HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.–I’ll never forget the first time my Air Force pride shot through the roof of my heart.
It wasn’t upon graduating basic training; that was more of a weight lifted relief. It wasn’t the first time I saw an F-22 Raptor take off, and it wasn’t when I, as a young Airman, stood tall saluting during the sound of Retreat at my first duty station.
No. The first time I experienced that level of passion to serve this country was on a cold and chilly night outside of a toy store in Newport News, Virginia.
I’d just left work but desperately desired to catch a good, one-time sale. Although I was tired after a long day, I was determined to go because it was the first Christmas I’d celebrate with my husband and son, and was I excited to do some Christmas shopping as a first-time mom.
It was late when and I left the office, and I didn’t want to miss the store. So, I asked my best friend to tag along and, against our better judgment, we went directly to the toy store — uniform and all.
When we got there and began walking in, I noticed a little boy and his father leaving. Having good “attention to detail,” just as the Air Force teaches us, I took note that the boy was wearing a military costume. I thought it was a little funny because it wasn’t Halloween.
What parent would allow their child to play dress-up randomly and furthermore do it out in public?
I also noticed the little guy was tugging aggressively at his father’s arm. It was then that his father pointed toward us and said, “Go ahead.” The little boy took off at the speed of light running our way, and when he reached us, he threw his little hand up to the middle of his forehead to salute.
By this time in our careers, saluting had become habitual for us. So, right on cue, we honored him back with a crisp salute as if he were an officer. He gave a big grin and ran back to his father. The dad smiled, waved and said, “Thank you.”
Right then, a surge jolted through me as if I’d been on a roller coaster, and it was at that moment when my Air Force pride shown brighter than it ever had before. It was a surreal moment, and it took us a bit to gather our emotions before we went into the store.
It wasn’t the best judgment to wear the uniform out in a public place, but that night, it certainly was worth it.
I’ll never forget the little boy and how enthused he was to salute me and my friend. He looked up to us and wanted to be us.
When I became an NCO, I saw that little boy in every young man and woman who entered the Air Force. They all reported to their first duty stations eager to start their career with pride to serve their country. They looked to us and looked to us to guide them.
But then, something unexpected happened.
About a year or even as early as six months into their careers, the enthusiasm to be a part of the world’s best Air force began to fade. Suddenly, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” statements filled with confidence became “Sir, I just want to get out, man.”
What happened? I have proudly served for 13 years on active duty, and I think I may have the answer to that question.
The answer is the “in-house” recruiter isn’t present. When a person aspires to join our service, they seek out the nearest “official” recruiter. The “official” recruiter is the Air Force member who attends a seven-week course where they are taught the ability to initiate, entice and sell the desire to be in the Air Force to the civilian public.
All of the new Airmen entering the Air Force prove the “official” recruiter has been successful, but the recruiting job doesn’t stop there. Once the new recruit arrives to his or her assignment, it’s up to the “in-house” recruiter to continue enticing and encouraging our Airmen to continue their service.
Who is the “in-house” recruiter, you ask? It is the staff sergeant, the technical sergeant, the supervisor — the leaders who hold these positions.
It is us, the NCO tier, who must accept the responsibility for keeping our young Airmen motivated; we must be their “in-house” recruiter. I understand this tier is the hardest-working tier in the Air Force with lots of other responsibilities, but we cannot negate the primary responsibility of maintaining our Airmen in our Air Force.
In my opinion, one of the most crucial requirements for encouraging a young Airman to continue service is by constructing and establishing a healthy relationship between subordinate and supervisor. Remember, as supervisors we are not their dictators nor should we ever present this type of identity. The definition of supervisor, defined by us, should read: guidance, structure, constructive, discipline and, above all, “leadership.”
If we only look to punish instead of providing progressive discipline in order to correct mistakes, then we are at risk of never forming a healthy relationship. If we are quick to demean and shun our subordinates for their decisions rather than guide them to positive perspectives, then we minimize the art of trust.
Lastly, if we abuse the authority of our stripes not only have we disrespected the rank structure and what it stands for, we’ve merely accomplished enforcing respect instead of encouraging it.
In simplest terms, I mean a lot of our Airmen have the potential to become SNCOs. But, before they even get the opportunity, they become discouraged and end their careers. We as NCOs should encourage our Airmen so they’ll know their true potential and the ability they have to reach the SNCO level.
The job of the official recruiter is done. Now, “in-house” recruiters must continue the job by building relationships with our Airmen and exemplifying positive images of who we are so that our Airmen will stay delighted in the possibility of who they can grow to be.
I now understand why the father of the little boy in my story allowed him to wear the military costume randomly while in public. It was his way of encouraging and supporting his son’s desire to one day serve.
Can you imagine what might have happened to the little boy’s dreams in that moment had my friend and I refused to salute him back? Can you discern how he may have felt?
Just like the little boy in front of the toy store, our Airmen desire to serve our country, to salute us, look up to us and one day be us. And, just as my friend and I did, we as NCOs should salute them back. As difficult as it may be to supervise our Airmen, we must always strive to endear them while we endure them because, after all, we were once them.
An “in-house” recruiter