NCO cross-trains to pursue career goals, personal fulfillment

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kindra Stewart
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs Office

Many Airmen find themselves seeking an opportunity to change their career field during their enlistment, but the needs of the Air Force don’t always align with the desires of its Airmen.

But, for one Airman, it did.

Staff Sgt. Colin Owens, 49th Wing Chapel religious affairs Airman, knew early into his air traffic controller career something needed to change.

“Initially, what motivated me to be an air traffic controller was the money,” said Colin. “I knew that after one enlistment, I would be qualified to make six figures. I had zero intention of staying in the military when I left for basic training.”

While Colin’s former career was challenging and gave him a great amount of accomplishment, it also came with many obstacles.

“There is an intense amount of pressure,” said Colin. “The pilot’s safety is in your hands, and there is no room for error.”

Unfortunately, pilot tragedies can occur even with impeccable guidance by the air traffic controllers.

“Unforeseen forces can change everything,” said Colin. “When there is a complication that affects somebody’s life, the grief is inevitable.”

While stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Colin met and married his wife, Staff Sgt. Kristen Owens, a fellow air traffic controller.

“Kristen and I trained together,” said Colin. “We got our ratings around the same time. We lived together in a 500 square-foot apartment, and we worked together every shift. It was a huge test of our compatibility, but I loved every moment.”

While Colin and Kristen began planning their future, they agreed the best thing they could do for themselves and each other was retire in the Air Force.

“We decided early in our relationship that we would both stay in the Air Force together,” said Kristen. “But we didn’t really know what that meant at the time.”  

Their love for the Air Force grew as their relationship developed, mirroring the love they have for each other.

While the Owens’ have a strong marriage, being a military couple in the same career field presents unique challenges.

“We worked and lived together for two years, and it was really hard to have the same job and live together,” said Kristen. “Sometimes, they had to offset our schedules so we didn’t see each other at all, or they would put us on the same crew where we saw each other 24/7.”

With their goal set on retirement, the Owens’ knew one of them would need to cross-train into a different career field.

Hoping to find a career that fit his compassionate personality and his personal goals, Colin began exploring his options.

“Once I started researching different career fields and the impact they had on the mission, I was hooked,” said Colin. “I knew in my heart there would be something for me outside of being an air traffic controller.”

While the Owens’ worked through the challenges of working and living together, while looking for a new career for Colin, they were presented with a new hurdle, and an unknown opportunity.

Kristen received deployment orders to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

“I deployed in July 2016 to Al Udeid, and while I was there, that was the first time I ever had interactions with the chaplains and chaplain’s assistants,” said Kristen. “Colin is a very personable person, and he has always wanted to help people. After having a few conversations with the chaplain’s assistants, I knew right away that Colin should do that job. He really does have the biggest heart.”

Colin was hesitant after hearing his wife’s advice, but he was curious enough to go to the chapel and get more information about the career field.

“Like most people, I had no idea what a chaplain’s assistant did,” said Colin. “I was hesitant because I was still fairly new to my faith, but I was surprised to find out the position has very little to do with religion. That is what the chaplains are for.”

After meeting with the chapel staff, Colin realized the duties of the chaplain’s assistants coincided with his passion for people and human interaction, initiating his desire to cross-train.

“The planets aligned perfectly,” said Colin. “I filled the second-to-last position available for non-commissioned officers to cross-train.”

Upon graduating technical training in November 2017, Colin and Kristen received orders to Holloman Air Force Base to begin their next journey.

“Religious affairs provides resiliency guidance for the base,” said Owens. “We help the chaplains, who assist with the spiritual side, while we focus on the needs of the people. Organizing base events and maintaining the chapel is also part of our job. I love the fact that every day is something different.”

Being able to impact the lives of others has improved Colin’s spiritual, mental and social fitness – three of the four pillars of Air Force resiliency.

“The number one difference, for me, is feeling that I am making a difference by impacting others,” said Colin. “Before, I did my job to keep people safe. People’s lives were on the line, and that was my duty. Sitting in a room with the same five people every day doesn’t really give you a connection to the world outside of the tower. Now, I can see how people are affected by what I do from beginning to end, and helping people is very rewarding to me. There is nothing better than being able to guide people through my personal experiences, because sometimes all somebody needs is another perspective.”

In addition to being more fulfilled in his personal life, his career change has also improved his marriage.

“It’s a blessing to stop talking about air traffic,” said Kristen. “It’s good for us to have different experiences each day with different people. Being an air traffic controller was very stressful for him, and the conversations we used to have weren’t as positive as they are now. He’s a lot happier.”

Colin started his journey six years ago, convinced he would leave after his enlistment, but the only constant in the Air Force is change.

As a cross-trainee, the Air Force has allowed Colin to find something more valuable than a six figure salary. Through hard work, self-reflection and a supportive marriage, he has found joy in serving those around him in his new career.

“I’m going to retire in the Air Force or stay in for as long as they will let me,” said Colin. “Not for the money, but because I am proud to be here.”