As I prepare to retire from 26 years of service in the Air Force, I think back on what I have learned throughout my career. I found that learning came in many forms; classes from software and hardware vendors, hands-on work, military courses, and the list goes on. Some things I would learn on the first try, but most times is was only through repetition that I would prevail.
In basic training I learned what it would take to be a good Airman. Apparently folding your underwear in 6” squares is critical to our nation’s defense. Not only did you have to fold it a specific way, but you had to stack them up with the biggest one on the bottom. We had regular inspections to make sure we folded everything just right, and spent our spare time folding and refolding until we thought it was perfect. At the end of the 6 weeks I was quite the expert. After another 26 years my wife probably wonders where that knowledge has gone. What I really learned is that attention to detail is important. Take nothing for granted, no matter how insignificant it might seem.
It my technical training I learned what it would take to be a good computer operator in the Air Force. Apparently, in spite of everything I learned in college, 80-column punch cards were all the rage. We learned how to put data on cards, how to read the cards, and even how to program the card punch (using a punched card) to make our data entry work easier. What I really learned is that you need to recognize when your current solution is no longer the way to get the job done. Don’t just continue down the same path because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Always look for ways to improve what you do.
I also learned how to communicate well. For starters, timing is everything. When you are eating a nice Valentine’s Day dinner, prepared by your loving wife, it is not a great time to mention that you have orders for a new assignment in California. Also, consider your audience when choosing your words. When my supervisor was counseling me about how I talked to a customer once, I believe her exact words were, “Gary, just because someone is stupid you don’t need to tell them that.” My immediate response was, “Yes, you do. they need to know when they are being stupid.” Needless to say, they found me a job where I didn’t work directly with customers.
Throughout the years after that first assignment I took those lessons, and many more, and honed my leadership skills under the tutelage of many supervisors and commanders, but mostly from my peers. They are the ones who managed to mold that young, outspoken Airman into the Senior NCO you see today. Over that time I lived in Michigan, California (twice), Texas, Belgium, and Alabama. Mixing and mashing many cultures, customs, and traditions into an experience, and an accent, that is uniquely mine. But, I digress.
When I arrived at my final duty station I learned the most important lesson of all. I was a little hesitant about this assignment because I had not worked in a largely “military” organization for many years. Little did I know that I still wouldn’t before I retired. The place was full of new airmen, freshly arrived from their technical training. As I got to know each of them, my anxiousness diminished. I realized that they were looking to me and other senior leaders for validation and direction, the same thing I was looking for 26 years ago. I remembered what I was like at that point in my career and suddenly realized I had become that old, crusty Master Sergeant. The final clue dropped during a conversation with them one afternoon. We started talking about when they were born. Much to my dismay I learned that only one of them had been born prior to me coming on active duty. It was at that moment that I looked back and understood the tired looks on the faces of the Non-Commissioned Officers that I worked for so many years ago. I learned it was time to go, and let the new guard take over.