Mike Parker: Vision becoming reality at Seymour Johnson AFB
Thursday afternoon, I entered a strange new world. Sandra and I headed to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base to watch my nephew John Parker, as well as a good number of his fellow airmen, being officially promoted to a higher enlisted rank.
John has spent 13 years in the Air Force. As of Friday, he is now a Master Sergeant. Sandra and I picked up his daughter Izzy from school on our way so she could be part of the ceremony.
I have no military background. I went to college toward the ending years of the Vietnam War. My draft lottery number was midway – 174, I think – so I was never called to serve. In 1971, I graduated from college and moved to Kinston, where I have spent the rest of my personal history.
I entered the theater at Seymour Johnson with no idea what to expect. We sat there while senior NCOs explained procedures these airmen would follow during the course of the ceremony. Then we watched a walk-through that enabled every airman to practice his or her part in the ceremony.
About 2:40 p.m., the auditorium began to fill. Each group had its own guidon, and the airmen assembled around their small flags. At 3 p.m., we stood as the Wing’s commanding officer, Col. Donn Yates, and a chief master sergeant entered for the ceremony. An airman sang the National Anthem, and the chaplain asked for God’s blessings and wisdom. We took our seats.
Then Col. Yates put the ceremony on hold. He left the stage and headed to the back of auditorium. In a couple of minutes, he escorted a young wife and her baby to a first-row seat. Only when she was seated with her child did Col. Yates return to the stage.
Those spearheading the ceremony called the role of units present — and the NCO in charge of each gave a particular call that his unit answered. What echoed in my ears was unity rooted in personal and unit pride.
The promotions began, from lowest rank to highest. John was in the last group — those being promoted to master sergeant. As the MC announced each person’s name and the airman strode across the stage, his senior NCO called to the unit and the unit responded. The airman shook hands with the chief master sergeant, received his or her certificate from Col. Yates and shook his hand, and then paused for a photo. Col. Yates and the airman then faced each other and saluted.
At times, family members joined the airman for a photo. Sometimes, a group from the unit came to the stage for a photo op with the newly-promoted airman. The ceremony ran with military precision. When John’s name was called, an airman escorted Izzy to the stage for a photo.
At every step, I saw the bonds forged from true American values. Members of group honored with promotion were as diverse a group as I have ever seen, yet they were a true unit in dress blues and military deportment. Each unit took obvious pride in each honoree – and each honoree took pride in the unit. Individual accomplishment was unit accomplishment.
As Col. Yates gave his closing remarks, he read a brief paragraph from a letter he issued to share his vision and priorities when he assumed command of the Fourth Fighter Wing in July 2018.
“Number 1: People. At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, our focus is on one battle – the battle for the hearts and minds of our subordinates and their families. Our greatest resource is our people. To be successful, we must act as a cohesive team, regardless or the squadron or group we belong to.
“We will develop a team of teams by cross-connecting everyone within the wing and their families to the mission in order to maximize transparency, enhance cohesion, and develop trust. I also expect leaders at all levels to continuously fill the bench by developing their people for the challenges of our global security environment.”
He lifted his letter, surveyed his airmen, and said with emphasis:
“This is what we do.”
He told his new staff sergeants and senior NCOs he expected them to help each airman who has problems overcome those problems and master the skills needed for the job at hand.
“You will go into their rooms and know what their families consist of – where their moms and dads are from, and what is important to them. You will eat last and make sure that your airmen eat first. …
“It’s not about the stripes. It’s not about the money. It’s not about the status or the extra pay. … I want you to go out and look at yourself in the mirror and make sure you are [taking care of your people].”
Col. Yates modeled that focus of “taking care of your people” when he brought that young mother and child from the back of the auditorium to a front row seat.
On Thursday afternoon, I saw that Col. Yates’ vision is becoming the reality at Seymour Johnson.
Mike Parker is a columnist for Neuse News. You can reach him at email@example.com.