Stripes to bars: Airmen amplify leadership

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Two junior officers assigned to Shaw Air Force Base began their Air Force journeys more than a decade before they applied to Officer Training School.

Although their paths led them both to commission, the time 1st Lt. Brian Cockroft, 20th Force Support Squadron sustainment services flight commander, and 2nd Lt. Justin Reese, 20th Maintenance Group executive officer, spent as part of the enlisted force was very different.

After entering the service in 2003, Cockroft rose to the rank of staff sergeant before separating from the Air Force. However, the break did not last long as his desire to serve eventually drove him to apply to OTS.

Reese, having enlisted in 2001, developed his leadership capabilities as an Airman for 14 years before successfully applying to become an officer and sewing on the rank of master sergeant while attending officer training.

While their service records were different, what they learned from their years as Airmen put them both a step ahead of their classmates.
“I had a major advantage over the non-prior enlisted cadets because I didn’t have to learn the Air Force basics,” said Reese. “When they had to learn the Air Force Creed and rank structure, I already had all those ranks sewn on, so I got to focus more on the leadership perspective.”

The head start they gained from knowing Air Force fundamentals did not last the entire course.

“It saved us a little time in the beginning and freed our bandwidth up so we could do other things like study for tests or prepare for projects,” said Cockroft.“It gave us a little bit more liberty in the beginning, but I was very impressed with the quality of people who had no military experience whatsoever and how fast they were able to grasp and catch up to us. I think it speaks very highly of the candidates that were with me.”

Upon graduation, the new officers reported to their new duty station and were immediately thrown into the mix.

“The day I showed up at Shaw AFB, I signed into the 20th Component Maintenance Squadron avionics flight and I had 102 troops,” said Reese. “It was very overwhelming, but it also provided a sense of responsibility and a call to action. These are your people to take care of and your part of the mission and you have the ability, authority and rank to do something to help those people and get the mission done.”

For Cockroft, his enlisted time in the Air Force helped prepare him for his first base as an officer.

“Everything that I took with me to my first duty station on the enlisted side was (from my life) before the Air Force,” said Cockroft. “When I came to my first duty station here at Shaw as an officer, I had not only what I brought to the table, but what the Air Force had taught and provided for me. I think that’s the difference in what made the transition so much easier is that the Air Force had given me the skills and … the training and education.”

Once at Shaw, Cockroft and Reese were challenged with applying what they had learned at OTS to their new positions. Although they were skilled leaders, they had to transform their style to fit their new assignments.

“There are key differences from enlisted to officer leadership style,” said Reese. “I think it’s really important not to forget where you came from, so learning how to talk to people and work with people as an NCO and senior NCO translates greatly into being an officer. The difference is how you approach the problems, your attitude and the way you speak to people is a little different as an officer, so a lot of growing has to happen. … When I was enlisted, my sense of pace on the flightline was fast and focused on sortie generation and mission first, but from the officer perspective it is ‘slow down and focus on safety, the people and the processes.’”

By changing how they lead, they also shape how they impact the mission.

“Your own hands are no longer allowed to touch the actual tools … but your figurative tools are now the people, the men and women that compose the team you lead, so that you can influence a positive change on that mission,” said Cockroft. “You can fix a lot more equipment working with a few people than you can with a few tools.”

Reese said this new role makes his connection to the mission stronger.

“I feel like I’m more attached to the mission now,” said Reese. “Although I don’t physically produce the sorties, my hands are in everything that generates those sorties. So, if one of my Airmen has a personal, financial or family issue keeping them from focusing on the mission or the task, that could be catastrophic. We could lose a jet, hurt someone or lose a life. Part of my job is taking care of all the Airmen. … I do feel very connected to it on this side in a different capacity, but just as involved and it’s more rewarding to get to help the people where I did not have those resources before.”

As Reese and Cockroft continue their Air Force journeys, they also strive to help young Airmen contemplating a commission by participating in commissioning mentorship panels.

“If it’s something that you want to do then put your whole heart and mind behind it. Don’t ever look back and wonder ‘what if,’” said Reese to prospective officers. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s absolutely worth it. I would say don’t leave yourself wondering what would have happened and at least try. If it doesn’t work out, you still bettered yourself with an education and you still have your whole career ahead of you. I would also say I’m always there to help anybody who needs advice or help with a package or just ‘what should I do?’ There’s not a lot of people out there who can answer those questions. I always try to tell people I’m there if they need it, because I know how much that little bit can make all the difference.”