MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) --
At 27 years old and after nearly five years of being in uniform, Senior Airman Lee Owens is rejoining the civilian workforce in September.
Like more than 3,500 Airmen Air Force-wide, the 42nd Air Base Wing-assigned broadcast engineer was selected for separation after being identified by the Air Force’s first Quality Force Review Board. However, unlike some, Owens is looking back on his time in uniform the same way he views his future: positively.
The Oxbridge, Mass., native entered the enlisted force at 22 after taking a turn in the civilian world as an employee and college student, scurrying from class to class.
“The structure and I were not meshing,” Owens said about his college experience. “I honestly just got really bored. I went because that’s what you do after high school, and to me there was no direction, so I ended up working at Wal-Mart. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
That’s when the bachelor went into the local recruiter’s office, took and scored a 96 percent on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
According to Owens, the recruiter didn’t need a fancy pitch, Air Force T-shirts or a free lunch to sell him on joining.
“He really didn’t talk about the career fields intelligently; instead, he talked about the benefits. Having a steady decent job was what grabbed me, that and the educational benefits,” he explained.
Owens, like most college students, understood that in order to get a degree he had to have money for classes or take grants and loans.
“For me, the path of least resistance was to enlist,” he said.
The GI Bill, tuition assistance, health-care benefits and the opportunity to learn a trade while putting some money in his empty pockets was enough to convince him to sign on the dotted line.
“It really wasn’t a difficult sell,” explained the senior airman.
Unfortunately, the same attitude that made Owens battle with the institution of higher learning made him struggle with the military.
“The clashes that I had in college centered around the fact that I am a very independent person. I do things my way and in my time, and in college, there was a solid schedule,” he said. “You just have to adapt to the bureaucratic nature of college where they are saying ‘you need this many credits of this-and-that before graduating.’ I didn’t like that.”
After enlisting, Owens said he did his best to wear the uniform with pride. After completing basic training he attended nine months of technical training at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. His first assignment to Maxwell Air Force Base was where he started experiencing problems with the military structure.
Owens said some of his frustration with the military was that there is not a lot of bend or twist in the chain of command.
“You have to accept there are people who make decisions and just go with those decisions. There’s not a lot that you can really do about it,” he said. “That’s just not how I see the world.”
Owens explained, “I don't want to have to talk to 10 people in order to move forward with an idea. I want to be like ‘we can do this better and here's how we can do it better, let’s go.’”
Although Owens felt challenged by the organizational structure of the military, challenges aren’t what landed him and the other Airmen on the QFRB list. Owens, like some, had a history of struggling with the Air Force fitness program.
“I had failed one (physical training test) right before I deployed, one in 2011 and my most recent test,” Owens said of the failures that led to his referral enlisted performance reports. “So, when I received my notification for the QFRB, I was not surprised.”
Owens concedes that although he had lost motivation to stay in the military past his first enlistment, he understands the QFRB was not designed to “get” Airmen.
“I don't think the QFRB was intended to get people or just to call out people on things,” he said. “I think it was very fair. I think the people that went before the board deserved to go before the board because they had multiple negative identifiers.”
He understands that he had the ability through the years to change his path in the military.
“If I really wanted to be in the military, wanted to advance, decided this was my future, I would have worked significantly harder,” he said. “But because I didn't, because I never put in enough effort to correct the problems, I got tagged.”
It was early June when Owens’ “tag” for the QFRB became a selection for non-retention. Owens recalls that day as if it were yesterday.
“They wanted to make sure that you were okay with the notification, because a fair number of the people either hadn’t prepared to be told that they weren't staying or really wanted to stay,” he said. “They made sure I was aware there were resources and assistance available.”
In the months prior to the QFRB results, Owens, who had seen the writing on the wall, scheduled and attended Maxwell’s Airman and Family Readiness Center Transition Assistance Program. He had already applied for a Yellow Ribbon Grant, prepared a resume and began looking for places his skills as an Airman could be used in the civilian workforce.
Now here comes the interesting part. Because the Air Force encourages off-duty education, during his enlistment Owens earned his Community College of the Air Force Degree. He is also in his third year of a digital cinematography program at a civilian university. Reaching these educational milestones made him marketable to civilian employers who have extended job offers to the veteran. Today, Owens has a date marked on his calendar for his first day at a new job next month.
“I heard the stories of tragedy, or those that say the process was so bureaucratic and unfair they didn’t have a chance at staying in, and I don’t think they are viewing it correctly. This is not a personal attack; this is not them saying ‘we don’t like that guy’,” he said. “This is just board members looking at a bunch of records and numbers. They’ve never met you; they don’t know your story. They just have a ‘retain’ or ‘do not retain’ letter.”
According to Owens, commanders have to be objective during the QFRB process, examine which Airmen have had setbacks and which Airmen have recovered from those setbacks and deserve to stay in the force.
“They have to say ‘here are the facts, I got this guy who has three PT failures, a string of 4s and a ‘do not retain’ letter. He really doesn’t want to be here,’” he said. “Then, they have this other guy who’s got two PT failures, but he has a ‘retain’ letter, he excels at his job and he has 5s even with the failures. That guy wants to be here.’ So you have to look at it and say ‘that’s the guy I want to keep. He is the one who is going to fight to do better.’”
Stepping out the door for the last time, saying farewell to his coworkers and reflecting on his military career, Owens doesn't begrudge the Air Force.
“The Air Force is more than an institution. It is a family, and there is room for anybody that really wants it. For me, I knew I wasn’t that person, and I don’t feel anyone selected should feel bad about themselves or the Air Force,” he said. “Your talents lie elsewhere. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to go out into the world and find a job somewhere else or start a business, and you’re going to be stronger for having been in the military.”