in life. I love you!! Always keep a backup uniform ready."
Burroughs would often send Alexander motivating words to keep her motivated through the first year of her career.
"Mariah, cream rises to the top," he texted. "Take initiative, learn fast, volunteer. Act like a NCO! You are going places and - oh, you got this!!!!"
He never missed an opportunity to show his pride in Alexander.
"You're my girl," he exclaimed through text. "You can do absolutely anything you put your mind to. I'm behind you 100 percent."
Surprised by the presentation of her stepfather's Chief Induction coin with his name engraved on it, Alexander cried and hugged King.
"I was so excited for it," said Alexander. "It really meant a lot to know my mom sent his coin to Chief King, and that she was giving it to me on behalf of him."
Having been in the Air Force for such a short time, Alexander was shocked and amazed at the way her leadership responded when she got the unfortunate phone call from her mother. She called her supervisor and first sergeant, expecting them to tell her to come in to work and fill out her leave paperwork the next morning before she could leave. Instead, her leadership picked her up right away to fill out her paperwork, and then drove her to the airport to take the first flight back home to San Antonio to be with her family for the funeral service. They called to check on her while she was away, and sent flowers to the funeral home.
"It meant a lot to me knowing that it's not just a work relationship," said Alexander. They showed me it goes a lot deeper than that."
Alexander spent August 23 reflecting on her first year in the U.S. Air Force, and the loving stepfather she lost just three weeks prior. She still strives to live by his motto.
"Do better today than you did yesterday. Be a better person - every day."
"Today is a little harder than most days," said Alexander as she glanced down at the coin in her hand.
"I would usually call him today, or he would call me and he'd be so proud. My mom texted me this morning and said, 'He's smiling down on you.' I almost lost it. Even though I have another dad, he was still my dad. It was still a big thing for me, so I know with the Air Force I have to keep trying harder, because I can't let him down. I have to do better every day - no matter what."