Air Force Technical Sergeant Kenneth Cook thought he'd be dead before he turned 21 years old.
Growing up in Orlando, Florida, his run-ins with the law were frequent, and despite living only a few miles from Disney World—"the most magical place on earth"—Cook says that wasn't his reality.
"You have that side of Orlando, and then you have real Orlando, where people are suffering, where people are poverty stricken," he said while leaning against the railing on a set of air stairs attached to the side of a KC-10 aircraft.
"You see [Disney World] on TV, and you're like, 'I wish I could go there,'" said Cook. "But it's expensive to go there."
Cook was arrested he was 13 years old. Over the course of the next several years, he'd spend time in and out of juvenile detention for a slew of "criminal acts" including trespassing and assault.
"Even though I felt like I was doing good in school, once I got out of school, my first thought was ‘how am I going to try and get some money?’” Cook recalled. "And, when you're trying to get money, then you're willing to do anything."
As Cook tells his story, it seems hard to believe the man was once behind bars for any sort of physical violence. His gigantic and infectious smile is rivaled only by his imposing frame.
"I think the most dangerous person in the world is somebody with nothing to lose," Cook said. "When you feel like you're doing something for a cause—my cause was my family—then I felt like no matter what happened to me, as long as my family's taken care of, I'm OK."
At 18, during his last stint in jail, Cook said he was inspired by one of the guards who would walk the rows of cells and treat the inmates with respect and dignity.
"How he represented himself as a guard, it set the standard and it made me feel like I could be him," said Cook. "He had troubles in his life growing up, but he turned that around when he joined the Marines."
Once Cook was released, he joined the Air Force and left his old life behind.
That is until he found himself back in jail, this time on the other side of the bars.
After spending three years stationed in Hawaii, Cook was sent to work in detainee operations at Camp Bucca, Iraq, a detention facility housing about 27,000 inmates, according to Cook.
"Once I got to the jail, and started working there, I was automatically sympathetic," Cook recalled. "I understand that things happen in life, and people make mistakes."
Just as Cook connected with the guard at the jail in Florida, he, too, tried finding common ground with the inmates he oversaw at Camp Bucca. He even became close with a couple of them.
"To build this relationship with these individuals over six, seven months, eight months, it was hurtful to leave," Cook explained. "But at the same time, some of them deserved to be in there, and I had a job to do. There was a lot of them I saw myself in at times, that I felt like, 'You're going to be something better than you are right now.'"
Cook is now stationed at Travis Air Force Base, where he works as a boom operator on the KC-10, refueling military aircrafts at 30,000 feet.
"In so many ways, the military saved me," said Cook. "Just the people that I've met, the places I've been – life's not about gang-banging and fighting and robbing and trying to find the next quick buck. It's about enjoying the moment. It's about seeing places, and experiencing it with good people. I know no matter where I go, no matter what state, what country I go to, I have a friend there that's willing to help me out, and I couldn't ask for nothing more."
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