Tahlia Y. dos Santos

Served in the Air Force
from 2008 – 2014

When were you drafted or when did you enlist?

I joined the “delayed entry program” right before my high school graduation, and officially shipped out to basic training in December 2008.


Why did you choose your branch of service?

I was born and partially raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin — a smallish town known for two things: OshKosh B’Gosh kidswear, and the Experimental Aircraft Association, which every year hosts the largest airshow in the world. My Dad worked in communications and public relations at EAA, so I grew up completely immersed in all things civil & military aviation, and flight. Throughout most of my life, looking up at and being in the sky was just part of life, but in 8th grade, I witnessed the World Aerobatic Championship and fell in love with the idea of working in the clouds. Throughout high school, I attended private pilot ground school and started flying “right seat” — meanwhile, my guidance counselor urged me to consider a reasonable career, maybe in linguistics since I spoke fluent French, via the traditional college route. Translation sounded cool, but 4 more years of school? Senior year, a couple of things happened in the span of a few months that led me to the Air Force recruiter’s strip mall office, the first being the chance reconnection of myself and a newly enlisted Air Force friend, at a funeral of all places. The second was picking up my mom’s copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress and reading about cryptography and the intelligence community. The third was that suddenly all of my friends had gotten their college acceptance letters and I hadn’t sent out a single application. Starting to feel a little desperate, I sought Google’s advice. To this day, I’d kill to see my search history, but it looked something like this: “What job can I do with aviation, foreign language, and cryptography?” Thinking I’d get an Ask-Jeeves-esque response with recommendations for lip balm, I was stunned to see the top result from airforce.com — cryptologic language analyst. Feeling that lifelong, engrained love and respect for the military and aviation swell, it felt like fate.


What do you remember about that day?

“If you pass the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, you can train to become a linguist. If not, you have to pick another job.” The day I enlisted, I had to take a test in a made up language that I learned along the way, in the span of about 2 hours, and if I didn’t pass, my dream was pretty much dead in the water. I remember giving myself a pep talk in the bathroom mirror, using the computer mouse with a sweaty palm, being shown random pictures like a frog under a tree on a mushroom holding a spoon, hearing sentences in monotone gibberish and hoping I was making sense of it all, then basically scream-sobbing in front of the same bathroom mirror when I learned I’d passed (the women’s restroom was pretty empty compared to the men’s.) The day was a big mix of highs and lows. Reality slapped me with the anxiety-inducing question of who I wanted to designate as responsible for the disposition of my remains should I die. Luck high-fived me with what I felt was a massive $9K sign on bonus to a critically manned field. Sorrow hit me when I learned that the Staff Sergeant completing my enlistment papers had lost his baby daughter recently in an accident. But at the end of the day, I knew this day was the most important day of my life so far.


Did your military experience inform the way you think about war or the military in general?

Before I enlisted, even though I knew and loved so many veterans and had a good understanding of DoD aircraft, I had a Full Metal Jacket view of the military. I thought joining the military meant being shipped off to boot camp where you were screamed at, taught how to sing jodies, do a million pushups, and then handed a gun and dropped into battle. I didn’t realize how richly diverse, both in a personnel and a professional sense, the military was. I also myopically saw the military as a strictly fighting force, and it wasn’t until I worked closely with Afghan refugees and immigrants that I learned how important they felt our presence was in their homeland for upholding a legitimate and peaceful government, for protecting public and private patrimony, for safeguarding their families’ lives — and so much more. I once saw the military as this hard ass, door kicking, bomb dropping, enemy annihilating death force, but I learned that it’s a lot more complex. There’s actually a lot of peacebuilding at the core. It’s certainly not perfect — and as a very progressive veteran, there’s a lot I believe we can do better, but those conversations with some of the world’s most vulnerable were deeply enlightening.


Who was your best friend in the military during your time at war? Do you still keep in touch with them today?

My two best friends in the military are my two best friends today. One is now my husband, and the other is the godmother to our baby girl.


Remembering the Fallen: If they are no longer with us, please share a small way in which you remember them or keep their spirit alive– whether that be a funny story, a heroic moment, or something different that might seem trivial to others, but holds importance to you.

I think one of the best ways that we can honor the fallen is by keeping them alive through storytelling. The vast majority of the time we hear or read about a veteran’s death, it's with a tiny photo and a brief description of service. A veteran’s life and story is so much more than that. I used to write for Task & Purpose, a military culture & news platform, and some of my most meaningful assignments were the “Unsung Heroes” write ups in which we covered fuller pictures of fallen heroes’ stories. Another impactful way to honor the fallen is by taking care of their bereaved family members, especially children and spouses. I also write facebook posts & instagram stories about those I knew, usually on their birthday or day they passed, and I reach out to their families to let them know I’m thinking of them / their loved one and talk a bit about how special they were to me. It’s not much, but I think it’s meaningful.


What were the first few months out of the service like?

A little bit boring, a little freeing, a lot confusing. There was always something to keep one busy, something to plan for, something to work toward while in the military, and I personally found myself a little lost once out of it. I had already applied to college and knew that was the initial path I wanted to take, but I had a few months gap from my final outprocessing date to my first day of school. I did a ton of reading, exercising, and spending time with my family, but I felt a bit empty. I later realized my sense of purpose had gone dormant, and it wasn’t til I started school that it was reawakened.


Do you have advice for those transitioning out of the military?

Dream big & plan! There are so many resources and veteran service organizations that exist to help veterans get to wherever they want to be. There are organizations to help veterans gain employment on Wall Street, find a career in film and the arts, get into journalism. There are universities, even in the Ivy League, that have incredible programs and support for vets. Whatever you want to do, go for it, and go for it with confidence, gratitude, and humility.


If you hadn’t gone into the service, what do you imagine your career life would have been? Did you explore a different career after service?

I’ve always been drawn to service-related careers. I think that’s because my Dad ran an aviation non-profit most of my life, and my mom volunteered full time for various causes and had a part time side hustle as a natural health professional helping the sick and the hopeless feel better. I remember thinking that if the Air Force didn’t work out, I’d go into nursing. After the service, I went into Corporate Social Responsibility / Philanthropy, and the main thread throughout my career has been impact & mission driven work.


Please add any additional stories or meaningful memories that you’d like to share.

I had a wonderful, rewarding military career, and if given the chance, I’d absolutely do it all over again. I did however leave the military with some mental health challenges that grew increasingly incapacitating. After a few years of living as a shell of who I once was, I reached out to The Headstrong Project. Within a month of treatment, I stopped having panic attacks, and after a year, I was a better version of my old self. Headstrong saves lives, and treats even the most complex, debilitating of cases. I believe that there are few meaningful opportunities to say “Thank you for your service” to veterans, and even fewer with such immediate and lasting impact. Supporting Headstrong is that opportunity.