Annual awards gone wild

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Annual award winners assigned to the 99th Communications Squadron cross a steep, snow-packed section during a backpacking trip across the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo., July 20, 2019. Cautious and deliberate movements were necessary in snow-packed areas due to the risk of steep falls. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Joshua Kleinholz)

Annual award winners selected from the 99th Communications Squadron received a unique reward for their performance as part of a new Adventurous Training Program.

The first group of events served as a pilot program set in place by Lt. Col. James Harrington, 99th CS commander, who’s looking to lead an effort to offer greater incentives for high performing team members.

“I heard about the program while I was working a NATO assignment in Belgium,” said Harrington. “Some of my British colleagues informed me of an initiative that allowed them to pick from about eight different leadership and character development experiences, such as scuba diving, sky diving, mountain climbing and kayaking.”

Harrington said he envisions a program that further incentivizes high performance and morale in the workplace. His plan is to bypass the traditional plaque, trophy and hand shake to instead offer an opportunity to choose from a wide variety of adventurous, enjoyable and challenging experiences outside of a member’s official work duties.

“The program is not designed necessarily to make a person better in the job he or she is assigned to,” said Harrington. “Rather, it’s a leadership and character development, resiliency, and retention tool. I can’t give you more money, I can’t always give you more time off, and I can’t guarantee you the perfect assignment. What I can do, is reward you with an incredible experience outside of your daily work you won’t get anywhere else.”

Annual award winners assigned to the 99th Communications Squadron cross a steep, snow-packed section during a backpacking trip across the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo., July 20, 2019. Cautious and deliberate movements were necessary in snow-packed areas due to the risk of steep falls. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Joshua Kleinholz)

This time around, award winners each selected one of two events, which included a Las Vegas-based day of spycraft and espionage called the Invictus Experience or a five-day backpacking trip across the Continental Divide in Colorado.

During the Invictus Experience, three award winners drove a fleet of exotic cars around a twisting race track before hopping on a helicopter en route to an undisclosed location for combat training with experienced military special operators. After landing, the group was briefed on small-unit tactics, basic crisis response, and enjoyed trigger time on a number of military rifles and machine guns.

Two other high performers felt the call of the wild, opting instead for a five-day trek in the soaring peaks of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Accompanied by an experienced guide, the group completed 26 miles of hiking and camping, conquering 3,500 feet of elevation change and topping out at a staggering 13,000 feet above sea level. High up in the alpine tundra, members felt they had entered a different world from the Air Force communications shop to which they’ve become accustomed.

“The biggest challenge for me was not looking down as we crossed the steep snow caps,” said Master Sgt. Aimee Klarmann, 99th CS first sergeant. “I learned a lot about overcoming fear. There were times during the trip I was in fear and even in pain, but I learned a lot about my ability to push through.”

Senior Airman Justin Sharp, 99th CS network infrastructure technician and squadron Airman of the Year, took a huge step out of his comfort zone and took on his first ever backpacking trip with an open mind.

John Ferrelli, an information systems security manager assigned to the 99th Communications Squadron, takes laps in a Ferrari 488 GTB at Exotics Racing in Las Vegas, April 3, 2019. Ferrelli earned the supercar experience through superior performance in his workplace and earning him an annual award. (Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Joshua Kleinholz)

“Day one, throwing on the 60-pound pack was a huge challenge for me mentally,” said Sharp. “In the next couple days, I was able to get into a rhythm and really start to enjoy myself. I learned I can do a lot more than I thought I could, especially physically, because for me, my brain has been the money-maker.”

Regardless of which experience they chose, the squadron members arrived with preconceived notions and a degree of uncertainty before having their expectations blown away.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Sharp. “Day one, I was honestly regretting my decision. My mentality changed drastically, and by days three and four, I was loving it. I could definitely see myself going on a backpacking trip, again.”

By the end of the events, participants had faced unique challenges and pushed their perceived personal limits. The Adventurous Training Program was shown to be a tool for retention and professional development as it pertains to the greater Air Force Whole Person Concept and an exciting chance for individuals to check items off their bucket lists in the midst of a demanding military lifestyle.

“People were excited, some even nervous, when we told them we’d be trying out this new program,” said Harrington. “Much of our funding goes to new equipment and hardware, but that doesn’t necessarily bring innovation. We’re going to do something to invest in our human capital.”