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A little care goes a long way

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

The seventh week of Basic Military Training hit Flight 176 like a ton of bricks. The stressors from the last few weeks weighed on the 50 trainees as we finally started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. There were only a few obstacles standing between our transition from trainees to Airmen. One of which wore a navy blue campaign hat with a blue rope wrapped around it: the master of drill and ceremony.

As we prepared for our final drill inspection, we couldn’t help but hear the words our Military Training Instructor echoed hundreds of times leading up to this moment. . .

“You’re going to go out there and you’re going to do it, and you’re going to look good doing it. You want to know why you’re going to look good? Because you’re going out there and representing me, and I’ll be damned if you make me look bad.”

And he was right – we weren’t, under any circumstances, going to make him look bad.

For the six weeks leading up to the inspection, our MTI made one thing obvious; he cared about us and wanted us to succeed. This motivated us to work hard, look good and make him proud.

Every night we would flood the dayroom for mail call and Airman’s time. During that hour, our MTI talked to us about our lives, goals and our futures in the Air Force. Above all, he talked to us like we were people and not just basic trainees.

Reflecting on the last few years, that’s one thing every good noncommissioned officer I’ve worked for/with has had in common: they’ve cared about their people.

That first impression of a good NCO carried on when I went to my first duty station, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. It was there where I met the two greatest NCOs of my career.

As a new Airman at a new assignment learning a new job, I was lost. I was thrown into a shop with one seriously hard-headed staff sergeant who taught me what it means to care about people. I could say he was the best NCO I ever worked for, but he’d probably call me and say something along the lines of, “You never worked for me, I worked for you.”

As our command information NCO in charge, he challenged me daily — he genuinely wanted me to succeed.

Whenever I went on an assignment, I put my heart into it. I was determined to come back with my best products.

We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but when we disagreed we could talk it out without fear of retribution. I gained so much respect for him when I realized he cared for me not only as an Airman, but as a person.

Like with my MTI, I was a reflection of him and I didn’t want to make him look bad.

Fast forward a couple years and I was introduced to one spunky technical sergeant who, once again, showed me the importance of caring for your people.   

In one instance she was given a last-minute, less-than-fun assignment and instead of reassigning it to one of the lower ranking Airmen, she said, “I’ll cover it – I’m never going to ask you guys to do something I wouldn’t do.”

After that, whenever those assignments were given to us, we did it and didn’t complain.

While I was on my second deployment, she frequently checked on me. She wasn’t my direct supervisor, she just truly cared.

On that deployment I was faced with my first challenge as an NCO. Along with one other staff sergeant, I led a 23-person team. Ironically, the most challenging part wasn’t leading Airmen to complete the mission – it was proving to my Airmen that I cared about them.

There were countless instances where an Airman would bring me a personal problem and we would spend hours working it out. Sometimes they just needed to know someone genuinely cared about them.

I can confidently say that in those moments I had no idea what I was doing. What guided me was asking myself, “What would they [former NCOs] have done?”

That answer was simple: regardless of the circumstances, they would prove to me that they care. So that’s what I did. I didn’t do everything right, but when it was time to leave, one of my troops said something that made it all worth it.

“I’ll never forget that moment,” he said. “I was just so happy when Sgt. Kenney came to get me. I knew I was in trouble, but I knew I was going to be alright.”

That troop never came to me with any personal problems, but he clearly trusted me to take care of him, regardless of the circumstances, because he knew I took an interest.

When I returned home, I had two months before my Permanent Change of Station to Peterson AFB, Colorado. When I relayed my plan to my technical sergeant all she said was, “absolutely not.” Her and her husband took me in for those couple months without question.

Her example was taken straight out of Airman Leadership School — they tell you to know about your Airman’s goals and aspirations, but you’re also expected to know about their family life, financial status, and stressors, regardless of how personal they are.

If you’re faced with an Airman who you believe doesn’t care about their job, maybe you need to ask yourself, “Have I done enough to show them that I care about them?”

Colin Powell once said, “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Leadership is a two-way street. In the case of my MTI, we were willing to work harder for him because we knew he cared about us. It wasn’t a matter of just getting the job done – we wanted to do the best we could to make him look good.

I’ve been fortunate to have had some fantastic mentors as I transitioned from an Airman to an NCO. Now that I’ve seen supervision through a different lens I find myself challenged frequently. Regardless of the challenge, I’m confident in one thing: a little care goes a long way.