From basic to command chief, AF experience brings rewards

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The journey from the heart of Alabama to the top of the Air Force's enlisted ranks has been an exciting and rewarding trip.

Departing Orrville, Ala., in 1981 carried me from a place and time where doctor's offices as late as 1979 still hung antiquated signs separating patients by race. The entryways of at least one restaurant had yet to remove an old sign for "colors enter in through the rear" and treatment of minorities still left much to be desired. But the promises of the recruiter gave me hope that I could achieve greater things, rising above societal ills. So in April 1981, I began a journey into the unknown.

Basic military training -- Air Force boot camp -- provided a disciplined environment much like home. It mandated an allegiance to integrity, service and excellence. It promoted teamwork and provided the first glimpse of equal opportunity.

Military training instructors hurled orders, corrections and compliments equally to all trainees, not discriminating according to sex, color or ethnicity. Combining this equal access to opportunity with the values taught and upheld by my parents and school principal provided the needed boost to achieve beyond my wildest dreams.

Graduating from basic military training was the defining moment in my life. I was an Airman and a part of something much bigger than myself. I became a part of a team, dedicated to caring for and protecting all Americans.

My entry into active duty gave me access to the world. Before that time Alabama, New York, and New Jersey were the extent of my knowledge of this country. But in the past 28 years I have traveled to almost all 50 states, experienced life in England, Germany, Japan, Korea, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Kuwait.

I have been afforded the chance to attend the greatest training opportunities and to compete for and win myriad awards and early promotions. The optimum recognition occurred on Dec. 1, 2000, when I was promoted to chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force.

I have walked with and shook the hand of the president of the United States; sat in meetings with the secretary of state; met with and discussed programs critical to the moral and welfare of my airmen with congressmen and senators from across the country. I have provided insight and input to the most senior of military officers, and mentored the most junior.

The purpose: To ensure America's Airmen have what they need to secure America. In all of this, the greatest opportunity and responsibility the Air Force has afforded me is to lead young and gifted Americans.

Today, I stand within two years of completing my commitment of serving this great nation as a member of the Air Force. As I stand at this crossroad in life and look at the future of my service and my country, I must say that the future looks better than the past. Yes, tough times await us, but we have an exceptional group of young officers and enlisted men and women waiting their turn to lead us into the next millennium.

I served, and they serve, so that America will always be free.