Editor’s note: This story is the second of a series on inductees into the Brookfield Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.
Jonathan Sawtelle hates it when he hears adults asking young people what they want to be when they grow up.
The question, he said, is unfair.
“You kind of just define some sort of skill or identity around what you think you want to be,” Sawtelle, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, told a group of Brookfield High School students on Sept. 20. “What you want to be when you grow up is too big a question and doesn’t answer enough things that you owe yourself and your future family.”
“Narrow down the question,” said the 1998 Brookfield High School graduate. “What do I enjoy? What lights my fire?”
Think in terms interpersonal relations – Do I want to have kids? Do I want to marry? – personal boundaries – Am I willing to commute to work? – and things you like to do – Do I want to travel? Do I want to be able to afford season tickets? – Sawtelle said.
At one point in his life, Sawtelle wanted to be a musician, and had achieved certain recognition toward the aim: receiving a music scholarship to study at the University of North Dakota, and twice earning the university’s Top Music Competition of the Year award.
He credited an uncle with expanding his outlook on his future by asking if he would be able to feed a family as a musician.
“I don’t know about family, I just want to be a musician right now,” Sawtelle said. “That’s all I’m thinking about right now.”
Music was actually one of his minors when he attended North Dakota. He had entered the Air Force and received an ROTC scholarship to study meteorology, eventually earning the distinction as the Air Force’s #1 Company Grade Weather Officer.
But, Sawtelle was not destined to spend his life in front of a computer screen running weather pattern models, or at a music stand.
As a special operations officer, he served four tours of duty in Afghanistan. One of those tours was memorable in that he hooked up with his Brookfield classmate, Tom Kinsey, a Navy Seal.
“We’re both free fall qualified, which means we can skydive out of airplanes, with equipment, at night, with night vision,” Sawtelle said. “Because I’m Air Force and he’s Navy, he didn’t know how to open up an airfield. I brought in the team that opened up a runway for him. They couldn’t even drive in and out of their base in this place in Afghanistan because there was so many bombs in the ground nearby.”
Sawtelle now works in the U.S. Special Operations Command to congress.
“The last few years, I worked at the Pentagon and I worked on Capitol Hill, representing the United States military to members of Congress and senators.” he said. “My job is, basically, to ask Congress for money and stuff. When there’s a limited amount of money, it gets very, very, very nasty, fighting. And so I’d go home at the end of the day with all these huge thoughts about national security and all the responsibilities.”
When he got home, what did he find? His three children, ages 8 to 11.
“They’d be like, ‘Dad, somebody broke my pencil today,’” he said. “How do you shift gears from one to the other? But, if I would not have, you could say I would have betrayed the trust of my children, by not listening to things that matter to them. Different things matter to different people, whether I think it’s relevant or not. The lesson is you’re gonna leave here with some motives, but the world’s gonna change. It’s gonna put you in a position where you can choose or choose not to change. Change your mind, adapt, learn something new, move. These are tough choices because the easiest thing to do is do nothing at all.”