Candace Colburn faced some challenges in her career. As an African-American female, the 28 year old Airman is a minority among minorities. These are not her challenges, though, they're just her demographics. Staff Sergeant Colburn, stationed at the 802d Security Forces Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, is the model of today's USAF Security Forces troops.
"My personal experience has been awesome," Colburn says. "I know people always have their points of view - some people might say because I'm a minority people may treat me differently. Or because I'm a female, I might get lighter treatment. But I've been afforded my opportunities because of my abilities."
She owns her challenges as much as she owns the rest of her career. After I interviewed her, Candace sent me a fact sheet about herself. The struggles she faced are listed before her successes.
"I'm a cop - a K9 handler, but I want to go to OSI (Office of Special Investigations) to be an investigator," she says. "I got picked up to be on the base Tactical Response Team. I went SWAT School, Basic Combat Medic School, I trained Emirati forces in UAE... I've had so many opportunities because of the military. No one ever treated me different because I was a girl - in fact, my kennel master took it upon himself to research if women were allowed in air assault school because he thinks I should go."
Colburn and the 802d recently sat with former Air Force combat photographer Stacy Pearsall as a part of Pearsall's Veterans Portrait Project (VPP). The VPP honors veterans from every conflict, hearing their stories, thanking them for their service and preserving their image for generations to come. In 2008, the first year of the VPP, she photographed over 100 veterans. Since then, she's made portraits of nearly 4000 more. See more of the VPP here.
Growing up in Newark, Delaware, Colburn always wanted to be a Marine, but her father wasn't having it. Her Dad told her if she were to enlist, he wanted her in the Air Force. If that was the way, so be it, but she wanted to be a dog handler - which requires three years time in service. At age 22, she joined the as Security Forces and was soon deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, where her challenges really started.
"We were mortared everyday," Colburn recalls. "But I'm an adrenaline junkie. I loved my time there. I even volunteered for the Balad Expeditionary Strike Force, a tactical response team, so I was both in and outside the wire all the time. I always challenge myself. My Iraq deployment was my favorite, because UAE and Qatar were too easy... it was too easy to become complacent."
Her experience would leave a lasting impression. Like many returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the signs and symptoms were most visible when she returned to her home duty station.
"I don't know how I fell into alcoholism," she says. "My life started changing after Iraq and I started drinking. Mental Health told me I had signs of post-traumatic stress but I soon PCSed and fell out of following up on treatment. When I admitted I had a problem, I was scared I would lose my Security Forces job."
Rather than lose her job for her issues, the Air Force worked with her, sending her to rehab and then through the Air Force Drug Demand Reduction Program (ADAPT) program. Colburn won't take all the credit, though.
"It was my dogs who helped me recover," Colburn says. "I don't know why I love dogs, they comfort me... they got me through a lot in life. I graduated ADAPT early because I made so much progress because of my dogs."
After three and a half years as a dog handler, three deployments, and three special assignments with the Secret Service supporting the President and Vice-President, Staff Sergeant Candace Colburn lives on a farm with her own dogs, Sonny and Gunner, near San Antonio. She commutes to her unit at Lackland, Texas to work with Kormi, her partner.
"In my experience," Colburn says, "alcoholism is not something to handle on your own. I'm a very strong person but it took an outsider to see that I wasn't okay. You have to be strong enough to say 'I need help'."
For more information about the Veterans Portrait Project or to donate to keep preserving the images of American veterans visit: http://bit.ly/1unnLV4
NOW: A dog's love can cure anything – including PTSD
OR: 11 steps to turning a puppy into a badass military working dog