Taking care of your Airmen?

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Many years ago I was just starting out as a young flight chief and senior NCO. I had traveled back east to attend the Maintenance Production Superintendent Course and was headed back home. After I dropped off my rental car I hopped on the bus that would take me back to the terminal. It is this exact moment in time that how I viewed our Airmen changed forever.

As I boarded the bus a gentleman in the far back corner struck up a conversation with me. (I was in uniform.)

“Air Force, hey my son leaves for basic training tomorrow,” he said.

So I began to talk with him and he said something that really struck a chord.

“I am glad he went into the Air Force instead of going off to college, as I know the Air Force will take care of him.”

It was at that very moment in time, the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

Many people will tell you that leading and parenting go hand-in-hand. I tend to agree to some extent. However, I will say that if you have a teenager in the house, you may tend to understand that generation a little bit better than others.

My son had just turned 18 and was getting ready to head off to his father’s beloved Boise State University. We were quite anxious for him as he was leaving home, and we weren’t really sure as parents just how prepared we had gotten him. Either way, he was leaving.

My wife and I had many conversations that my son never knew took place. Can he do laundry, can he cook, does he know how to pay his bills online, does he know how to access his checking account, and does he know how to buy groceries? The list just goes on and on. So you see it is because of this that when the gentleman stated he knew we would take care of his son that I immediately began to worry. Will we? Are we?

At the time, I felt the answer was no. I didn’t feel we were doing enough.

Upon my return I immediately changed how we operated. We were averaging three to four new Airmen every month. We established a checklist that covered everything from how to pay your bills online to how to do laundry. If they didn’t have a car we made sure they got everywhere they needed to go. In fact, to steal a term from the Navy, it was all hands on deck. What we had discovered was shocking.

The reality was far more of our Airmen than we thought were barely getting by. One Airman said she slept in her dorm room for three nights with no sheets, blankets or pillows. She arrived on the Friday of a four-day weekend. Her sponsor picked her up, dropped her off at the dorm and left her with the, “Call me if you need anything,” statement. As far as she was concerned, this was normal. This situation should never be normal.

We also started another process, when Airmen under the age of 21 processed through my office, I got their parents’ phone numbers and addresses. Each one of them received a call and a letter from me so they knew who I was, and they knew how to contact me in the event of an emergency. As it turns out, in the span of two years I was contacted at least 50 times. Parents were eternally grateful to have an avenue to reach out to when Airman Doe doesn’t answer his phone for days on end.

This ultimately paid off in more ways than you can possibly imagine. We had taken a vested interest in our Airmen’s lives. We had established a mantra from day one that we truly did care about them and looking out for them was a top priority. It showed in everything from morale to work because as it turns out, happy Airmen are amazing Airmen. We also changed how we were viewed in the former homes of these Airmen. I can’t tell you how many times I had a parent call just to say thank you.

I would like to challenge those who are in a position of leadership, from immediate supervisors and up. Are you doing everything you can to ensure those Airmen who have been entrusted to you are taken care of? If at any point one of those Airmen’s parents were to call you, could you confidently say you are taking care of them? I think we would all like to answer yes to that question and I think, to some extent, we are. However, there may be room to do even better. I can tell you this, there is no greater feeling in the world than having a parent call you just to say “Thank you.”