SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. — Recently, I volunteered to write an article on mentoring, thinking I was pretty good at putting words on paper. If only it were that easy. The honest fact is I’m not really sure how to explain mentoring. After 19 years in the Air Force, I just know it when I see it.
My first military experience as a mentor started when I graduated Airman Leadership School 13 years ago and was assigned five Airmen to lead. To give you some idea of what I was up against, two were under investigation for drug possession/distribution. Both would eventually be discharged from the Air Force; not much I could do for those two. But I will always remember one of those five Airmen very distinctly.
He is still in the Air Force and even caught up to me as a master sergeant. I watched him progress over the years and am proud that I have been part of his career from the day he showed up at his first assignment.
I may have trouble putting into words what mentoring is, but I can sure show you the results.
A while back, this standout Airman contacted me to thank me for helping him get where he is in his Air Force career. He also took the time to remind me how hard I was on him and how much of a pain in the neck I was.
He was referencing our Thursday ritual.
We had a unit requirement to document on-the-job training records every week for Airmen who were in upgrade training. The ideal time to do this was at the end of the week so we could go over everything the Airmen did that week. This allowed me the opportunity to sign them off on tasks they were proficient in or start new tasks if needed. It also provided the perfect opportunity to document where they were at in their career development courses.
As a crew chief, my Airman had close to 200 tasks and three volumes of CDCs to finish. Needless to say, we spent a lot of Thursdays together. It got to the point where he knew he couldn’t go home on Thursday before we did our review. He would get his training records and track me down wherever I was on the flightline.
I will never forget how hard he worked at telling me he was going to get his 90 percent on the end-of-course CDC test so he could earn his one day pass. He was a smart kid and I kept telling him he could do it. We were both shocked when he only scored in the mid-80s. I will never forget his response when I asked him what happened.
“Sergeant Perez, I would have scored higher if I studied longer but I just wanted to get it over so you would stop hounding me about it.”
You have to love honest feedback.
Some people looked at our Thursday ritual and shook their heads: “Why are you putting so much effort into this? Just sign their stuff and be done with it. They’re going to pass, so what does it matter?” I heard all this from fellow noncommissioned officers and it really ticked me off. My Airman deserved better than that. I was his supervisor and I was going to do everything I could to ensure his success.
When my Airman contacted me years after that experience, he was an NCO himself. He told me he looked back on that time and realized what I was trying to accomplish. He told me he was doing the same thing with his Airmen because he wanted them to be as successful as he was. Maybe that’s what mentoring is — training not just your replacement, but your replacement’s replacement.
In a few years I will be gone from the Air Force. I want to look back on my time and know that I left it better than when I found it. I can only do this if I know I have invested everything I have into my Airmen. When I graduated ALS, I had five Airmen.
Today I am the proud first sergeant of 165 Airmen. Whether it is five or 165, they all deserve the same opportunity to be mentored and set up for success.