Building our Air Force: former MTIs transformed through service

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Daniel Phelps
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
"Get off the bus! Get off the bus now!" shouts the giant in the Smokey Bear hat after stepping onto the bus.

The mismatched group of stragglers awkwardly grabs their belongings while attempting to get off the bus.

"You're taking too long!" shouts the man in the hat. "Now get on a dot and drop your stuff!"

The gear drops to the ground like an avalanche.

"Pick it up and do it again!" he bellows. "You will continue to do this until it all hits the ground at the exact same time!"

This is a scene most Airmen are familiar with. It is burned into their memory for all eternity: the first day of basic training.

Few people throughout their career will have the impact on them as their military training instructor.

For two Shaw AFB Airmen, the experience of serving as an MTI also transformed their lives.

"My MTI was Tech. Sgt. Gross, now a senior master sergeant," said Tech. Sgt. James Stalnaker, the 20th Component Maintenance Squadron assistant hydraulics chief. Sergeant Stalnaker went on to serve as a military training instructor for five years, beginning in November 2002. "He was the most professional person I had ever met. He was the epitome of an Airman."

Tech. Sgt. Mark Anderson, the 20th Logistics Readiness Squadron deployment instructor, is another who wore the Smokey Bear hat during the same time as Sergeant Stalnaker.

He saw his MTI as a god.

"It was do what I say or suffer the consequences. He definitely put the fear in us."

What really stood out to him about his MTIs was their professionalism and dedication. That image helped lead him into his decision to follow in those footsteps.

The two had to go through an intense, 14-week process before they could earn their campaign hat and start pushing flights.

The first couple weeks were all about learning the policies, Sergeant Stalnaker said. They learned what you can and can't do to trainees, unprofessional relationships and how to teach. There were lesson plans for everything.

The last six to seven weeks were spent with a MTI trainer helping to "push a flight."

"We were evaluated on everything we did," Sergeant Anderson said. "My biggest challenge was the public speaking. We would stand in front of the trainees, and they would stare at us thinking that we knew everything. Our responsibility was to ensure that they actually got it."

"As a student TI you will make mistakes, but you can't wear your feelings on your sleeve," Sergeant Stalnaker explained. "Corrections will come quick and make you feel like a basic trainee."

The student TI is responsible for setting the example for the trainees.

"How can I pinpoint what they are doing wrong if I'm not doing it?" questioned Sergeant Stalnaker.

Once the training was over, the sergeants took on their own flights by themselves.

"I learned to lead a flight the same way I learned how to swim, I was thrown in the deep end," he said.

Sergeant Stalnaker described leading his first six flights as the hardest time in his career. He would work between 16 to 24 hours a day and slept in his office the first three weeks of his flights.

"You have to want to do this," he said.

Time management was one of the biggest lessons Sergeant Anderson learned from his trainer. He also learned the importance of when to turn off the yelling mode and become a mentor to the trainees.

"You're considered a rookie TI for your first year," he said. "There's a lot to get. But, once you got, it you got it."

There are few experiences like leading a flight, Sergeant Anderson said. There is definitely frustration and every day has its good points and bad points, but there is a lot of pride in watching them progress.

"The more time you put in; the better people they become," he said. "The better trainees they become; the better Airmen they become. Marching down the bomb run, with your flight behind you, you never stand taller. I'd love to have that feeling again."

The pride and accomplishment does not come without a price, Sergeant Stalnaker explained. One of the biggest challenges is learning that this is not about you. It's about building the Air Force. Building up the trainees into Airmen has to be your priority.

There are fewer challenges harder for being a MTI than having a family, he commented.

"The hours of being a TI are really hard on family life," he said. "If there are any kinks in the relationship, they will magnify. You have to want to make your family work."

One thing he recommended was to have the spouse come in and see what it is the TI does every day, so they can understand.

Even with the challenges faced, the MTIs still had opportunities to laugh.

One of the funniest things Sergeant Stalnaker said he saw was when a trainee hit himself. A trainee had done something wrong. So as a punishment he told the trainee to hit his face, meaning do pushups. Instead, the trainee slapped himself in the face.

Sergeant Anderson came up with a fun way to mess with his trainees. He would sneak into the dorms in the middle of the night. While he was inspecting their living quarters, sometimes they would mouth off to him thinking he was another trainee. Then it would sink who he was and they would freak out.

"Seeing their faces pale was great," said Sergeant Anderson while laughing.

Both of the former MTIs found their time as training instructors as one of the most rewarding times in their careers.

"It's the greatest and worst job in the Air Force," Sergeant Stalnaker said. "You are touching lives with every excruciating hour. You either love it or you hate it. I love it."

While most Airmen can't remember every screw they're turned or missile they've loaded, the MTI said he remembers every single flight he's pushed.

"You can't say that about every job," he continued. "I always have that same sense of accomplishment with everyone."

Around three to four weeks into basic, you would see the flights get it and start working together, Sergeant Anderson said. When it's over and the trainees are put back on the bus, the difference from their arrival is night and day.

"Being a TI is one of those rare jobs where you get to see the start and finished products of your work," he said. "It's very gratifying."

Not only has being an MTI allowed them to change lives and shape the future of the Air Force, but it has also changed them as well.

"It's made me grow up plain and simple," Sergeant Anderson said. "I was at a mobility flight in Charleston (AFB, South Carolina), and it was all about party hard, work hard. Through being a MTI I learned professionalism. I learned to mentor and supervise lots of people. I had to adapt. I had to become an NCO is what it boils down to."

It completed shifted the focus of Sergeant Anderson's career.

"Being in the Air Force is not about me anymore," he continued. "It's about the mission. Sometimes I have to sacrifice my needs and wants for others for the mission to succeed. My focus is now outward."

Sergeant Stalnaker said the job taught him what it means to be in the Air Force.

"Often times, if you ask an Airman what they do, they will tell you their job in the Air Force," he said. "If you ask someone in the Army, they will say they are a Soldier. Someone in the Marines, a Marine. After being a TI, I say I am an Airman, not the job."

He said this is a job he would highly recommend to others. It will give them a better picture of the Air Force, as well as develop their leadership and time management skills, he added.

"I want to do it again," he said. "I'm looking at being a recruiter, but if that doesn't happen, I'm going back to Lackland (AFB, Texas) in August."

It's not for everyone though, cautioned Sergeant Anderson. They have to be right for the job. It takes a strong-willed person who has to really want it.