MTI experience helps chief excel in mentoring Afghans

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Melissa B. White
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
"Hey, what's going on with your boots?"

Airmen in basic military training would cringe hearing this from a military training instructor. However, when that MTI trades in his hat, deploys to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan and says it to an Afghan airman, the reaction is a little different.

Instead of gulping with fear, the Afghan acknowledges with a sheepish grin that Chief Master Sgt. Dave Staton is not there to yell at him; he's there to help.
Looking down at the airman's boots, the chief tells him to see his command sergeant major tomorrow for a new pair of used boots that would have been discarded by American forces, but at least this pair wouldn't have holes and worn out soles.

As the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group superintendent, Chief Staton helps oversee more than 80 U.S. Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and civilians in 45 different job specialties working shoulder-to-shoulder with their Afghan counterparts every day. These people are here as advisers to the more than 550 Afghan airmen who are part of the Kandahar Air Wing, teaching them job skills so they can take full ownership of their wing and support the mission by themselves in the future.

"I enjoy seeing the Afghans learn and take the reins from us," the chief said. "Every week (brings) something else that they learn to do on their own. Seeing the Afghans grow into a professional military organization is one of the most incredible and rewarding things I've ever witnessed. We are literally working ourselves out (of) a job here."

Deployed here from the 319th Training Squadron, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Chief Staton knows a little more than the average Airman when it comes to showing the ropes to others. Having spent more than 10 years and three different tours as an MTI, he said he can relate how training U.S. Airmen is similar to mentoring Afghans.

"When you're training new Airmen, you're taking them from the 'known' to the 'unknown,' and that can be quite a shock," Chief Staton said, who was recognized as the MTI of the Year in 1994 during his first assignment as an MTI. "So when you're training them, you need to find something they know and relate it to what they're trying to learn; we do the same here with the Afghans."

Patience is a key characteristic when it comes to jobs like this, though.

"Most people don't think MTIs are very patient people, but they really are," the chief said. "I thought I was patient before I came out on this deployment, but after almost a year out here with the Afghans, I'm more patient than I ever thought was possible."

With more than 22 years of time in service, this, his third deployment, is also unlike any other opportunity he has had so far in his career. Last year, he applied for this deployment position and three other group superintendent positions throughout the area of responsibility. However, the position at Kandahar airfield was greatly different from the other assignments because, not only was he assigned to an American unit advising the Afghan air force, but he was the senior enlisted member, making him the direct adviser to the top enlisted Afghan, Command Sgt. Maj. Mohammad Hassan.

Advising a senior enlisted Afghan made this job stand out from the rest, but there was a major difference between Chief Staton and his counterpart: Sergeant Major Hassan was only 25 years old when he became the senior enlisted member of the Kandahar Air Wing in September 2009. The chief was taken aback at first, but when he realized the young Afghan's drive and determination, he knew Sergeant Major Hassan was the right person to help lead Afghanistan into the future.

Throughout the past couple of months, the chief has witnessed the Afghan Airmen evolve into a true fighting force, tackling every challenge they are faced with on a daily basis.

"When I first got here, they couldn't even taxi their helicopters, but now they're flying them and doing all the maintenance by themselves," he said.

"One time, in the middle of the night, Sergeant Major Hassan called me up on my cell phone during an attack on their wing. He said, 'Chief, who is shooting at us? ... Chief, what do we do?' Well, shoot back,'" the chief laughed as he recalled the story.

No matter how much Chief Staton has taught the Afghan airmen in the past year, he has learned from them too.

"I've learned the true meaning of service before self from these Afghan airmen," Chief Staton said. "We're here away from our families for about a year, but a lot of these Afghans don't get to see their families either, and they've been in this war for nine years. Sergeant Major Hassan's family lives on the other side of the country, and they have to go somewhere else when he visits because it's not safe in his village. Others only live about 30 minutes from here in Kandahar City, and they don't get to see their families either because it just isn't safe."

With only a month left in his deployment, the chief said he has seen the Afghan airmen improve by leaps and bounds since his arrival. He has left his footprint in Afghanistan and in the heart of the Afghans he worked with side-by-side.

"I've worked with many military members before, but the Americans seem like they really want to help us, and I learned from them about how I can go to other countries and help more people," Sergeant Major Hassan said. "I have learned a lot about their culture and the chief and I have a really good relationship. We are friends like we are brothers."

When Chief Staton redeploys in January 2011, he will shortly thereafter make a move to the 10th Air Base Wing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he will step up as their next command chief master sergeant.
They can consider this a fair warning that their boots better be in line, but underneath that training instructor mindset is a patient leader who is ready to help his people.