Losing It: How one young woman shed more than 120 pounds to join the Air Force Reserve

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Julie Weckerlein
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
She hated looking at herself in the mirror.

While many complimented her sweet nature and beautiful smile, Santana Austin didn't feel pretty. As a child, she'd always struggled with her weight, but by the time she was 17, she was wearing a size 24 pants. Slowed down by the extra weight she carried on her frame, she could barely keep up with other kids her age. And though she had her loving family, her classmates never let her forget that she was obese.

"I just couldn't do what everyone else was doing," she said. "I didn't like how I looked or how I felt."

Though she felt isolated by her obesity, Miss Austin wasn't alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 19 are obese. Most attribute this to poor diet and inactive lifestyles, two factors that played a part in Miss Austin's life.

Up until that point, while Santana was unhappy with her weight, she had accepted it. Her family's lifestyle was one of unhealthy food and inactivity. Other members were heavy, too. It was all she'd ever known.

But all that changed the day she got an information packet in the mail from the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

"I knew I wanted to go to college and I liked that the military helps pay for it, so I flipped to the back [of the information] to see the requirements for enlisting," she said. Her heart sank when she realized she was 125 lbs over the weight limit. But just as suddenly, a surge of motivation filled her spirit.

Her father calls it the "Austin Power." It's the family trait of willpower mixed with stubbornness, a fixation on a goal that doesn't leave until it's achieved. Now she wanted something different: she wanted to be an Airman. And nothing was going to stop her.

So, after setting her goal, Miss Austin enlisted the help of her mother to incorporate healthy lifestyle changes into their family home.

"My mom started to buy and prepare better foods for us," she said. "That was a big part of it. Up until that point, the foods we were eating and the way it was prepared was so unhealthy."

Miss Austin also did her research. She learned about portion sizes and calorie intake and began taking vitamins and mineral supplements.

"I also began sleeping better," she said. "Believe it or not, you burn tons of calories in your sleep depending on how much muscle you have."

Then she simply got on her feet.

"The physical activities that I did -- and still do -- were mostly cardio," she said. "Be it jogging, running, or jumping jacks or jump rope, soccer or yard work." On the days when she just didn't feel like working out, she instead kept busy doing things that needed to get done around the house or running errands.

"If I'm not going to work out, then I will do something productive and still keep my diet," she said. "A good thing I do to keep the weight in control is take nice long walks, and if it rains, I do some floor exercises or play either my guitar or piano."

Slowly, but surely, the weight started melting off. She began wearing belts, moving her way down the leather strip until she had to make new holes to keep her pants up.

"There came a point where I realized that I needed new clothes that fit," she said. "That was a good day."

Her classmates started noticing her weight loss, too. The teasing stopped; outnumbered by the words of encouragement from those she loved most.

"The best part was that my whole family got involved," she said. "My dad ended up losing weight, too, and making healthier choices."

It took just over a year and a half to reach her goal. She graduated high school and made her way to the recruiter's office, where she was in-processed and enlisted. In a blur, she was sent to basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, which she says she actually enjoyed.

"I had a great group and really good military training instructors," she said. She excelled in the structured environment, already being familiar with things like discipline, following a routine and working for a goal.

The scope of her accomplishment, though, didn't sink in until her graduation ceremony, where her parents were in attendance to watch her be presented with the Airman's Coin.

"That was the moment for me," she said. "That's when it was like all that time working to be there, to lose the weight and prove to myself that I could do whatever I wanted to do, that's when it hit me."

Needless to say, it was an emotional, but deeply satisfying moment.

Now, Airman Santana is a public affairs Airman with the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. She recently completed her first drill weekend, working amongst other Airmen. Many who see her simply see a new, slim Airman walking through the halls, but by sharing her story, Airman Austin hopes to motivate others to live healthier lifestyles.

"In the past, I was working with the goal to join the Air Force," she said. "Now my goal is to never return to that person I was. I like who I am now. I like looking in the mirror. I'm more confident and I just feel better."

She said the key to any weight loss is removing "can't" from your vocabulary.

"Saying you "can't" do something is just like saying you "won't" do something. And I'm proof you can do anything."