EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
“I decided that if there isn't light, you have to create the light. If there isn't hope, you have to create the hope... Sometimes it's very hard, but what I would say is to anyone that feels neglected, disrespected, disenfranchised, hopeless, is that I truly believe we are moving in the right direction” – Chief Wheeler
This month in recognition of Black History Month, the 53rd Wing is celebrating Black Airmen who are breaking barriers and making history in our organization, and in this article, we talked with the 53rd Test Management Group Chief Enlisted Manager, Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Wheeler.
Chief Wheeler has more than 28 years in the Air Force. From his hometown of Sylacauga, Ala., he enlisted at 17-years-old, joining the RF and Satellite Communications career field. Today, he’s responsible for leading more than 650 Airmen who conduct operational test and tactics development for bomber and ISR platforms. His wife is also active-duty Air Force, and he has three daughters. We sat down with Chief Wheeler to learn more about his life and career. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
In your career is there something you’re most proud of?
Chief Wheeler: I always say that being a first sergeant was the highlight of my military career, and I think one of the times I was most proud is during somewhat of a rough year in one of my squadrons. I had an Airman who was contemplating suicide and I was on local leave. I received a call from my additional duty first sergeant who said this Airman was on the balcony and it was facing the edge of a cliff, and wanted to jump. As I started walking him through the steps of what to do, he told me that the Airman wouldn’t talk to anybody but me. I went to the house and was able to talk the Airman down and transport the individual to the ER, but because the Airman was under the influence, mental health wouldn’t intervene until the morning when the alcohol wore off. I spent the night in the ER and made sure there was a warm handoff with mental health.
Even though that was a very difficult night, it’s something I am proud of. Sometimes you don't know if you matter, if what you’re doing matters, but that's when I learned that maybe…just maybe I was making a difference. Sometimes, I get Facebook messages now from Airmen who were in my unit years ago, and they will tell me that they got their Diamond, and they want to be like me. I tell them to be better than I was because our Airmen deserve it. For Airmen reading this, know that your First Sergeant and many other sources are here to support you if and when you need it.
Have you faced barriers in your career? How do you think the Air Force is doing to make it so others don’t face those same barriers?
Chief Wheeler: Unfortunately, yes. There are specific times in my career that I’ve experienced what I perceived as discrimination. Although maybe not overt or intentional, it still felt some type a way. After my first deployment as an A1C, I received an award, and when I crossed the stage to greet the Commander, the crowd laughed. When Commander’s call was over, I was quickly surrounded by my chain of command, Staff Sgt. to Master Sgt. I asked why they were laughing and my supervisor looked at me and said, “This ain’t your hood,” referring to the way I marched. I remember this especially because I was the only African American in my work center, and I didn’t know who to talk too or if I could say what I thought they needed to hear.
Years later, when I wanted to become a First Sergeant, my Chief at the time told me that “I didn’t look like a First Sergeant.” I wondered “What exactly does a First Sergeant look like?” I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. It was like I was wasting his time, and it felt demeaning. This was in 2006-2007; I had to go around my own Chief in order to become a First Sergeant. I share this because people who don’t experience this often aren’t aware it’s even happening. Some people will say “maybe he was referring to something else,” but I saw how he looked at me, and I had seen that look many times before.
Today, I think the Air Force is diligently working on discrimination and racial biases. We all have bias, including me. If I see a confederate flag, I am instantly heated. Years ago, remember seeing an Airman step out of a truck with a confederate flag attached to it, and I was so furious. I’ve had to learned to talk myself down a bit. It’s not easy, but its best for me and the people around me. I have to be the light. As for the Air Force, lots have changed since 1992 when I entered basic training. We have come a long way but the journey is not over. For the past 12-13 years of my career, I’ve been in a leadership role (First Sergeant or Senior Enlisted Leader) so I hadn’t witnessed or felt the issues directly as I did in the past. However, I see the DEOCS surveys, and I know discrimination is still there, whether it be racial, religious, or sex. We are on the right track; we just have to stay on the track.
Are there any words of hope/wisdom you want to share with Airmen?
Chief Wheeler: You know, the last year and a half has been rough with all the stuff going on in the world; whether it be the racial strife that we’ve had in the streets, the partisan bickering, which I don't know if it will ever stop, or facing COVID-19, you can really dig yourself into a hole you know? There are times last summer where I started to question what mattered, if my 28 years of service mattered, if our world was safe for my daughters; it was so easy to just dig and dig and dig that hole. But I decided that if there isn't light, you have to create the light. If there isn't hope, you have to create the hope. You have to be what you expect out of other people. Sometimes it's hard and feels useless, it feels like no one is listening, and worst of all it can feel like no one cares, but what I would say to anyone that feels neglected, disrespected, disenfranchised, and hopeless is that I truly believe we are moving in the right direction.
Between the last year and half, and some of the things I experienced on my deployment to Africa, I’ve had real problems I’ve been handling; I want to recognize that I would never be able to say these things and share a message of hope without going to Mental Health. If it wasn’t for Capt. Howard, I would not be able to pull myself back, stop, and reroute my thinking. It’s a work in progress, but I have to be the hope. For any Airman out there reading this: there are real issues, but there is also real hope, and if you’re struggling to find the hope, reach out to mental health or Military One Source or the many other resources available. I can say first hand, Capt. Howard at Mental Health helped save me.
In honor of Black History Month is there someone in history or in your personal life you want to recognize?
Chief Wheeler: For military/personal history, my dad, uncles, a lot of my family served in the military, and my aunt enlisted and retired years later as a top warrant officer, so they definitely helped me realize the military was an option for me. But in Black history, James Baldwin is a huge inspiration for me. He was a writer during the Civil Rights Movement, and I have a portrait of him in my front room. Sometimes I'll just listen to some of his debates, I mean his words flow so well it's like poetry. When I'm reading his books, sometimes I have to stop and go back to reread and really reflect on what he is saying. “The Fire Next Time” is my favorite book.
Black History Month is a chance to recognize both Black individuals is both the past and present. The 53rd Wing is honored to have Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Wheeler in our wing and be able to share his story.
“Joe has helped me become a better leader in taking care of Airmen and navigating issues I can’t fully understand on my own," said Col. Ryan Messer, commander, 53rd Wing. "He defines what it means to lead with empathy, and I am humbled to serve alongside this amazing man. The Air Force is better because of Chief Wheeler’s decades of service.”