Exceptional Release Presents Taking Care of Your Airmen: The Power of Experiences
When I was a civilian, I was a master of craft—a “subject matter expert” (SME)—and I was expected to be. I was a 7th grade English teacher for 150 students, and I had a master’s degree. Super qualified, right? I derived all sense of purpose and achievement from how well I taught and how much my students learned. Then, I joined the United States Air Force as an Officer. Now I wear one little silver bar, I’m called “LT”, not expected to know much–and I don’t–but I try, really, really hard. I’m no longer a master of craft, I am no longer a SME, and for the first time—like all silvery LTs—I’m not confident with my sense of purpose and achievement.
Officer Training School cued the discussions of, “take care of your Airmen.” What the heck did that mean? When I was a teacher, the message was, “teach your kids.” Ok, cool. I can do that, in lots of different ways: I can learn from other teachers, go to conferences, read all the books, give all the lectures, and give the homework. I had options. But “take care of your Airmen”? Where’s the formula? Could I go to a conference for that? Can I find the answer in a book? No, no, and no.
Over the past 15 months, this has been the puzzle of my career. What’s my real purpose as an Officer? It’s not ticking items off an agenda or getting through educational units. It’s tackling the idea of taking care of others…other adults…other professionals…other proficient military personnel. That’s a big task, and I’ve come to realize over time that no one has it figured it out perfectly.
When I returned from Tech School, my Commander, Maj Chad Wharton of the Logistics Readiness Squadron (LRS), decides I’m destined to be an OIC for the Materiel Management (Supply) flight in the LRS. It’s the biggest flight in the squadron, it’s especially complicated, and it does a lot for the Wing. No problem: “bloom where you’re planted”, right? I learned quickly that M-Flight comes with its own requirements. As an M-Flight OIC, I’m required to execute a “mini Base-Level-Broadening-Program (BLBP).” What that meant, was that I was expected to integrate with the Maintenance Group (MXG) for a month, learn the tricks of their trade, learn about the interfacing and relationship between Supply and Maintenance, and learn how we (Supply) could work processes better. Scary.
This was no small feat. This meant learning a new culture and subject area language, complete with acronyms, and blending that with my own Supply language; understanding overarching programs and functions; understanding small but super important sections that make-or-break timelines; and ever asking: “what can Supply do, or do better, to serve you?”
I learned a lot. I learned a lot and I didn’t attend a conference, use a formula, or read a how-to-book. I had an experience—it was experiential learning. More important than putting words or pictures to meaning, I was hands-on and encouraged to do things while I was there—and everyone was excited to put me through the rigors of their tasks. I stuck my head inside a fuel cell, toured the inside a KC-135 while in ISO, helped conduct pre-flight inspections, directed aircraft during taxiing, drove around the flightline with AGE and inspected generators, went to meetings with leaders of all ranks, listened to the barkings of the Maintenance Operations Center as they directed actions across the flightline…
School kids learn about the world through stories, pictures, and hands-on field trips. As a professional adult, this was a purposeful immersive “field trip” for me. In a lot of ways, I have sympathy for my MXG Officers who are required to have well-rounded and vetted knowledge of weapon systems, big picture strategic vision of what the squadron is tackling, establishing and maintaining relationships with their personnel, dealing with administrative issues, and always analyzing data. We do the same in the LRS, but it’s different… yet connected. Having this experiential learning opportunity bound the two worlds together and offered a way to see how the base has a lot of symbiotic relationships between squadrons and groups, ebbing and flowing, very “one-team-onefight”, all the while being really complicated. In a quick span of time, my perspective went from a narrow vision of LRS Supply, widened to Fairchild MXG and LRS level, and then I got the tap to go further. My commander injected a new task: go learn at the Supply Chain Operations Squadron (SCOS) at Scott Air Force Base, the HQ hub for KC-135 support. Essentially: go do a quick lap with the big dogs.
When seeking my connections, talking to leaders, coordinating my trip, I had a nagging sense that I was embarking on another fantastic “field trip,” upgrading my experiential learning by going the next level of authority and sealing my capstone of knowledge of Supply service to Maintenance… but going alone didn’t seem to offer due diligence. After all, I am not the SME; I don’t work the details of functions and programs, but I help execute and I manage processes. Why not bring those SMEs who might immediately benefit from such an experience? How could I help someone else get influential experiential learning?
The proposal I made included two additional personnel to my travel/tour itinerary. These were two individuals at cross-road ranks (considering staying in, considering getting out), NCOICs of their respective sections of Supply, who would ultimately benefit from putting names-to-faces at AMC-level, bring field-level problems up for resolution, and see the enterprise level perspective. I was approved to bring Technical Sergeants Nahum Miramontes of Supply’s Aircraft Parts Store and Jenda English of Individual Protective Equipment Element.
As we progressed through the tour, we shook hands, and expressed excitement for finally meeting those whom we’d been calling to work through field-level problems. I stood back and watched the relationships solidify, watched rapport develop, and it was really satisfying. Driving our rental back to the Scott Inn, both Sergeants Miramontes and English were buzzing with enthusiasm, gratitude, and awe for what we were seeing. We bantered about how skewed our perceptions and imaginations were about higher headquarters SCOS. The final sentiment shared was the most humbling: both Sergeants said, “I know I needed to see this. This definitely opened my perspective about the Air Force, and I feel energized by that… but… I think this is the type of experience some of our Staff Sergeants need to see and experience. After all, they’re even more ‘in the weeds’ than we are, and this is pure networking and would help them really understand their role and purpose at base-level.”
Isn’t that what “take care of your people” is all about? Creating opportunities to learn, network, feel inspired and re-energized, purposeful, and thoughtful about how this could help your immediate work center? I can’t tell you what it felt like to see the domino effect. I learned a lot about how to help Supply better serve Maintenance and other tenant units on Fairchild. I facilitated an opportunity for my Sergeants to make connections, broaden their perspective, resolve issues through collaboration, and realize there are opportunities to develop themselves and their Airmen beyond standard on-the-job training, position descriptions, Air Force Instructions Manuals, conferences, and comparative calls to other bases. On the back end of this experience, following my after-action reports and debriefings, I know I have a scope of tangible experience that can’t be duplicated, and I will carry this breadth of exposure with me as my career progresses–and it’ll only grow.
I’ve been through the growing pains of being a first-term Airman. To all young Airmen, I know what it feels like. It can be a struggle to find a sense of purpose, feel useful, valuable, and worth it. If you get through enough time, it all comes naturally and soon enough you’ll start to feel like people are taking care of you.
I am an Airman, and in one important way, my leadership took care of me. I was sent on a learning adventure that will undoubtedly feed my career and career-knowledge fluency. Then, in the same way, I took care of my Airmen. I brought two Technical Sergeants with me to learn, solve problems, and see a bigger enterprise picture, for which they returned energized and hopeful for the remainder of their careers. “Taking care of your Airmen” has a lot of meanings–avenues for action–but I’m a huge advocate for experiential learning. It can really solidify one’s sense of purpose, and that’s important in our Air Force for retention. Commanders: spend the money. Send your Airmen away to see different levels of the Air Force. Grow their knowledge and language from experiences. Posture your Airmen for success by assuming roles of responsibility to use those newfound skills and knowledge sets. This is an Air Force of incredible technology and a worldwide reach and our Airmen enable that churn. Give them experiential learning to make them the best they can be. Think big, think out-of-the box. Take care of your Airmen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
1Lt Annalise K. Blaylock left her career as a K-12 and collegiate educator when she felt called to serve. She commissioned in 2018 and is the current Assistant Installation Deployment Officer for Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.