by Airman 1st Class Ryan Conroy
31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
2/25/2015 - AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Growing
up in one of the most dangerous cities in America, Senior Airman
Jonathan Thompson wasn't expected to live until 18 ... then a hurricane
changed his life forever.
Thompson was raised, surrounded by tumultuous violence, in the St. Thomas projects of New Orleans.
"It was a place where arguments would escalate in the blink of an eye,"
stated Thompson, 31st Aerospace Medical Squadron bioenvironmental
engineer technician. "You weren't allowed to show weakness and if it
even appeared like someone was disrespecting you, you were expected to
act hostile in response. Perception was everything and if you were
viewed as weak it could cost you your life."
This life was normal for Thompson, his mother and his older brother. His
childhood was met with unprovoked anger that only escalated further
during the transition from middle to high school.
Thompson had no other option than to embrace his reality and conform to
his volatile surroundings. He was a product of his neighborhood - angry
"When I was in that environment, I was a completely different person,"
said Thompson. "If someone showed any kind of disrespect toward me, it
was a test and I had to act against it."
Celebrating someone's 18th birthday is a common coming-of-age event in
most communities, but in the St. Thomas projects, it was an uncertainty.
To give a sense of what survival meant to the community, in 7th grade,
one of Thompson's teachers asked a classroom of students to look at the
person to either side of them. The teacher shared that, according to
statistics, the person to the left and right of them would be dead or in
jail before they graduated high school.
To stay alive, St. Thomas residents depended heavily on their
friendships for protection. According to Thompson, due to their
unfortunate circumstances, the bonds he formed with his childhood
friends made them family.
"Whenever you go through a life or death situation with someone, you
grow so close to those people. By blood I have one brother, but all of
my friends are like brothers to me," said Thompson.
Sadly, the city turned his extended family into a statistic.
"One of my friends lent his car to an acquaintance of ours who used it
in a robbery," began Thompson. "He never told my friend when he returned
the car. The person who was robbed recognized the car later on and
retaliated. There were four of my friends in the car and everyone was
shot to death in the middle of the street."
"I was angry and heart-broken all at once, because my friend died at no
fault of his own," added Thompson. "I lost a brother that day because of
someone else's crimes. I felt like my environment would take my life as
well. I saw no end to the chaos I was living in."
Fast-forward two years, a hurricane was expected to make landfall soon,
nothing uncommon for New Orleans residents. According to Thompson, every
year a hurricane was forecasted to be the biggest one ever. This was
executed to encourage evacuations.
"Evacuations cost money, which is one thing our community didn't have a
lot of," said Thompson. "So, since storms had been exaggerated in the
past, a majority of New Orleans residents decided to stay home."
Hurricane Katrina was not exaggerated and annihilated everything in its path.
"When Katrina hit ... it was awful. I can't describe the smells or the
panic. The entire police force quit and people went crazy. There were
murders everywhere, people were getting shot, robbed and beat up and it
was just crazy," said Thompson.
Thompson and his family needed to evacuate - soon. Unfortunately,
Thompson's mother was a nurse- assistant and was called into the
hospital to work. She arranged for her sister to pick up Thompson and
his brother on their way out, but his brother couldn't fit and caught a
ride with someone else. Thompson made it out safely with his aunt in the
packed car. They made it to Mississippi, where he held up with extended
family with no way to contact his mother or brother.
"That was one of the hardest things I've lived through," said Thompson.
"Communication was nonexistent. I heard the news and I saw what people
were acting like in New Orleans and I was scared for my family. I didn't
know if they even made it out alive."
For three months, Thompson had no answers to the relentless questions
that haunted his thoughts. Then, he received a phone call - his mother
and his brother were alive and they were moving to Texas.
"In that moment I felt relief and happiness like never before," said
Thompson. "I was so thankful just to hear their voices again."
The Thompson family began to rebuild what the hurricane stole from them
and started a new life in Killeen, Texas. The transition from the St.
Thomas project housing to Texas was dramatic and Thompson had trouble
adapting to the overwhelming change.
"I was so used to the violence where I was from, that I assumed it was
normal everywhere else as well," said Thompson. "I learned quickly that
everything was different and I needed to adapt to my new surroundings."
The opportunities he once only dreamt of before became real
possibilities. His attitude changed, his schoolwork improved
significantly and he started capitalizing on this unexpected opportunity
"When I was growing up, I wanted to be doctor but I pushed that to the
back of my mind because surviving was first and foremost," said
Thompson. "But, when the hurricane relocated my family and me, I had a
chance and I was able to enroll in community college."
Thompson beat the odds set forth by his former teacher - he celebrated his 18th birthday alive and free.
"My 18th birthday was the greatest birthday I've ever had," said
Thompson. "I was able to change who I was, overcome the statistics and
make something of myself. It was an amazing feeling. I look at Katrina
as the best thing to happen to me because I don't know where I would be
now if it didn't happen."
To go along with his new perspective on life, Thompson decided to strive
for more than community college and searched for a progressive new life
plan to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Joining the
Air Force became the answer to his aspirations.
"My goals coming into the Air Force were to finish as much school as I
could in six years to prepare myself for medical school," said Thompson.
What Thompson did not expect was how much the people he worked with cared for him.
"I wasn't used to people asking me how I was doing every day and if
everything was alright," said Thompson. "It caught me off guard, in a
good way, and I owe my supervisors for pushing me to meet the goals I
set for myself."
In almost 6 years, Thompson has completed 90 college credit hours and
was accepted into the University of Texas for the fall semester. After
two years of pre-medical school, he plans to enroll in medical school
and become an orthopedic surgeon.
"I know I was given a unique opportunity to change everything about
myself," said Thompson. "That's why I work so hard, day in and day out,
because I could have died, but now I have so much to live for."