Challenge accepted: Former MTI, retrainee reflects on 15-year transformation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Aubrey White
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: The last name of the Airman in this article has been withheld for operational security purposes.

Conversations about workload and home life frustrations competed with attempts to justify choosing the less healthy, but shorter, pizza line over a healthier option buzzed between Airmen at the Langley Air Force Base Exchange food court. As I walked past the various crowds, a familiar face caught my eye.

I scanned the gentleman from head to toe, noticing his rank - technical sergeant - and then his name tape, but couldn't recall where I knew him from. I noticed he looked toward me with the same puzzled expression, so I finally decided to say hello.

"I know you from somewhere," I claimed, still reeling my mind as to how I knew this man. I went for the obligatory question: "Were we previously stationed together?"

With a smile on his face, the technical sergeant responded, "You probably know me from Lackland [Air Force Base, Texas]."

That geographic reference was enough to send me back to the moment I stepped off a bus to meet a howling figure with the infamous knife hand pointed in my face three and a half years earlier at Basic Military Training. The figure I envisioned looked remarkably like the person who now stood before me, only there was no smile on his face back then - there was only a look of detest as his piercing blue eyes seemingly peered into my soul.

I shuddered at the memory of the former Military Training Instructor, Tech. Sgt. Dewhite.

While the memory was less than pleasant, I decided to catch up with the now 36th Intelligence Squadron geospatial systems noncommissioned officer in charge.

I briefly learned of his journey from MTI duty to retraining into a new career field, then back to the operational Air Force, and fear lessened as I got to know the man who once wore the campaign hat. I couldn't help but to be intrigued by the thought of an MTI returning to the "real Air Force" after such an intense and lengthy special assignment. So, naturally, I asked if he'd be interested in sharing his story.

Taking me back to the start of his career, 15 years earlier as a young security forces Airman, Dewhite said he was driven by his vision to one day become a state trooper.

Similar to most novice Airmen in that vocation, he started off "working the gates" on base, checking identification cards of incoming personnel. Assuming this essential occupation with the upmost professionalism, Dewhite said he climbed the ranks, ultimately securing positions as a flight chief and NCOIC.

It wasn't until he reached his 10-year mark in the Air Force that Dewhite decided he needed a change of pace.

I wondered after 10 years of doing what he so passionately wanted to do and climbing through the ranks so quickly, why Sergeant Dewhite would want to take on the task of learning an entirely new profession.

"I was sitting at work one day and felt like I wasn't being challenged enough, so I looked around to see what I could do," he recalled. "I ended up pulling the Air Force portal up and I saw the sign for MTI. I thought, 'That looks like a challenge.'"

Four years of long days occupied by the responsibility of transforming more than 45 average civilians into warrior Airmen during eight-and-a-half-week intervals was only a preview of what was to come from serving as an MTI.

Then he mentioned he has a wife and children. Being an active-duty mother myself, I empathized with the thought of forfeiting those "first moments" with young children, as many Service members do.

"I knew I would have to sacrifice and miss some of the stuff babies do, like when they walk, talk and crawl, but I figured I'd take a sacrifice when they wouldn't remember me as much, rather than now as they're older," Dewhite explained. "We discussed it for a while and decided to put in an [application] package figuring maybe [San Antonio], Texas was our calling."

As a law enforcement officer, Dewhite said the transition into MTI school wasn't very difficult because he already held himself to a higher standard - the same required of an instructor. Dewhite said he didn't face much difficulty until after school during a process called "posting" in which new MTIs gain certification in various aspects of the duty.

"The hardest part is when you're pushing and leading that first flight and you have a trainer in your ear constantly telling you what you're doing wrong and how to fix it, guiding you and mentoring you in whatever ways they feel fit," he remembered. "You're responsible for 45 to 60 trainees, so they teach you the importance of that; why little mistakes are a big deal."

It was that same tough love Dewhite said he learned to impose on his own flights. After all, he was in the business of altering their civilian mindsets to that of an Airman.

"Seeing what the civilians looked like when they get off the bus to when you see them on graduation day, you look back over that transition, you're like 'Wow, they actually changed a lot,'" he said. "Talking to parents, seeing mom and dad cry about how their son or daughter has changed - that was really a cool experience to see."

With his new position came trying times, Dewhite recalled. He said he learned to rely heavily on his spirituality, family support and advice from mentors to help him through training.

"Every day there was something new," Dewhite said with laughter. "I learned to expect the unexpected. You think you've seen it all after a few years down there, then one day another trainee will come up with something else and you're like, 'Wow, that's another thing I did not imagine happening,' but it prepares you for the future."

As Dewhite came to the end of his assignment at Lackland, he needed to decide where his career would take him next. He was offered the opportunity to retrain into a new career field, and after reviewing the list of available jobs, Dewhite decided on the intelligence field - a profession he believed would set his family up for success for years to come.

As soon as he graduated his last flight of Airmen, Dewhite departed the training base headed on a new leg of his Air Force journey - technical training, where he'd face an entirely new set of obstacles.

"Nervous and excited are definitely good words to use," Dewhite said regarding his feelings toward going back to technical school. "I asked myself, "'Wow, is it finally over? In BMT everything is structured and regulated, but in the regular Air Force there's a little more free will."

"He's nervous about a sense freedom?" I asked myself. I remembered leaving basic training feeling eager to have a little more liberty, but I understood how four years of "living BMT" would have a lasting effect on one's mentality.

"[Technical school] was very different right off the bat, Dewhite said. "The first time we walked in, I sat in class while the Airmen were laughing and joking around, and I [thought to myself], 'What are they doing? Why aren't they sitting in their seats waiting for the instructor to come in?'"

Luckily for him, Dewhite said the instructor he had was a retired Airman and who made it clear he was a former MTI. His initial apprehension was suddenly eased knowing they had a common thread.

"All the Airmen sat up a little bit straighter," he said. "Then the instructor asked, 'Do you know there's a former MTI in your class?' Then he pointed at me and you could just see the 'oh no' [look on their faces].

"That helped a lot. I was actually able to talk to him and ask what previous retrainees had done and what their demeanor was because I didn't want to be a jerk, but I'm also big on discipline and standards."

Also with the support of another technical sergeant in his class, Dewhite began to find a "happy medium" between upholding standards and remembering that there is life outside of BMT.

The time finally came for Dewhite to return to operational Air Force life, and although he somewhat relaxed, he was still exiting another training environment and returning to the "real Air Force" after about five years.

He arrived at his new assignment to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, in the summer of 2014. Although he said his transition was good overall, Dewhite thinks he unintentionally drives a bit of frustration amongst his co-workers because he's used to going "1,000 miles per hour" at all times, and that he sometimes needs to take a step back and slow down to effectively ensure his unit's mission.

"The hardest part about this transition is trying to relax. I'm probably driving some of my co-workers crazy with all the little stuff," he said with a bashful laugh. "I work with great people and everyone's doing what they're supposed to be doing, so I'm trying not to be nitpicky, so to speak, but also maintain those [Air Force] standards."

With maintaining high standards and keeping the Air Force core values close to his heart, Dewhite said he continues to use his experiences to instill discipline and integrity in Airmen that's "going to last for years to come," because setting a positive example for other Airmen keeps them, and him, motivated.

In his time at Langley, the technical sergeant has run into more than 10 Airmen he trained. Just as he's done since our reunion, Dewhite said he continues to ensure his former trainees are taken care of and mentored.

"There's a reason behind everything we did and it's not just a BMT thing, it's an Air Force thing," Dewhite explained. "The core values are more than just words. If you actually live them, breathe them, they mean something."