SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
A 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer firetruck operator and truck engineer is doing what he can to live up to the idea behind the Special Olympics athlete oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
During his deployment to Southwest Asia, Senior Airman Zach White has dedicated his off-duty time to running 150 miles with the goal of raising $2,500 to sponsor an athlete for the 2017 Special Olympics.
“If you have ever been around someone who has an intellectual disability, the joy, the happiness and the innocence they display, it makes you realize how we overlook a lot of things in life and it brings you back to the basics that there is a whole lot more to be happy about than what we look at every day,” White said.
Intellectual disability is a term used when a person has certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, to include communication, social and self-care skills.
White’s inspiration to aid the Special Olympics in their efforts was ignited on a previous deployment.
“I was put on shift with Jeff, who is now one of my best friends,” White said. “We worked out every day, hung out during and after shift and he has a brother who has an intellectual disability.”
Through Jeff’s friendship, White got to know Kyle, Jeff’s 20-year-old brother. White would communicate with Kyle through Jeff and they quickly became friends. Even though White and Kyle never met, they shared a deep connection. Kyle affectionately refers to White as his Southern brother.
In January 2015, White traveled to see Jeff and meet Kyle, finally putting a face to the name.
“I got to meet Kyle and spend time with him,” White said. “Just being around him affected me tremendously and he showed me what it’s really like to be a person with an intellectual disability. Someone who can’t read, can’t do math, has all these adversities, but is still happy. It’s so genuine. He knows what it is to love, have friendships and experience life. He made me want to bring to light the organizations out there to help individuals like Kyle to push through and go further.”
While White prepared for his current deployment, he began planning ways to aid not just Kyle, but other athletes as well.
The Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The organization also aids with healthcare, raises awareness about the abilities of people with intellectual disabilities, leads the world in researching and addressing concerns, and provides a leadership program to mold future leaders and spokespeople.
“It started with downloading an app, which was going to donate 25 cents a mile to the Special Olympics for every mile I ran,” White said. “I figured it would be approximately $40 by the time I got done. While every little bit helps, I knew I could do so much better than that.”
Haley, White’s girlfriend, jumped on board and suggested he start a GoFundMe account and a Facebook page.
White wasn’t looking to do just the minimum. For him, the way he raised money and awareness was important. He wanted to put in the work, just as the athletes do day in and day out.
“Running is a challenge for me,” White said. “Running is not easy. I have never enjoyed it. I really wanted it to be a challenge for me, just as some tasks are for someone who has an intellectual disability, and not take the easy way out. It wouldn’t mean as much to me if I didn’t have to work my butt off to do it.”
After working a 24-hour shift, White would lace up his shoes and log his miles. He also faces more obstacles while being deployed, such as scorching temperatures well over 120 degrees during the day and overnight temperatures not dropping below 100 degrees.
“In a deployed location, we all know things get tough and people are at home missing families and to have an Airman come in and be that happy and that positive and to do what he is doing for the Special Olympics, and still have that drive at work, is unparalleled,” said Tech. Sgt. Chris Richardson, a 332nd ECES crew chief.
No matter how blistering the heat becomes, no matter how strenuous work was the previous night or how sore he is from a run, White continues to lace up his shoes and sets off putting one foot in front of the other.
“When I am running, I am not thinking about anything else other than why I am doing it,” White said. “Thinking about the happy faces and the joy that I know this is going to bring someone; that’s what keeps me going. I just keep thinking about that person we’re going to be able to sponsor for the 2017 Special Olympics and it makes every step worth it.”