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Looking back: From airman basic to squadron commander

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I got here. I’m a simple guy who comes from a simple family. Almost 20 years ago I left home for the first time, to join the Air Force as Airman Basic Stermer. I was joining the Air Force and I hadn’t even seen an airplane until I got on one to go to basic training. Now I’m the commander of an aircraft maintenance squadron, a wingman, a father and a husband. I’d love to tell you it was all part of some plan, something I had crafted in the middle of the night that I could be proud of and follow; no such luck. I wouldn’t say it was accidental either, that would take credit away from those who labored, some at great pain because I was stubborn, to make me better.

When I arrived at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, in the summer of 1997 as a newly minted KC-135 aerospace maintenance apprentice, Staff Sgt. Mark Portz hit me like a ton of bricks. In the coming months, nearing two years, he would teach me what it meant to be a professional maintainer and man of character. I know what you’re thinking…awesome story, great impact but wasn’t that his job as your supervisor? No, sergeant Portz wasn’t my supervisor. He was just a NCO on my expediter truck. A NCO who corralled and took ownership of every new APG Airman coming into our section on his shift. It didn’t matter if you worked for him for one day or 100, you learned something because he invested in you.

A short while later I met Tech. Sgt. Nick Ariens. He would be my expediter and production supervisor, they ran the flight line, for the next few years. A big part of the job is cruising around the flight line driving maintenance and delivering Airmen, their parts, tools, supplies and equipment. Every night for the three years I worked with him, Ariens would bring along his college textbooks in the truck. Every time he stopped for a minute he’d get a book out and read another section. Then it was on to the next jet, the next job and the next section of the book. When he wasn’t reading Ariens would talk to us. He’d tell us his story, detailing his struggle to finish his degree and lamenting his late start. After a few times of telling us his story he’d start to ask us why we hadn’t started going to school yet. Why hadn’t we made a plan for our future? He cared and it showed.

These two men were far from perfect NCOs, each one with flaws like any of us. They made an impact on me, one I’ve remembered and retold it seems like a thousand times. I’m retelling this story for the leaders out there who might be wondering if investing in their Airmen will really make a difference. It matters more than almost anything else you’ll ever do. If you’re genuine and doing it right they’ll remember what you did for them forever. Sergeant Portz and Ariens’ example matter to me.