From high-risk youth to national award winner – One Airman’s inspirational journey

  • Published
  • By Lori A. Bultman
  • 25th Air Force

Maj. Michael Butler has many accomplishments, including five Air Force-level awards, and soon he will add recipient of the prestigious, national Arthur S. Flemming Award to the list.
The annual Flemming award honors outstanding federal employees who made significant and extraordinary contributions to the federal government. Butler, a Buffalo, New York, native, won in the leadership and management category.
Butler’s contributions came about while he was chief of the Space Situational Awareness Branch assigned to the Air Force Technical Applications Center, with duty to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Directorate for Science and Technology. There, he led a large joint sensor development and operations team with members from multiple national agencies. Together, he and the team rapidly fielded unique methods of intelligence collection to fill key intelligence community capability gaps, according to his nomination for the award.
As a result of Butler’s work developing new algorithms and processing techniques, space objects that used to show up as “fuzzy blobs” when viewed from earth are now viewed in spectacular detail. He was able to improve images to the equivalent of what a large sensor with a dish diameter hundreds of meters wide would produce.
Butler, who graduated from Penn State University, loves the work he does for the Air Force and his country, but things did not always come easy to him.
“I overcame a high-risk upbringing – both parents had substance abuse issues,” Butler said. “That was a very toxic environment for a kid to grow up in.”

His absentee father passed away from his addiction, and his mother did not get sober until he was 20 years old. He said the only positive role models in his life were his grandparents, who looked after him in his later teens.  
“I graduated high school in the bottom third of my class,” Butler said. “I was inspired by my grandparents and had the potential to do very well but, statistically, high-risk kids are lucky if they graduate high school.”
One teacher even told him that he would never amount to anything in life, but he was determined to prove her wrong.  
“I knew I needed to move out of my grandparents’ house and do something with my life after high school. I felt my grandparents should be enjoying their retirement, not raising another teenager,” Butler said.
At the age of 18, Butler enlisted in the Navy and aced the Nuclear Field Qualification Test.
“That is a very elite career field; only three percent of the entire Navy fleet is nuclear trained,” he said. 

The job involved completing two years of technical school, which included operating a nuclear reactor. Unfortunately, Butler was disqualified from the career field after completing the training due to a color vision issue.
“It was in the Navy that I developed the discipline, structure and study habits that I needed in my life,” he said. 

At that time, he transferred to the Naval Reserves as a Seabee and was mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“While deployed, my sister, who was an Air Force veteran, told me she was thinking about applying to Penn State and enrolling in its (Air Force ROTC) program,” he said. “I thought this was a great idea, and I decided to do it too. I was not on an ROTC scholarship my freshman year due to my high school grades, and I was lucky to get accepted to Penn State at all because my high school grades were poor. My SAT scores were high and my admission letter detailing my struggles and how I overcame them convinced them to take a chance on me.”
During his freshman year, Butler worked as a janitor through the university’s work study program to pay his out-of-state tuition, which was double the normal tuition rate.
“During my freshman year, I was so broke trying to pay tuition that I used my janitor master key to do laundry at the campus gym at night when the gym was closed,” he said. “The cafeteria workers would leave me leftover food at night, instead of throwing it away like they were supposed to, because they knew that would be the only food I would eat that day.”
Toward the end of his first semester is when he said he started believing God had a plan for him. 
“I was $1,500 short of paying that semester’s tuition bill and I could not register for the following semester’s classes until the current semester was paid in full,” Butler said. “I did not know how I was going to come up with the $1,500, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘I gave it everything I got; maybe it is not meant to be.’ Then, right before the deadline to pay my tuition, I found out the Navy underpaid my per diem and allowances while I was deployed. This reimbursement helped pay my tuition and allowed me to enroll in classes for the following semester.”
A month later, due to his high grades, he was awarded an AFROTC scholarship that began his sophomore year.
Butler continued to do whatever it took to get through and graduate. While his classmates were out enjoying themselves after finishing a big test or project, he would routinely be at the library until 2 a.m. studying for the next test.
His hard work paid off.  He graduated in the top 20 percent of his class with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. 
“The night before my graduation and commissioning, I did not sleep… not even for a minute. I was so overcome with emotion and joy, reflecting on the obstacles and mountains I climbed,” Butler said. “My commissioning ceremony was very emotional. Everyone in the room had tears in their eyes as I detailed my struggles and expressed my deepest appreciation for everyone’s love and support in helping me overcome these struggles. My mother, along with my grandparents, pinned on my rank. I was hesitant to have my mother involved, but I knew if I was going to be an effective leader I needed to have compassion and forgiveness.”
As Butler continued into his Air Force career, he made a point to inspire high-risk youth by sharing his experiences through various local and military base programs.
At his last duty station, Butler tutored students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at one of the most underperforming and impoverished elementary schools in Florida.
As a result of his hard work and dedication to the students, Butler was selected by the school’s vice principal to mentor 12 of the most troubled and underperforming youth. He tutored them through STEM-related team building activities and helped them overcome their behavioral problems and lack of interest in academics.
“These kids did not get the attention they needed at home, so they could not focus on learning. I knew that I had to make learning fun for them by creating problem-solving activities that also enabled them to build interpersonal relationships and self-esteem,” Butler said. “Everyone has obstacles and challenges to overcome, some more than others. You can let these experiences make or break you. To be able to overcome the obstacles that I had to overcome, I had to be committed every single day to give my very best in everything I did. Once I had built enough sweat equity, it rewired my DNA. I cannot quit or give less than my best, even if I wanted to. I have too much sweat equity invested.”
Butler was recognized by the Arthur S. Flemming Award Commission June 4, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
“I thank God every day for the position he has put me in. So far, God’s plan has led me to a career that I absolutely love, and to my wife and three kids,” Butler said. “I did not have parents that were role models that I could build my own parenting skills off of, so probably my biggest achievement is that my kids already think I am a superhero. I think going through my upbringing has made me a better father and husband, because I do not take anything for granted.”