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Chief pops smoke after "dynamic" 30 year career

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Michael Zirkle
  • 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron Security Forces Manager
The time has come for me to pop smoke and move over for the young, energetic Airmen of today. It has been a great, or should I say "dynamic" 30 years. I've had a blessed career. Someone has been watching over my shoulder all these years, as I haven't had a bad assignment, deployment or temporary duty assignment. During some of the deployments while filling sandbags for hours or as sweat was rolling down the middle of my back in the 135 degree desert heat I may not have believed that. I also learned something from each assignment and experience.

I had the pleasure of starting my career right here at F. E. Warren with the Mighty Ninety. I lived in Dorm 835 and was assigned to the 90th Missile Security Squadron, as a member of Strategic Air Command. We called ourselves SAC trained killers. The discipline that was SAC was embedded in my young airman soul, and became a corner stone for the rest of my career.

From Warren, I went on my first deployment. It was to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1983. I could really tell some war stories about that deployment, but more importantly it allowed me open my eyes to a region of the world that would become vital in our Air Force's history a decade later.

When I left the Mighty Ninety, I was blessed again with an assignment to Aviano Air Base, Italy. This was at the height of the Cold War, and there was nothing at Aviano except a couple of F-16s on alert ready to launch in five minutes and stop forces coming from Yugoslavia towards NATO countries. While there, I was promoted to sergeant and had to learn to be an NCO. I was living in a six-foot by 10-foot barracks room - a senior airman one day and a buck sergeant the next. There is a transition every new NCO goes through. It is being a friend one day and a leader the next. Sometimes, that's easy and sometimes it's not. Mine was tough. I was living, traveling and partying with my buddies one day, and after the promotion, I was told I couldn't hang out with them. They were my subordinates now. Thanks to Master Sgt. Mike Warner, who saw what was happening and saw my potential, had me move to another flight. He gave me the "straighten your act up" speech and let me go.

The Air Force then gave me another chance to excel and moved me to RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom. My time at the 'Heath was a blur. Two NATO TAC evaluations, 15 Local Salty Nation exercises, one Nuclear Surety Inspection, one Eastern Shield joint nation exercise, countless Logistic Support Aircraft missions and an air show - all in 24 months. Don't forget the MOPP gear, STANEX, chemical warfare, intra-area movements and mass load drills. Oh, by the way we were on the PRP, but you'd never know it because we are too busy working. Coming down off PRP was quitting, and you didn't quit at the 'Heath. I did learn one lesson there. Suck it up and get it done. The mission was the mission, and everyone understood that from airmen to colonels. Either you pulled your weight or your defender buddies let you know. The 'Heath would make or break Airmen. Thanks to leaders like now Chief Master Sgt. (ret) Jim Mowry, I was given responsibility, not held back and told to go execute the mission. I believe this is when my career really took hold and I realized what it meant to "serve."

Once again I was blessed, this time with an assignment back to Aviano. Here, I honed my security forces skills, learned the technical parts of the career field I would need to lead in the future. I helped bed-down two fighter squadrons, and establish the WS3 vault system. More importantly while at Aviano, I dug into the regulations and worked at being a subject matter expert. That's what all NCOs should do after becoming experts at the basic task of their career field. Dig deeper, find out why the wing and career field conducts business the way they do. By doing this, I was asked to augment on staff-assistance visits and inspections. This helped me see good and bad programs, thus learning from them making me a better defender.

After 10 years in USAFE, it was time to leave Europe, not by choice, but the AF said I had to rotate stateside. I received orders to March Air Force Base, Calif. This wasn't my best assignment, but once again I learned something from the experience. March was about to close, so most of the base housing was vacant and vandalism was up while vagrants moved into empty quarters. I am an old security cop by trade, and this base primarily had a law enforcement mission. I had to learn law enforcement by trial and error. Let me tell you, there was a lot of error. There were domestics, robberies, driving under the influence cases, drugs and fights at the club. There was almost a race riot at one of the dorms during a Halloween party. I think it was the werewolves vs. the vampires, but seriously this base was a mess. Like I said, I learned from each experience and I got to learn a whole different side of my career field. Thank goodness I was only there 14 months.

