Recruiting squadron commander wins Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Chance Babin
  • Air Force Recruiting Service Public Affairs

The 330th Recruiting Squadron gained a new commander this year and he just happens to be the winner of the 2020 Lance P. Sijan U.S. Air Force Leadership Award in the senior officer category.

Lt. Col. Steven Cooper earned the award while assigned as the commander of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida. Cooper was deployed last year and much of his award package is based on his time downrange.

“I was very humbled. I knew a lot of my mentors, people I considered heroes, who have earned that award in the past,” Cooper said. “I certainly don’t consider myself in their company, but I was very appreciative. I also thought about all of my instructors, mentors, senior officers and NCOs who have helped me along the way. Overall, I’m very thankful and grateful.”

The award recognizes the accomplishments of Airmen, both officers and enlisted, who demonstrate the highest qualities of leadership in the performance of their duties and conduct of their lives. It was named in honor of the first U.S. Air Force Academy graduate to receive the Medal of Honor. Sijan was shot down over Vietnam Nov. 9, 1967, and evaded capture for 45 days despite severe injuries. He later died while in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism.

“Steve Cooper is a gem within our recruiting leadership team,” said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, AFRS commander. “He brings incredible operational experience and is the kind of ‘get your boots muddy’ leader that our Airmen want to be like. It’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient of the Sijan Leadership Award.”

According to Cooper’s citation, he commanded a large multinational joint task force which encompassed eight locations that spanned across five different countries. Additionally, his efforts resulted in the elimination of enemy safe havens in Iraq and Syria covering a 500-mile radius. Finally, Cooper’s astute leadership led to the deterrence of near-peer competitors in U.S. Central Command with the use of non-kinetic capabilities, ultimately supporting American next-generation aircraft air superiority.

“I am proud of the way the squadron prepared to go on that deployment and the way they conducted themselves,” Cooper said. “I’m also proud of the way our leadership team was able to help a lot of people in need on the resiliency front. It was a very difficult deployment. We were extended because of COVID(-19) and I’m glad we were able to help out some of the families. I’m sorry for the situation, but I was glad we could help out the families in the situation we found ourselves in.”

Cooper’s previous commander firmly believes he was deserving of the award.

“Steve Cooper embodies the best of America. We’re extremely proud of his leadership at the 24th Special Operations Wing and for being such a superb representative of AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) and the Special Tactics community,” said Col. Matthew Allen, 24th SOW commander. “He exemplifies the grit, strength, humility and selflessness of Lance Sijan and I’m excited to see him recognized in this manner. As the 330th RCS commander, he truly is a role model for our incoming Airmen.”

Cooper said he is particularly proud of the way his young troops handled some demanding situations.

“We put them in incredibly challenging and difficult positions. In some AORs we are there to fight ISIS and in some we are there to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban or at least defend ourselves from them,” Cooper said. “In each of those situations, we find ourselves surrounded by militia groups from other countries. We are not there to fight those people, but it’s rare those people are wearing uniforms and are any more or less identifiable than those we are there to fight/target. So I think it’s incredible to see the tactical patience of our junior enlisted force.”

Like all individual awards, Cooper realizes there are many people who are part of the success of the award winner.

“Although it’s an individual award, it is a reflection of those who have worked for me, those I’ve worked for and those who were my instructors back in the day,” Cooper said.

Much of Cooper’s award package included accomplishments during his deployment, but he sees no difference in commanding at home or in a deployed situation.

“I don’t think leadership is any more or less important in garrison as it is downrange,” Cooper said. “You will develop habits. If you have bad habits while in garrison, you will have bad habits while deployed. And all of what we do is important. The downrange aspect is where you get to pull the trigger so to speak, but I don’t think it’s any more or less important. I think the importance of leadership is the same.”

Cooper reflects on learning from previous commanders and some takeaways.

“I think it is possible to learn just as much from a bad leader as it is a good one. I think it’s important, and I’ve learned this from leaders, that you have to balance between being people-oriented and task-oriented,” Cooper said. “We have to achieve our mission objective, but if we don’t focus on our own people then the mission objective will not be met.”

He also believes that we need to continually chase education, by constantly looking to educate ourselves and professionally and academically develop. And he believes mastering the basics first is a fundamental cornerstone to being a good Airman. He relishes the opportunity now to pay it forward to future leaders.

“The longer I serve the more I think I was put here to lead, develop and inspire young people and develop my replacement,” he said.

Cooper has brought operational and relevant combat experience to AFRS and more importantly to special warfare recruiting and strives to be a partner to all of the Total Force recruiting enterprise.

“Hopefully, I can help our teammates out with officer and enlisted accessions just by developing good relationships,” Cooper said. “I think the most important key is developing good partnerships amongst each other, not like a competition, but like ‘hey, let’s help each other out’ and developing good relations with influencers.”

Cooper brings a wealth of problem solving to AFRS and believes he can take his leadership skills and incorporate them to solve recruiting issues.

“I think leadership is leadership. I hope that whatever positive traits senior leaders think that I have, I can bring them over and translate that into the recruiting world,” Cooper said. “I’m used to having to solve hard problems. Recruiting, particularly in the midst of COVID(-19), is challenging, but I know the Air Force is confident, not cocky, about achieving its mission objective this year.”

While it’s a difficult situation, Cooper feels he and his team are up to the task.

“My problem-solving skills alone will not allow us to achieve our mission objective, but combined with the talent of our production team, we have a good shot at achieving it,” Cooper said. “Then we can achieve getting special warfare and the combat support AFSCs recruited 100% for the first time ever in the Air Force’s history.”