As part of an on-going series of features and interviews on resiliency, we highlight a Reserve Citizen Airman of the 307th Bomb Wing who has overcome obstacles to improve themselves and the Air Force. This month, we feature Col. Dennis Britten, 307th Medical Squadron commander whose work ethic and never-say-quit attitude have been instrumental in shaping his career and the careers of those around him.
Young Dennis Britten scanned the fields of the large tobacco farm in rural Virginia. Before him, row after long row of tobacco baked under a scorching sun, waiting to be harvested. The dusty, smelly leaves seemed to speak to him, telling the young boy he would spend a lifetime there, never to leave the boundaries of his small town.
Breaking free from those fields was the first of many challenges Britten would overcome in a career that eventually led to becoming a colonel in the Air Force Reserve Command and commander of the 307th Medical Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
“We grew up poor,” Col. Britten said. “In the summer, you’d get in the field at 5 a.m. and didn’t leave until sundown, but it helped me to build a strong work ethic.”
Instead of hanging his head in defeat, Britten set his jaw and went to work, determined to build a better life for himself. That attitude toward adversity sums up Britten’s secret to success.
Every obstacle placed in front of Britten simply became another opportunity to build a resiliency portfolio that includes prayer, determination, and an uncanny ability to persevere in the face of long odds.
The soft-spoken, humble Reserve Citizen Airman has distilled his can-do attitude and resiliency skillset into a simple philosophy.
“When a door seems to close, you have to figure out what you are going to do, but quitting is never an option,” he said.
Britten credits his mother with modeling that sense of determination early in his life. Growing up in the segregated South, she had only been afforded an eighth grade education, but that served as no excuse for not trying to improve.
Britten said, after working all day in the tobacco fields, the mother of five would take care of them before finally sitting down with the evening newspaper, teaching herself how to read.
Other mentors followed, including a hard-nosed high school basketball coach that wouldn’t allow Britten, a budding point-guard, to do anything halfway.
Britten recalled one day in practice when he made a poor play. Angered by what he saw as a lack of effort, the coach stormed over to Britten, berating him through clenched teeth. The coach’s words remained vivid in his memory.
“He drew in very close and told me if I was going to screw up, I’d better do it at full-speed,” said Britten, smiling at the memory. “He just wanted me to give one-hundred percent, that’s all he was asking.”
Britten continued to internalize those lessons, building up his resiliency skill set even before enlisting in the Air Force as an avionics technician.
Joining the Air Force helped Britten leave behind the back-breaking, dead-end road of tobacco farming and he began to build a life around the military, eventually getting married and having children.
With his family growing, Britten began to look for ways to keep from moving. He transferred to the Air Force Reserve and became an Air Reserve Technician, which allowed him to continue doing the maintenance work he enjoyed without worrying about having to transfer his family to a new duty location every few years.
Though Britten was secure in his career, he was still hungry for something more. He wanted to earn his bachelor’s degree.
“No one in my family had a college degree, but my mom had always told me I could do anything I set my mind to,” he explained.
Armed with that idea, Britten juggled military, civilian and family obligations to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, but he was not done yet.
From his days in Virginia, Britten had fond memories of doctors who had cared for an ailing cousin. Their concern and compassion left an imprint and he decided to apply for medical school.
From the beginning, the journey was difficult.
Britten had researched and completed all the necessary coursework needed to apply, but a friend convinced him to speak with a medical school faculty member to try and learn more.
The advisor looked at Britten’s college transcript and began relaying a litany of additional courses he should take before applying for medical school. Britten questioned why he would need all the extra courses if he already had a bachelor’s degree.
“She pushed back from her desk, dropped her pen on the tablet and told me if I made it into medical school I would fail without these courses,” he said.
Britten thanked her for her time and left the office more determined than ever to become a doctor.
“I could have been dejected, but I realized she had known me for less than five minutes and had already made an assumption of my capabilities,” he explained.
He eventually applied to twelve different medical schools, gaining acceptance to each one, and battled through years of study and financial hardship to attain his goal.
All the while, Britten kept his eye on getting back into the Air Force Reserve. Once he completed his residency, the newly minted cardiologist was back in uniform.
Britten said he never had a doubt about returning.
“The Air Force Reserve is one of my three families,” he stated plainly. “I have my personal family, my professional family and my Air Force family.”
Juggling the demands of command with his civilian practice and family life presented Britten with new challenges that would have taxed him had it not been for his prayer life.
“I’ve got a spiritual side and it has allowed me to understand what other people around me are going through,” he said.
That sense of empathy has spilled over into his military career and Britten insisted his greatest pleasure has been watching young Airmen in his command succeed. It has also given him a sense of priority and a degree of flexibility that impacted how he approaches challenges.
“I never worry about things beyond my control, just the things I can effect,” he said. “Life is dynamic and you have to be able to change with it.”
From the back-breaking toil of the Virginia tobacco fields to the demands of commanding a squadron and running a medical practice, Britten has constantly leaned on perseverance, prayer, and critical thinking to turn every negative into a positive.
When asked what advice he had for other Airmen trying to stay resilient in the face of their own challenges, Britten squared his jaw and reiterated the formula for his own success.
“Never, never quit because if you want something bad enough there is always a way,” he said.