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Choosing your path: the fork in the road to leadership

The Air Force offers multiple avenues for enlisted Airmen to commission throughout their career. Most paths commission Airmen as second lieutenants, however, some of the professional programs earn Airmen a higher rank upon completion of the course.  (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

The Air Force offers multiple avenues for enlisted Airmen to commission throughout their career. Most paths commission Airmen as second lieutenants, however, some of the professional programs earn Airmen a higher rank upon completion of the course. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- The military offers many leadership opportunities throughout a service member’s career. It could be heading up a volunteer event, being the president of a private organization or running a section in his or her unit. All these events help sharpen those who take the chance.

Aspiring leaders in the Air Force will come to a fork in the road during their careers. One path leads to being a chief master sergeant and the other leads to being an officer. At that junction, Airmen make a choice – stay the course or wear bars.

“It starts with a vision,” said Lt. Col. Tom Bowman, 28th Operations Support Squadron commander. “Once a person has that, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other.”

Becoming an officer may seem out of reach for some Airmen in more ways than one. They may not have a degree, think they are incapable of passing the Air Force Officer Qualification Test or they simply do not know enough about the commissioning programs available to them. The first step is taking the initiative to learn more about what it takes to commission.

“It’s not as difficult to switch over as some people might believe,” said Capt. Matthew Smith, the 28th Medical Group practice manager. “If you are a good, honest and hardworking NCO who takes care of your people and the mission, I don’t think you’d have a hard time becoming an officer.”

Bowman reminisced about when thought about joining the service; initially he joined the U.S. Navy Delayed Entry Program. However, speaking to an Air Force recruiter about his aspirations to commission, he changed his mind and enlisted in the Air Force.

Whether it is spending hours reading Air Force Instructions for facts on commissioning programs or finding a mentor to help achieve the goal of wearing bars on their collars, Airmen must start somewhere. For most Airmen, that somewhere begins with deciding how they want to commission.

The OSS commander mentioned how programs themselves take time, but the dedication it takes to create a package that is competitive enough to be selected to commission is another beast of its own.

Bowman, a prior enlisted Airmen who attended the Air Force Academy, explained that the commissioning programs look at the Whole Airman Concept when it comes to selecting candidates. He said it isn’t just about being outstanding at the job that will get someone commissioned.

“I had good grades, but I don’t think that was the only thing that got me to the Academy,” Bowman said. “I was the president of my squadron’s booster club as an Airman. I did Honor Guard as an Airman. It was those things that helped me demonstrate my commitment to service.”

Bowman enlisted with the goal of flying, he started on the ground and moved to the air. Smith, on the other hand, started in the air and landed in the medical career field. It wasn’t his initial choice, but now he wouldn’t take it back for the world.

Smith came in with a degree, made senior airman below-the-zone and made technical sergeant within his first six years. During his stint as a loadmaster, his enjoyment shifted from globetrotting to spending time with friends and family back in the states. With that in mind, he decided to put his degree to use and applied for Officer Training School.

“I wanted to be an air battle manager,” Smith explained. “But, all the rated boards were being cancelled, so I started thinking ‘maybe this door has been shut to me’, and I was fine with that. But then, one of my friends mentioned the [Medical Service Corps], but I didn’t know what that was. The only time I went to medical was for a flight physical. I shadowed, and then I fell in love with the job. I applied and, luckily, I was accepted into it.”

Committing to these programs, like the Medical Service Corps, come with different requirements ranging from age cutoffs, college experience and service separation.

Programs like Officer Training School are nine weeks long, and there is no lapse in service. One day an Airman is a staff sergeant, and the next, they are a second lieutenant. The rated and non-rated boards for OTS are held a few times throughout the year. However, if the quota for officers are met for the year, applicants may find themselves waiting another year to apply due to a board cancellation.

The LEAD program is a four-to-five year program that gives applicants the ability to attend the Air Force Academy. They take a lapse in service, but are paid a monthly stipend. Applicants have to be under the age of 23, have no legal dependents and not be married.

The Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program and the Scholarships for Outstanding Airman to ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) are two programs that grant scholarships worth up to $18,000 per year for a two-or-four year degree program. These programs may be used in conjunction with their military educational benefits such as the Montgomery GI Bill. Applicants are separated from active-duty and will not receive their military benefits or pay while going through the program.

Two other commissioning programs are the Nurse Enlisted Commissioning Program and the Interservice Physician Assistant Program. Both commission applicants in the medical career field as nurses and physician assistants. NECP applicants are commissioned as second lieutenants after completing the program, while IPAP commissions applicants as first lieutenants after completing the two-phase program.

“It doesn’t matter the avenue you take getting commissioned,” Bowman said. “In the end, [most of us] become new lieutenants learning how to be officers.”

Smith explained how going through these programs doesn’t make an officer better than an enlisted member. It is just a different avenue to make a difference in the Air Force. Being an officer doesn’t just bring a salute. It brings work.

“When people think about commissioning, a lot of people think about how making more money will make them happy,” Smith said. “Money doesn’t make someone happy.”

Smith went on to say people tend to find happiness when they find their purpose in life, whether that is being an enlisted Airman or officer.

Either way, there are challenges. Smith had to learn to understand from personal experience the difference between medical and flying communities.

“In [the medical group] I have met some of the best Airmen and officers I have ever known,” Smith said. “I also have met those who just want to serve their term and get out. I stay because I love the military and I love what we do. But when I was aircrew, I saw more people stay because they saw the mission first hand. We were the ‘tip of the spear.’”

To Smith, it was different as an Airman. He saw great places and places that were not so great, but it only reaffirmed his commitment to the Air Force.

The support from peers and from supervisors go a long way to developing Airmen into the best they can be. It can be as simple as introducing a friend to a stranger.

“When I was at Elmendorf Air Force Base, [Alaska], my roommate went through [total quality management] and met a lieutenant who had graduated from the [Air Force] Academy,” Bowman said. “I had always wanted to fly, so [my friend] hooked us up, and this lieutenant helped me get the paperwork together and begin the process of applying to the Academy.”

He explained that now, whenever an Airman mentions wanting to commission, he thinks back to the lieutenant that helped him become a pilot. The constant reminder continues to help him motivate and mentor Airmen and noncommissioned officers in their commissioning goals.

“When my Airmen come to me asking for advice on commissioning, I tell them to start broadening their career now,” Bowman said. “Take advantage of the opportunities out there for there; join the Active Airman’s Council and booster clubs. Those kinds of things help demonstrate someone’s commitment to commission that these programs look for.”

Bowman expressed that one of the keys for Airmen success in the Air Force is taking control of their career and immersing themselves in any and all opportunities presented to them.

“You can’t be too humble in taking advantage of the opportunities the Air Force presents to you,” Bowman said. “It’s all about becoming the most well-rounded leader you can be.”

It is important to balance the milestones that come with these opportunities in a career and the enjoyment getting there.

“The military is associated with milestones,” Bowman said. “Whether it is making the next rank or achieving the next upgrade, we’re usually focused on the next milestone. Sometimes, many don’t take the time to enjoy the path they are taking to get there. So, enjoy the journey versus the milestones along the way.”

Smith had the same view for life. He explained how, if he could give a piece of advice to his younger self, he would say ‘slow down.’

He mentioned how focused he was on the career path ahead of him that he neglected to enjoy his time as an Airman, NCO and young officer. But, with the help of mentors, he was able to take a step back.

Taking this time to enjoy the journey they are on tends to give leaders the ability to evaluate and effectively take care of their people and lead in accomplishing the mission. However, leading isn’t a gentle rise on the journey of someone’s career. It is a steep incline upwards.

“The prospect of leading others and being a commander may seem great to some,” Bowman explained. “But once they’re faced with the uphill climb of work and commitment it takes to get to that point, a lot of them say‘I don’t want to do that as much as I thought I did.’”

However, in the end, whether Airmen separate as senior Airmen or retire as colonels, the path they have finish on is what matters.

“It may not feel like there is any rhyme or reason to the path you take in the Air Force,” Bowman said. “Everybody will come to a time where they look back and say, ‘Okay, the path I took makes sense.’”

For more information on commissioning and continuing education, contact the base education office at (605) 385-2308.

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