While deployed to support special ops forces during Operation Deny Flight, the reassignment team from Air Force Personnel Center came to March, and my wife got first pick. She picked Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. This was another great assignment. I learned the space launch mission, and even got up close and personal on dozens of Minuteman III, Delta II and Titan IV launches. I also got to deploy five times in my four years there. I was lucky to be taught the deployment mission from some true experts.

After four years at Vandyland, I was selected to work SF deployments and equipment on the Air Force Space Command staff at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. That assignment taught me the strategic - and paperwork - level of the AF. I learned deployments, money and equipment from the best. Chief Master Sgt. (ret) Levi Scott, who would later be our career field manger, Senior Master Sgt. (ret) David Lycan, Senior Master Sgt. (ret) Eddie Gonzales, Chief Master Sgt. (ret) John Barrows, Lt. Col. Ron Gray and Lt. Col. (ret) Teresa Wheeler were all instrumental in guiding me through my staffing woes. I learned, sometimes the hard way, how corporate AF worked. After four years, I couldn't get an assignment out of Peterson back to a unit, so I moved to the AFSPC Inspector General team.

The great thing about the IG was the people, and learning the instructions inside out. The team was comprised of all professionals, and the best from their career fields, so it was a great experience. I also had to learn every instruction that touched my career field. I had to prove every discrepancy I identified during an inspection. If my source document and paragraph wasn't right, the finding was thrown out. The travel wasn't bad either. After a year, I magically got an assignment.

I was reassigned to the best remote in the AF - Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates. I said someone was watching over me. I did my time conducting post checks and working security issues. While there, the wing moved to a new cantonment area, and I was able to use my training of new security assessment programs and vulnerability assessment training to develop security for the area. During this assignment I learned to be a security forces manager, normally a chief master sergeant duty. This really helped for my next assignment.

It was back to Peterson and the 21st Security Forces Squadron. Here I learned a lot about politics. This is truly a distinguished visitor base with 43 generals on station and the secretary of defense, chief of staff of the Air Force, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, vice president and president coming and going several times a year. After a year, U. S. Northern Command decided to move its Protection Level 1 command post into its office building. Talk about a security nightmare. I learned how to explain security to non-security folks in high ranking positions. You should have seen the generals faces when I told the Defense Appropriation Committee that we added "BFRs" (Big Frickin` Rocks) as an additional security measure. In May 2009, I was reassigned to one of the best assignments of my career, back to Warren.

Well, with 16 months on station, I have to say it has been a non-stop ride. I am glad I will finish my career in the same unit I started in, only now it is the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron, A.K.A. Big Missiles. I'm also glad the 800 series dorms are being closed and the new dorms give our Airmen a quality of life I never had.

I've also had the opportunity to interact with our young Airmen. During many of the chiefs panels I've sat on I've been asked, "Chief, what kept you going all these years?" I have a couple of things to attribute my longevity. First, is serving my country. That may sound hokey, but serving my country is special to me. When the National Anthem comes on at the base theater my heart beats a little faster and my chest puffs up a little greater. When I see the American Flag, I think that's my flag representing my country that I am willing to die for.

Secondly, early in my career it was instilled in me to never quit. One of the security forces priorities of work is you don't eat or rest until the work is done. As a young Airman that was instilled in me as a work ethic. Sailor, from the movie "Uncommon Valor" said it best. He said, "You never quit, you never stop!"

Throughout my career I was given tasks, duties and responsibilities, and I never asked "why me?" I did it, I never quit until the task was finished.

Lastly, I never chased the stripe. The AF is simple; just do what it asks of you. I never cried over an assignment, a deployment or duty. When I was told I had an assignment I didn't whine if it wasn't a paradise location. I know, I had good assignments throughout my career. I looked forward to the new base and duty. I didn't get involved or volunteer with the thought it would highlight me and get me promoted. I worked hard at the job I was given and the rank followed. I got involved with my unit, wing and professional organizations because I wanted to. After volunteering a couple of times or serving on committees, I found out it wasn't as scary or time consuming as I thought. The outcome outweighed the effort input.

Well, it is time to pop smoke, depart this AO and head back to my base camp. I know this is a lengthy article, but for the Airmen reading I hope you take something away. Hopefully you learn something from each task or assignment. Learn to be a better Airman, NCO, senior NCO or officer. Also never quit. As a team we can accomplish anything.

Stay alert, stay alive.