Reservist gains new mindset, loses weight, gets life back while deployed

  • Published
  • By By Master Sgt. Leisa Grant
  • Air Reserve Personnel Center Public Affairs

For one reservist while deployed, losing about 30 percent of her body weight and gaining lean muscle mass wasn’t just a physical transformation. It was also a mental one.

“Being fit wasn’t always a mindset for me,” said Tech. Sgt. Samantha Conner, a healthcare management technician with the Air Force Reserve’s 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania. As a competitive swimmer in high school, Conner said she was naturally athletic and being out of shape never crossed her mind back then, more than 10 years ago.

Fast forward to the present. She was in a different frame of mind Feb. 16-18 during an Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program event in Denver. While attending a Fitness & Wellness breakout session, she nodded her head in agreement with familiar, but reassuring words from the instructor, 1st Lt. D’Anthony Harris, a Reserve medical readiness officer. Harris is a program analysis training assistant for Yellow Ribbon, which promotes the well-being of reservists and their families by connecting them with resources before and after deployments through a series of training weekends around the country. In his civilian job Harris is a behavioral therapist currently earning a personal trainer certification. He has studied human behavior as it relates to health and wellness.

“You can have all of the best personal trainers, all the best gyms and information at your fingertips, but if you don’t make a choice to use any of these, they won’t work,” Harris said. “You have to make these choices for yourself and know it’s more about building a better quality of life.”

Creating a higher quality of life didn’t enter Conner’s mind until things started changing for the worse. For the first five years of her Air Force Reserve career, she passed physical fitness tests easily. By age 24, simply being naturally fit wasn’t as simple as it used to be with a lack of healthy habits and daily exercise. Without the tools, or mindset necessary for fitness consistency, Air Force physical fitness tests were no longer easy and, in fact, had now become a huge source of stress for her, she said. The pressure increased when Conner’s unit was selected in 2015 to deploy to Afghanistan in 2017.

At the time she was chosen to deploy she had a passing fitness test. But as the deployment and requirements drew near, she was receiving failing scores.

“I knew I needed to do something, but I didn’t have the right mindset,” said Conner. “I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I hated being in family photos. It was hard to see someone I didn’t know, but at the time I didn’t care enough to do anything about it.”

But with her upcoming deployment she would need to refocus on new priorities. It was time to finally change her mindset. If she didn’t, it was possible she would not be allowed to join her unit overseas.

“I had waited so long to have the opportunity to deploy and all I was thinking is, ‘I’m going to lose this deployment,’” she said. “I also didn’t want to look or feel that way anymore. And I really wanted to be a positive role model for my younger siblings and the younger Airmen in my unit.”

Determined to not fail, Conner made choices to start exercising and eating better. This determination led to scoring above a 90 on her next fitness assessment. Her deployment was fast approaching, and so she knew she would need to shift her mindset again. Passing her fitness test was a triumph, but she didn’t want to lose this positive momentum while overseas. She wanted to be one of those people who went over and “worked, worked out, ate and slept” – that’s it.

“You see people deploying and reaching their fitness goals,” she said. This had already happened with her unit when about 30 people deployed in 2011 and many returned having reached their fitness goals.

Conner returned home from her deployment in December 46 pounds lighter than when she left six months earlier.

“Her motivation was amazing,” said Master Sgt. Luca Farkas, a medical technician in the same unit who was Conner’s workout partner during the deployment and saw the transformation from start to finish. “She didn’t make excuses and was very determined. She also motivated others in the hospital.”

Conner’s coworkers nicknamed her “Thin Mint” after noticing she was becoming more svelte and happier as the days and weeks went on with the deployment.

Back almost to her high school weight, Conner is treating fitness as a part of her lifestyle now, not just something to pass a test, she said. While deployed, taking the time to focus on healthy habits, eliminating negative self-talk, and implementing consistency changed the way she thinks of fitness and really shifted her mindset. She said she would never allow herself to use lack of time as a reason for not working out. During the Yellow Ribbon Fitness & Wellness session, that was the first answer someone in the audience gave for why people don’t prioritize fitness in their lives.

“Now that I look back at all of the excuses I made, they seem pathetic to me,” said Conner.

Conner admits she doesn’t always get in a full hour of working out, which is only about four percent of a 24-hour day. She recalled this statistic from a motivational statement she saw while deployed. On days when she is busier than normal, and a full 60 minutes isn’t possible, she said she manages to at least get in some yoga or 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training.

In addition to her renewed outlook on her overall fitness as a lifestyle, Conner said her family -- some of whom joined her at the Yellow Ribbon event -- was hugely supportive of her throughout the good and the bad. Her mother, Mary Denise Early, witnessed her daughter’s struggles and transformation over the years.

“It was so hard to watch her struggle and it wasn’t like her to let herself go,” said Early.

Early said she had mixed feelings when she learned her daughter would deploy. “Part of me was worried, but part of me could see it was giving her a purpose,” said Early.

The mother of seven also has a daughter and son both serving on active duty with the Air Force and Army, and said she wishes they had events like the Yellow Ribbon, which began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles.

“Everything here has been really informative and we’ve learned something in every class,” said Early. “I can see it being really good for helping families to bond better.”

While Conner doesn’t have the same “work, workout, eat, sleep” schedule as she did when deployed, she said she is confident she now has the right mindset to help her physically and mentally through each day. She emphasized that she never deprives herself of favorite foods, and that it’s more about making better choices overall and maintaining a balance.

Anyone else feeling stuck should “realize they are not alone, and asking for help is perfectly OK,” she said. “Everyone wants a ‘right now fix,’ but it’s OK to take it one day at a time and to know that not every day is going to be easy.”