July 26, 2012

Who sets the first impression for your unit?

Commentary by Chief Master Sgt. Gerardo Tapia
12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) command chief master sergeant

Recently, I was at the Tucson International Airport returning home from a TDY when I noticed a very young airman basic; who from all appearances was arriving at his first-duty location. We were both at the luggage claim area at the same time and I took note that he was lugging around basically everything he owned with him. I looked around and was both surprised and disappointed that I didn’t see another person in uniform there to greet him. My luggage hadn’t made it out of the chute yet and I was standing almost next to him when he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and put it on “speaker” mode. When anyone does this, I think you almost invite anyone within earshot range to be a part of your conversation, so I was further disappointed to hear the other person on the line start to give him directions on how to get from the airport to the front-gate of Davis-Monthan. I’ve only been assigned here for a little over 7-months, but I can’t recall every seeing a taxi on the base. In my mind I could see this Airman pulling two huge rolling bags, another carry-on, a backpack and a pillow under his arm from the front-gate to wherever he needed to go in 105 degree heat. Unsat.

To make a long story short, my family and I gave him a ride and delivered him safely to the base. In the course of 20 minutes, I found out where his hometown was, what his parents did for a living, how old his siblings were and so much more. Since then, I’ve ran into him at the fitness center several times and we’ve high-fived each other as we move from one equipment piece to the other. While we’ve never really talked about it, I’d like to believe that he knows that I have his back.

I’m either a great or poor example of our sponsorship program. I’ve been on both ends. Many, many years ago I was a very young 18 year-old airman basic arriving at Travis Air Force Base to begin what I thought would be the adventure of my life. I found out later that my sponsor was serving a 30-day sentence in a “re-blueing” program we used to call “correctional custody.” He was apparently the architect and Master of Ceremonies for the nightly three-ring circus that happened in the dorms every night, my sponsor…and first impression of the base. I failed to mention that I arrived on base right before the start of a three-day weekend and with my “sponsor” in the clinker, didn’t have a clue where anything on the base was. I was alone, tired, lonely, broke, home sick and survived off of hot dogs from the bowling alley across the street for the three days before I reported to my duty-section that Monday morning. Welcome to the Air Force!

Since that time, I made a commitment that I would welcome any new Airman under my charge in the same manner that I would like to be received. In fact, I’d like to believe that I receive my Airmen as if their parents were standing two feet behind them. The act however, must be genuine and heartfelt or I encourage you to go and find someone else to do it. I think it sets the tone for the rest of your tour. It makes a huge difference; I recently talked to another airman basic in our unit whose sponsor had done such a great job, that we recognized his efforts in a recent roll call. This young man had gone so far as to take up a collection in his duty-section so that they could put a “bed-in-a-bag” and a fruit basket in his dorm room for his arrival. I asked him how that made him feel and he said, “Chief, it made me feel like I belong here.” What else can you say to that?

Undisputable evidence supports the statement that people who have a strong sense of purpose and feel a part of a team are less likely to participate in self-defeating behavior. With the resiliency issues throughout our services I think that a strong approach to making people feel welcome from day one would only benefit our efforts. It makes perfect sense to me, that you address one of the fundamental pillars, the social-interaction aspect. In addition, appointing well qualified members to perform sponsorship duties can send the right message from the onset. In light of this, I would ask you “Who sets the first impression for your unit?” Is the first impression set by the first sergeant, the commander, the chief, a razor-sharp non-commissioned officer in uniform at the airport, or is it set by a complainer in board shorts, flip-flops with a six-pack of beer under an arm?

Airman Tapia

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