AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Carson City was a fine place to stay — it had anything a woman could want. There were friendly folk, fair weather and enough space to feel free but not lonely. It was quintessential America — a place to settle down.
However, settling down was the last thing U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Danielle Belanger, 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons load crew member, wanted to do.
“I love home, but I felt like there was more in the world than what I saw there,” said Belanger. “I was going to nursing school and everything was going well, but something was missing. I needed to see what else was out there, so I left.”
She chose the Air Force as the vehicle for her exodus. As is the case with many new recruits, Belanger was confused during her enlistment process and joined a career field different from her past medical experience. She now believes it was a blessing in disguise.
“When I found out I was going to Italy, I knew in my gut that was because of my new job as a weapons loader,” said Belanger. “Had I not come here, I don’t think I would have found the experiences here that I was missing back home.”
Since arriving, Belanger has traveled across Europe and beyond, both personally and professionally. Through her travels, she found what she longed for — a change of perspective. Her realization came while on assignment with other nations’ military members.
“I’ve been to Estonia, Sweden and Turkey to work with my counterparts in their air forces and other military personnel,” said Belanger. “Regardless of language barriers, cultural differences and job practices, there was always a mutual camaraderie. Even though these people were from different countries, they had the same desire as many of us do when we join — to make their world a better place.”
Their shared desire opened Belanger’s eyes to the similarities between all who serve.
“I remember going out with the Estonians and immersing myself in their culture,” said Belanger. “I realized ‘this is what they are trying to protect, and it looks no different than home.’ That made me want to do my best, because I could relate to that desire to defend.”
Seeing the positive effects of those shared passions, Belanger began to apply the lessons learned abroad to her life at home station.
“People come from all walks of life. I should remember that if I want to grow in this diverse military culture,” said Belanger. “For instance, I’m small and I’m a girl. Sometimes people ask me if I need help with my job because of that, but it isn’t meant to be disrespectful. They grew up in a place where that is respectful. They just want to help me.”
Understanding different perspectives granted Belanger the opportunity to change others’ perspectives through action.
“If I don’t get defensive when someone hits a nerve, both of us can move on and get the job done,” said Belanger. “In time I hope they think, ‘Her actions aren’t what I am used to, but we were still able to work together. Maybe I should change the way I look at people at first glance.’”
Every experience along the way has also changed Belanger.
“Seeing how other people think, experiencing different cultures and trying to understand it all leads to more self-inspection,” said Belanger. “That is why I really encourage traveling to everyone I meet. If we see things we have never seen before, it keeps our minds flexible. That flexibility means you can learn something faster and apply it. To me, that seems like the kind of person the Air Force hopes to build at the end of the day.”