Climbing to the top with Chief ingredients

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DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — Achieving the rank of chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force wasn’t initially a goal for a few of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base’s new chief master sergeants. Life changes and years of trial and error are a couple of the ingredients that shaped their paths to the highest enlisted grade of E-9.

“Making Chief was not a goal of mine, I came from a small town that I just wanted to get out of before I got stuck, I had no education,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rodney Vanleuven, 355th Logistics readiness Squadron superintendent. “My original enlistment was four years. Then I had my daughter and that changed my plans. It wasn’t until 21 years in the Air Force that chief became my goal.”

Two others selected as chief master sergeants, Chief Mast Sgt. Nathan Lakin, 755th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent, and Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Hellwig, 355th Electronic Maintenance Squadron first sergeant, had planned to retire after completing first sergeant duty and hitting their 20-year mark.

Focusing too much on only one area of the whole Airman concept can prove to be counterproductive.

“When I was an Airman 1st Class, I remember I didn’t make senior airman below the zone. I was upset, I had done everything they had told me to do,” said Hellwig, who sews on later this year. “What I had actually done was run myself ragged volunteering. I had everything in the frying pan but I was burning it all. I was doing all of this stuff, but I wasn’t dedicated to anything.”

Not being dedicated to anything led Hellwig to become unreliable at work and unable to handle all of her responsibilities.

“Your brain can only handle so much that you end up dropping things; you just need to focus on work,” Hellwig said.

Chiefs are in the top of the enlisted ranks where only one percent of the enlisted force make chief. Not all chiefs made BTZ or got Stripes for Exceptional Performers Promotions.

Like Vanleuven, some have been at each and every rank.

“It’s great to say that I wore every single rank, and it’s ok if you don’t make BTZ or get STEP promoted,” Vanleuven said.

Some even struggled throughout their careers, having to work their hardest to climb the ladder to the top.

“I was a late bloomer,” Hellwig said. “It took me four tries to make staff sergeant, four to make tech. sergeant, three to make master [sergeant] and another four to make senior [master sergeant].”

Hellwig pushed forward with the help of her husband.

“My husband said not to cut myself short, to give it all I could,” Hellwig said. “If I did that, then I knew I couldn’t have done any better, I would have no regrets.”

For Lakin, getting to the top of the enlisted force was more of a competition. When the Air Force would throw him in a situation he was uncomfortable in, he would try and grow from it.

“Some of the things that happened to me that I didn’t want or resisted, good things came out of it,” Lakin said. “Some of the things I didn’t like at the time turned out to be the greatest things to happen to me.”

Some of D-M AFB’s new chief master sergeants had amazing supervisors throughout their careers that guided them to the top.

“I had really good supervisors early on in my career. They pushed me to excel and wouldn’t accept mediocrity on anything,” Lakin said. “Right from the start I had people to hold me to the standard and push me to excel and that always stuck with me through my career.”

As a supervisor, each chief had something to pass down to those under them. Everything we receive as supervisors we aren’t supposed to keep, we are supposed to hand down, according to Vanleuven. Some of the new chiefs have knowledge to pass down, things they lived by throughout their careers and things they learned from previous supervisors.

“Do what you love and everything will fall into place,” Hellwig said. “When you enjoy something you give your time and life to it and you become reliable. People will look for you when they need something.”

For growing Airmen, Lakin said to stick to your core values, show up to work, be honest, and do your best for the rest will fall into place.

“I believe in three words: application, elimination and perseverance.” Vanleuven said. “No matter what, apply yourself 100 percent, eliminate bad decisions and never give up, no matter your rank, put in the effort and give it all you can.”

It takes an entire Air Force to develop a chief master sergeant.