Instructor, students reunite at combined ops

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Life has had its "ups and downs" for Master Sgt. Michael Sanders over the last few years, but his assignment to the Senior NCO Academy's Class 09-D at Gunter has proven to be one of the "ups."

From 2004 to 2007, Sergeant Sanders was one of a select group of senior NCOs who participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps Enlisted Instructor program, and the combined operations segment of his SNCOA training, where senior NCOs and new lieutenants from the Air and Space Basic Course work together for two weeks in a mentoring posture, has brought the sergeant and 11 of his former ROTC students back together.

To make the moment sweeter, Sergeant Sanders overcame a life-threatening illness before being selected to come to SNCOA.

"In 2007, I was diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer, and I thought I was through," he said. "Then to survive the cancer and get to come to SNCOA and join some of my former students, well, that is just fantastic."

Sergeant Sanders, who has been selected for senior master sergeant, said one of the highlights of being back with his students at combined operations is seeing they have completed their ROTC training and are now in the Air Force.

"It thrills me when I see that they have succeeded," he said. "Just to see them with gold bars on their shoulders is thrilling because it means they have come through the steps to becoming Air Force officers. Now education takes a backseat, at least for awhile, and it is time for them to do the job."

2nd Lt. Joe Oletti, one of the former ROTC students who will report to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for a job in development engineering following ASBC, said seeing a "friendly face" during his ASBC training was great. He said it helped him, "not feel so lost in the crowd."

"Seeing Sergeant Sanders reminds me of what I had in ROTC," he said. "It definitely brings back a lot of memories of the detachment."

Lieutenant Oletti, who was in the same ASBC training flight as Sergeant Sanders, said his detachment at the University of Portland was one of only 10 detachments in ROTC involved in the enlisted instructor program, and that gave him and the other 10 lieutenants an advantage over other ASBC students.

"Some of the others are having a little trouble with their relationships with the senior NCOs, but because of our relationship with Sergeant Sanders at ROTC, we don't have that problem," he said. 

2nd Lt. Stephanie Lally is headed for Vandenberg AFB, Calif., after ASBC and doesn't yet know what her job will be there. She is, however, happy she had the opportunity to be in the same combined operations class as her former instructor during her ASBC training. While she was assigned to a different training flight than Sergeant Sanders she and the remaining nine University of Portland ROTC graduates have had the opportunity to talk with their former instructor.

"It is pretty cool to see him again, and it really shows how small the Air Force is," she said. "I have really enjoyed this week. We are learning a lot from the senior NCOs about things that require a 'judgment call,' and the message we are getting about professionalism from them is pretty much the same message we received from Sergeant Sanders at ROTC."

The sergeant, whose career field is knowledge operations, said he told his ROTC students, "You never know when you might see me again." He said he also stressed the importance of Air Force members taking care of each other, and during his fight with cancer, he was pleased to see that message seemed to register with them because so many of his students kept in touch and cared for him during his illness.

"They may never know how much that impacted me and my family," he said. "But, in my heart and mind, I will always remember their kindness."