Fit for a legacy

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer
  • 513th Air Control Group Public Affairs
In the not-so-distant past, Kelly Higgins was a typical American guy with a 9-to-5 desk job managing property with family. But just after he turned 30, Higgins knew he was missing something. Whether it was a mid-life crisis or just being fed up with the norm, he knew he needed a big change.

"I just thought, this isn't what I want to do," Higgins said of his job. "I wanted to do something big and dramatic to shake up my life, something I could talk about when I'm an old man."

He finally settled on the Air Force Reserve as his solution.

"Of course, 9/11 and the wars have been a big deal," he said. "I'm patriotic, and I thought the Air Force would be a way I could contribute but also see the world and do some unique stuff."

Higgins enlisted as a computer display maintenance technician in the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron in 2009, starting what turned out to be nearly three years of active-duty time between training and a deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

While he got plenty of opportunity for travel and serving with the 970th, Higgins' life changed in a way he hadn't anticipated at all.

"I like to do stuff and travel, but what that looked like really changed after I joined the Air Force," he said. "I saw my physical fitness improving after the Air Force allowed me to do things I could never have done."

Before enlisting, Higgins had never really tested his physical ability and didn't have an exercise routine.

"Now I kayak, I mountain bike, I hike, I try to climb as many rocks as I can," he said.

His love for the outdoors was realized after completing survival, evasion, resistance and escape training, also known as SERE school. SERE training teaches Airmen survival skills and requires extensive hiking and camping in the mountains at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State.

"There's this whole idea of risk and reward," he said of hiking. "There's something really beautiful in the idea of the struggle that pays you back in a way, with a view of nature that most people don't get to see."

Higgins said that the bragging rights are also a part of why he likes to find challenging hikes to accomplish.

"When you can look back and say, 'I did that,' it was worth it every step of the way," he said.

During a recent trip with the 970th to support a Navy exercise on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Higgins and a fellow unit member, Master Sgt. Amanda Black, decided they wanted to spend their down time doing something different than most tourists.

They found a list of Oahu hikes online and decided to do as many as possible. The pair ended up hiking more than 36 miles during the two-week trip.

"The streets in Honolulu are exactly the same as the streets in Dubai or the Caribbean or New York or Los Angeles," Higgins said. "I feel like we got to be a part of the island, what it meant to really be on Oahu in a really unique way.

"For me, I'd rather be in the mountains, where I bypass the crowds and the standard issue," he said. "I want to be active and engaged in my life, where I feel it in my bones and my body."

Higgins and Black's biggest hike on the island was Mount Ka'ala, the highest point of the island topping out at 4,025 feet. The round trip was about seven miles of steep hiking, including rock climbing and navigating steep ridges.

"The payoff was something that you can't explain to anybody else who didn't do it," Higgins said. "Both [Black] and I would have done it alone if we could have, but it was great to both be there."

Higgins now goes on weekend camping trips, conquering multi-day hikes that he could never have accomplished before becoming an Airman. Staying fit is now something that he not only enjoys but that is a part of him.

"It is central to my life," he said. "I have children and I want to be around with my kids. Everything that I now find most enjoyable in life requires a level of physical activity. I want to share those things with my kids. I have to be what I want my kids to be, so I can't just talk about it with them.

"I'm not only physically fit for myself, but I'm building a legacy for my family," he said. "It's a mission statement almost, that we're going to be active."