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1st female Thunderbird pilot inspires Schriever

Capt.  Angela Tomasek, 2nd Space Operations Squadron engineering flight commander, briefs retired Col. Nicole Malachowski, while Senior Airman Sean Romm, 2nd SOPS space systems operator, mans a control station, while on a tour of the 2nd SOPS floor during her visit to Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski, the first female Thunderbird pilot, spent 21 years in the Air Force. After being medically discharged due to a life threatening tick borne illness in 2017, Malachowski decided to use the pain and lessons learned to bring hope to thousands through her motivational speeches focused on the value and importance of resilience, resurgence and re-invention. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Capt. Angela Tomasek, 2nd Space Operations Squadron engineering flight commander, briefs retired Col. Nicole Malachowski, while Senior Airman Sean Romm, 2nd SOPS space systems operator, mans a control station, while on a tour of the 2nd SOPS floor during her visit to Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski, the first female Thunderbird pilot, spent 21 years in the Air Force. After being medically discharged due to a life threatening tick borne illness in 2017, Malachowski decided to use the pain and lessons learned to bring hope to thousands through her motivational speeches focused on the value and importance of resilience, resurgence and re-invention. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski, former commander of the 333d Fighter Squadron and ambassador for the Wounded Warrior Project, talks to Airmen during a visit at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski’s military career came to a sudden halt after a tick bite resulted in life-altering neurological problems and for which she was medically retired. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski, former commander of the 333d Fighter Squadron and ambassador for the Wounded Warrior Project, talks to Airmen during a visit at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski’s military career came to a sudden halt after a tick bite resulted in life-altering neurological problems and for which she was medically retired. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski laughs while sharing stories and lunch with Airmen during her visit to Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski, who has endured multiple life challenges including suffering from a tick borne illness that ended her career as a fighter pilot, brought a message of hope and resurgence during a speaking engagement later that day. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski laughs while sharing stories and lunch with Airmen during her visit to Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Dec. 19, 2019. Malachowski, who has endured multiple life challenges including suffering from a tick borne illness that ended her career as a fighter pilot, brought a message of hope and resurgence during a speaking engagement later that day. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Calvert)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Retired Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first female Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Team pilot, visited Schriever Air Force Base, Dec. 19.

Malachowski shared lunch with Airmen, toured the 2nd and 4th Space Operations Squadrons, and offered a keynote address to more than 110 Airmen. She shared her message of resurgence following medical challenges.

Malachowski, an Ambassador with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, said this was the first time she visited an Air Force base to tell her story since being medically retired due to tick borne illness almost two years ago.

“I want you to know that if I could still be in the Air Force, serving alongside you, wearing this uniform, this is where I would want to be,” she said. “Thank you for welcoming me and letting me be here.”

Malachowski explained how past adversities afforded her a new-found perspective and helped her discover an inner strength she didnt know she had.

“This was my purpose all along,” she said. “The Air Force gave me the skills I needed to make this happen. All along I wanted to fly fighters, but my biggest contribution has to do with something completely different.”

After a detailed account of her medical journey, she shared how she struggled emotionally after her medical retirement from the Air Force. Today though, Malachowski is thankful for her experiences and said they transformed her by giving her clarity on what gives her life meaning. 

It's not the Air Force, its not the uniform, its not my position, its not being a fighter pilot, it is this,” she said, pointing to a photo of her and her family.

Though Malachowski spoke about personal challenges and her path to finding her purpose, her overall message supported her experiences with three main ideas.

Resilience

Resilience is great, resilience is tactical,” she said. Resilience is when you make a mistake and you come back into work the next day with your chin up high and try again. Its when you have a failure and you think, Thats OK, failure is the path to victory, failure is how I grow,’’ she said.

Resurgence

According to Malachowski, sometimes being resilient may not be enough.

[When you] go through major challenges and burdens, you are going to be broken at times, like I was,” she said. “[After] a crucible you come out different; your old self doesnt exist anymore. There is no resilience because there is no bouncing back to your old self. You are new, stronger and better, thats resurgence.”

Reinvention

Malachowski said the third stage of transformation is reinvention, which is about taking the next step and seeking a new purpose in life.

I have reinvented myself,” she said. “I have a new identity, a new mission, a new purpose. Every single one of you has the opportunity and power to reinvent yourself at any given time.”

During her reinvention process, Malachowski asked herself the following question to realize what she wanted to do in her life: what do I miss?

I miss being with people,” she said. I have to have a job where I am with people, sharing authentically our stories. Thats how I reinvented myself.”

Malachowski shared her thoughts on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life and offered an analogy that connects her teachings on mindfulness and surpassing adversity with the Air Force values.

“Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all you do, it all starts with maintaining integrity to yourself,” she said. “What gives your life meaning? Can you answer that? I gave you a picture of mine. Maybe it’s family, maybe it’s your kids, maybe it's a hobby, a church or community organization. In my re-invention I needed to be with people.”

Jessica Ditson, 50th Space Wing violence prevention integrator, said Malachowskis message was impactful and helpful to her as she plans to implement those tools to her life.

I really appreciated that she saw her struggle with tick borne illness as a catalyst to grow and change while keeping in mind who she was at her core and staying true to her lifes purpose,” she said.  I think getting clear on your purpose can be so freeing; like Colonel Malachowski said, it gives you a solid place to make informed decisions on when a ‘no’ is the right answer, allowing you to hold space and time for your true purpose.”

In the same line of thought, Chief Master Sgt. Steven Whitworth, 50th Operations Group superintendent, said he had some great takeaways from Malachowski’s keynote address.

I think its important to know your why and why you prioritize things the way you do, especially when you are trying to practice mindfulness, resiliency, etc.” he said. If you dont know why you are doing what you are doing and you dont know what your priorities are I think you will probably be lost.”

Col. Hewett Wells, 50th Network Operations commander, found Malachowski’s life testimony inspiring and admired her dedication to the tick borne illness cause.

“Colonel Malachowski is an incredible demonstration of grit, determination and perseverance in the face of a debilitating illness,” he said. “Someone who had the skills and tools to be resilient and through resurgence and reinvention found new meaning and purpose for her life. I found her commitment to research and education on tick-borne illness informative and inspiring.”

Malachowski reminded the audience to take time to fully know themselves and spend their time wisely while keeping true to their purpose. 

You know what my illness taught me?,” she said. I say no a lot and I love it. I have clarity of purpose. I say yes to things I want to be at and yes to things I care about and thats why I am here with you today. Its all about integrity and maintaining fidelity to the whole; if you dont know what your whole is or know who you are, you wont be able to bring your best to work, for everybody else and the mission thats depending on you.”

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