CCAF opens doors for prior enlisted officer
Lt. Col. Benjamin Nelson, Air University deputy communication information officer and communication technical officer, commissioned as an officer in 1995, six years after joining the U.S. Air Force. Nelson credits earning his Community College of The Air Force degree as the first step in his commissioning process. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)
by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard
42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
4/2/2014 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala -- It was never really something he looked into. His father served for 20 years, but joining the military didn't cross the then high school student's mind.
His plan was to go to college and get a computer science degree.
Sports and educational scholarships covered some of his expenses to attend two colleges, Jackson State University and Mississippi College. He took out loans, and upon seeing how much he owed, decided to drop out before graduating.
He began working at a family owned insurance company and did very well. He wasn't ready to stop his career there, but without a degree, he couldn't move up.
With few options as a high school graduate with some college, Lt. Col. Benjamin Nelson brainstormed what he could do. He knew about the military since his father served, and thought that was a viable option that would not only give him a steady salary, but a means to complete his degree.
Nelson thought of his father lacing and shining his boots, pressing his dark blue pants and light blue shirt along with green and brown camouflaged uniforms.
"I could do that," Nelson said he thought. "I could pay for college and serve my country."
On April 19, 1989, Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a telephone communications technician, running telephone wire to switches, allowing people to communicate throughout the Air Force.
His plan was to serve four years, get his degree and get out.
His first supervisor told Nelson he had to finish his career development courses, and then he could complete his Community College of the Air Force degree. The degree is an associate's degree Airmen can achieve in their specific career fields, which, for Nelson, was applied science.
The plan was set. He was going to get his CCAF degree in the career field he sought out as a civilian.
"He introduced me to what the CCAF was and told me I only had a few more classes to take until I reached my associates," said Nelson. "It started the building block."
He finished his CDCs six months later and finished two college classes before getting reassigned to another duty station during Operation Desert Storm. The first six months of his assignment to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, left no room for classes as he was working 12-hour shifts. But, after that, he went through Airman Leadership School where he was afforded some credits toward the degree.
"I got totally 're-blued ,'" said Nelson." I left ALS not wanting to get out of the military after four years, but wanting to be the chief master sergeant of the Air Force."
His supervisor at the time not only went over how Nelson could achieve the goal, but let him know there were other opportunities out there, so long as Nelson stayed on his path to complete his CCAF degree. One of those opportunities was to apply for Air University's Officer Training School.
"He introduced the idea to me," he said. "His thing was just apply to become an officer, and if I fail I'm still on the path to becoming, as I told him, chief master sergeant of the Air Force."
They worked through everything together to ensure that Nelson didn't make the same mistakes he did when he missed it. The first step was to complete his CCAF degree.
"I really wanted it, so I worked," he said of his CCAF degree. "I was one of those weird guys who took a lot of classes because I wanted it so bad. I wanted to finish it so I could start working on my bachelor's."
Nelson took classes five, sometimes six, times a week during lunch, after work and on the weekend.
"You can't join the military and have this opportunity that's almost given to you because of your experience and let it pass you," he said. "It's criminal. There are very few opportunities in the world where the degree is almost set up for you. All you have to do is take a few more classes and it's done."
Two years after starting, he completed his CCAF degree.
"That was the first degree that I received that said to me, 'You're on your way to doing something big,'" Nelson said. "That was the beginning. Both of my first two supervisors focused on me getting my CCAF degree because if I could get that, I could get a bachelor's and a master's."
The first step of his plan to become an officer or CMSAF was done, so he began step two: get his bachelor's degree.
Nelson and his supervisor sent his OTS package at the end of January 1995 and waited patiently for the letter to arrive.
Nelson's supervisor handed an envelope to him on a June morning. But, he didn't open it. He held onto the letter all day so he could open it with his wife.
At the end of the day, they opened it together in his truck.
He got accepted to OTS with a report date in July and commission in September.
All the hard work that started with earning his CCAF degree paid off, but, looking back, even if he hadn't gotten accepted, the work was not in vain, because the first degree afforded him many options. The degree put him on his path to achieve his bachelor's degree, and had he not become an officer, it could have been step one of becoming CMSAF.
Nineteen years after graduating from OTS, Nelson is working as a deputy communication information officer and communication technical officer at Air University headquarters.
As an officer with 25 years in service, he now has a new goal in mind: to help officers like the first lieutenant he supervised, now Maj. Anthony Branick, and enlisted members achieve.
Branick, who was also a prior enlisted member, said Nelson was inspirational as the first supervisor in his officer career.
"You could tell that through his educational background, including his CCAF, that, that was how he taught me to handle different situations," said Branick, an Air Command and Staff College instructor. "He taught me the ability to work with different levels of leadership. He has a strong leadership trait that you could tell was from his enlisted background."
Nelson said he is not only willing to help those he directly supervises, but anyone in the Air Force who wants guidance.
He speaks at various professional growth events such as First Term Airman's Class, which is a held at every base to inform Airmen of what is available on base to professionally develop and support them.
Nelson tells them and others what his supervisors told him, which is to get their CCAF degree. If he's not there to help, he hopes others plant the seed that a CCAF degree is the start to any successful enlisted career path, whether it's becoming CMSAF or a communications officer. With CCAF anticipating its 350,000th graduate in April, Nelson can rest assured that Airmen are on the right path.