Career knowledge, performance translate to relevance, respect


I arrived at my first duty station in November 1987 as a trained and motivated KC-135 Stratotanker maintainer. I was an expert -- or so I thought. On my first day on the job, I walked toward the expediter truck excited about the drive to the flightline. I was about to be dropped off near a multimillion dollar flying machine and I knew my crew chief would say, "This one is yours, make us proud!" Oh, how wrong I was.

"Sergeant Reality", as we will call him, stopped me before I made two steps into the truck and said, "JEEP (which I learned much later stood for Just Enough Education to Pass), your job is to sit in the seat behind me in the truck. Do not speak. Read that bookshelf full of technical orders." Sergeant Reality continued. "If the truck stops, you stand up - I might have some work for you to do. If I don't, I will tell you to sit back down, and that means read more technical orders." 

"How could this be?" I thought. I was a trained maintenance machine. The Air Force spent truckloads of money making me an expert. This pattern with "Sergeant Reality" went on for a month. The truck would stop, I would stand, and Sergeant Reality would tell me to sit down and read. On occasion, I would serve as fire guard on a refuel or hook up a maintenance stand to the back of the truck, but most of my time was spent in silence, pouring over technical orders.

One cool morning, a few hours into my reading session, the truck stopped in front of an aircraft. I stood as instructed, waiting to be directed to take my seat. The crew chief from the aircraft informed the expediter he would need help and wanted an Airman to assist him. Sergeant Reality pointed past me to who we will call "Airman Lucky.' "Airman," he stated, "get out." Sergeant Reality asked the crew chief what he needed help with. "My nose wheel tire has cord exposed and a flat spot on it, "he said. “It needs to be changed." 

Good judgment and a will to live immediately left me when I said, "Is it a 12-inch flat spot?" Sergeant Reality snapped around in his seat and screamed, "What did you say?" I replied "The technical order has a new change in it that allows a tire to have cord showing as long as the tire does not have a 12-inch flat spot." 

In a fit of rage, Sergeant Reality yelled "Give me the T.O." I handed it to him and he read the instructions. He looked at the crew chief and said "Well, does it?" The crew chief shook his head no. Sergeant Reality exclaimed, "Then the tire's not bad, the T.O. changed." 

Sergeant Reality sat back in his seat, took a large breath, and said to the crew chief "Let me introduce you to your new assistant crew chief, Airman Dock. He knows the T.O.s better than you! Get out of my truck Dock!" As I climbed out of the truck Sergeant Reality pointed at Airman Lucky and barked, "JEEP, you have a new job."

Every moment in your career will produce lessons. Although the events of my first month in the Air Force may seem harsh, they solidified in my mind what would make me successful. I needed to be relevant to the duties and positions I would hold. I needed to be respected for the knowledge and talents I brought to the fight. I needed to back those skills with performance. I needed to demonstrate that I was ready to replace someone who had moved on. Sergeant Reality brought me back down to Earth and when I was prepared to be relevant, respected and could perform in the role needed, elevated me to that position.

Sergeant Reality instilled in me the idea that we're not just working a job - we're part of a much larger picture, we're part of a professional career. As Airmen, we each have a valuable skillset we presumably worked and trained hard to learn. I've served in the Air Force for 26 years and I'm still learning - it's a never ending process. Let's all strive to perfect our skills as Airmen and ensure our abilities are commensurate with our rank and position. The U.S. is counting on us.


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