How did we lose this young Airman?

Editor’s note: The attached feature photo is a stock image, and is not directly related to the accompanying commentary .

By Col. Donald Grannan
88th Communications Group commander

She was an Airman Leadership School distinguished graduate, earned staff sergeant her first time testing, received all 5s on her enlisted performance reports and took part in two deployments. Clearly she was a high-performing Airman.

But, in her words, the Air Force had made it clear it didn’t want her. Huh?

I have proudly served our Air Force all of my adult life, so I truly didn’t understand. Although I wasn’t in her chain of command, I’ve known this young woman throughout her career. I tried to reflect on this from a professional, albeit admittedly biased, point of view. What would make this superstar believe we didn’t care if she stayed or not?

Was it a bad first impression? I remembered an incident that involved her as a new Airman at her first duty station. A senior NCO struck her car from behind in a minor fender-bender. Instead of admitting fault and moving on, he berated and intimidated this young Airman about the issue. Her first sergeant, who she looked to for help, would not interject or discuss the issue with the senior NCO. I could have interjected as well, but I mistakenly believed it wasn’t my place. It was. An Airman needed help, and no one gave it.

Was it a lack of encouragement? After she earned staff sergeant her first time eligible, she saw the results online on the Air Force Web. Then … nothing until the following Monday when the first sergeant stopped by to congratulate her and said the commander was “really busy.”

When she was a distinguished graduate from Airman Leadership School, it was a highlight in her career. But other than her immediate supervisor, no one from her squadron chain of command was present. I know, because I was there.

Was it motivation? She was a veteran of two deployments, including one where she had a few days notice to support a humanitarian operation. By chance I saw her and another Airman at a connecting airport as I was returning from a temporary duty assignment. I saw their apprehension and anxiety and made sure they understood to take care of each other, trust their training and focus on the mission. But I wondered if their own leadership had talked to them like this.

Did we at least send her out the door with a smile, to encourage others toward an Air Force career? No. Instead her superiors decided there would be no decoration for this outstanding Airman who achieved a lot in a short period of time and who was highly lauded by her supervisors.

Why? Because she had once failed a physical fitness test, immediately re-took it, and passed. She had tried to ‘wing it,’ failed the run and learned a lesson.

This young, healthy Airman, who weighs a buck-twenty-five, did not have a fitness or standards problem. She had a leadership problem. No one in her squadron leadership knew about or was present to witness her exceptional duty performance, her distinguished graduate accomplishment, her two deployments or early promotion. But they sure knew about the one time she stumbled.

In the end we took an exceptional, highly motivated volunteer and did we mold her? No way. Did we encourage her? Not a chance. Did we create a new leader? No. We created someone who cares about our nation, but is disillusioned and frustrated about what our Air Force finds important and unimportant. We lost an enormous opportunity, and we can’t afford to repeat that mistake.

Today, more than ever, as our ranks continue to decline, we must retain the best and most highly motivated Airmen. To do that, we have to lead them, be in the fight with them and focus on what’s truly important and not become hyper-focused on marginal or anecdotal issues.

How many more situations like this are out there? If you’re in a leadership position, are you part of this problem? Do you know the people under you? Are you in the fight, witnessing their capabilities, encouraging and motivating them, or do you only know about them when they stumble? If you think command or leadership positions are just another assignment, you’re part of the problem.

Ask yourself, when was the last time a troop brought you a problem? If that’s not happening, it’s because they don’t believe you can, or will, help them. So get busy proving to them they can count on you, and you’ll be surprised how well you can count on them.

56 thoughts on “How did we lose this young Airman?”

  1. I had the same issues at my base. I had a different job then working the shop but the treatment was still the same. I would take the tests and do everything asked of me. I knew I needed to earn my rank and even
    began training into the next skill level to only be told I needed to
    take something else before advancement. My advance in rank, I felt, was held from me. When others were joining/enlisting, finishing boot and tech school then advancing faster than me. I knew it was because the same issue, buddy buddy type. When my enlistment ran out, I felt I had no reason to stay. I had hard enough time making one rank within a 6 year contract. Which, I believe the rank was only finally given to me because I had one year left in my contract and they wanted to retain me. As I said, I did my job and I did it well. I didn’t feel that I wanted to fight another few years just to be shot down several times for advancement. So for that reason I left. I too “miss the Air Force and the job but don’t miss the butt kissing and politics”.

  2. I wanted to join the air force reserve but every time I tried to get in touch with a recruiter they would only call me at the most rediculous times while I was at work. when I left message after message asking them to call around my lunch they still called at the same times. I called a Senior master Sargent he didn’t care. I wasted 2 1/2 weeks on this. I scored in the 90th percentile on the asvab and they did nothing to help. So I went to the army reserve.

  3. I would like to say that this was an isolated incident, but I had to go through this as I watched my daughter go through albeit a different situation but the Sam results. As a retired SNCO I understand the importance of leadership. I saw it fail as my daughter was separated from the linguist program. She left highly motivated from BMT and maintained her stringent academic workload her mental health was deteriorating. She did not get the help she needed in time to save her career and was administratively separated for a medical condition. She now has no VA entitlement and must find her own way. I was instramental in her decision to join and now I am just disappointed and ashamed.


  4. I might add …. All my rank came as a member of ADC. My last 18 months were in SAC. Worked many long days and nights and loved being a jet engine guy. Leadership from above? …. Nah.

  5. Dear Colonel Grannan;
    I am a veteran of 6 plus years ,Service to this country was marked by APRs all 9s except the last one was 8 and 9 s this was due to my last NCOIC .You see he decided woman did not belong in His Air Force ! Oh He had three woman in his work center and we all were out in eight months time. The TSgt pulled her dependent care certificate, a SSgt Was trying to get transferred to another shop , but I think She Just did not reenlisted ,and I was forced out. This MSgt main thing was to play cards on shift he was so tired from working his other job at Church’s fried Chicken. The TSgt and I were targeted as soon as he came in as NCOIC .Now I was a doing my duty , and also teaching CPR,First Aid , Woman’s Exercise 3 times a week at the gym ,.and Was a Delegate to The Base Sports and Safety Console . I was involved in the community also teaching Hearing Ear dogs for the Deaf In Gulfport. I was in Airman Magazine as well as the base paper for my work with the dogs, One of the airman in our shop was injured before I was forced out I saved his eye sight that night . I was never thanked except by the airman and his wife.
    Today I am An RN , I learned to supervise in the Air Force . My Nurses love me . We work as a team with a mission orientation ,they all think the plan is great ! Emergencies are one two three , we win every contest ! Air Force Training AIM HIGH

  6. After working with the Navy I could not agree with your statements. The Navy has its own share of problems. One is finger pointing and self promoting as your post so clearly demonstrates. This is just my perspective and not facts. Much like your post. Thank you for your service and your daughters as well.

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