Remembering my Air Force journey

Chief Master Sgt. David Dock, Headquarters, Air Force Space Command, Directorate of Manpower, Personnel and Services

Chief Master Sgt. David Dock, Headquarters, Air Force Space Command, Directorate of Manpower, Personnel and Services

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Sometimes, a journey doesn't make sense until you've crossed the finish line. Often, it is only after you've run the race that you can look back and reflect upon the path you took to get to where you stand today. This fall, I will cross a major finish line in my life when I officially retire from the Air Force after 27 years of service. So, I find myself in a position to begin looking back on my journey.

I was only 17 when I joined the Air Force, but I had enough common sense to know that I would be following the footsteps of many great Airmen, among them my father and my uncle. My original plan may have been simple: faithfully serve my country for four years, complete my education, and prepare for civilian life. But the outcome would be simple.

My Air Force journey began when I left my hometown of Marion, Ill., on a bus for San Antonio, Texas. I was terrified and rightfully so. I soon found myself in an entirely new environment once that bus pulled into Lackland Air Force Base at 2 a.m. My basic-training welcome was probably very similar to the welcome any Airman reading this received: training instructors screaming orders, a group of scared basic trainees picking up their luggage, putting down their luggage and picking up their luggage again; more screaming by training instructors, a few shoddy attempts at marching, and finally, a few short hours of blissful sleep. Thus began my eight-week long bluing marathon.

Slowly but surely, during those eight weeks, a basic training squadron of 52 young men of various cultures and upbringing transformed itself into a well-oiled structure of military bearing and professionalism. When we finally graduated basic training, we officially became American Airmen.

After basic training, I spent 12 weeks in technical school, learning the basics of aircraft maintenance before reporting to my first duty station: McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. I may have been an anxious 18-year-old, but I had high expectations and a thirst to be a relevant KC-135R aircraft mechanic. Those long weeks of technical training made me an expert, or so I thought, but my teammates quickly let me know I wasn't as ready as I believed.

Long weeks of on-the-job training finally transitioned to my participating in basic maintenance and even longer hours of cleaning, servicing and repairing aged multi-million dollar airworthy gas stations finally seemed to result in my getting a bit of respect from my leadership.

Later, due to my selection for promotion to staff sergeant and confidence in my abilities led to me serving as a primary crew chief. I had reached the top of the crew chief hierarchy and part of the reward for my new position was being able to travel to 22 countries and 43 states. The next logical step was instructor duty so I spent days and nights transforming functional knowledge into a teachable platform. The curriculum became easier to teach and the feedback became more positive. I garnered basic instructor, senior instructor, instructor supervisor and finally master instructor credential. I had arrived! I was a functional expert.

I was 35-years-old when I was selected for promotion to master sergeant. Obviously, I was very happy to learn I would finally become a senior NCO, but I wasn't exactly ecstatic when I also learned I had been selected to retrain under the NCO Retraining Program. Due to my selection for master sergeant, my career options were limited, and I found myself serving as a manpower analyst. My transition from functional expert to senior NCO trainee was abrupt and challenging, to say the least.

"How could the Air Force have thought this made sense?" I thought. "Won't aircraft fall from the sky without my expertise?"

A six-week education at the NCO Academy and sage advice from my career mentor, Chief Master Sgt. Larry Lowe, opened my eyes. The Air Force needed me to be a leader and I had been given the honor to serve in a capacity few do. This wasn't about me - it was about the bigger picture - the Air Force.

Later, I was fortunate to reach the ranks of senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant, and occupy a position where I balanced functional expertise with leadership and mentorship, focused on executing the mission and my commander's vision. I was now a strategic leader and had reached the pinnacle of my journey.

Today, I'm a somewhat anxious 44-year-old for very recently, I sat in my office and pushed a button on my computer that effectively ends my Air Force career - the ride of my life. I never gave much thought to how or when the moment would come to make the decision. I have served longer than I have not. I gave my heart and soul to the Air Force. My family and I sacrificed immensely. Long hours, deployments, several assignments, family separation, eight different schools for my children, deferred career development for my wife, and making friends and then saying "goodbye." Normal life consisted of always placing the mission first. Some might call this life horrible, but not Airmen - incredible heroes, proud to sacrifice for the greater good of their families, their fellow Airman and most importantly, their nation.

We comprise a group of patriots willing to do whatever it takes to make America free. We are and always will be a team, a family and a culture. I may retire soon, but I will always be an American Airman!

I'm about to cross my Air Force finish line. My charge was to be relevant to the mission, respected for performance, and a leader-mentor to my replacements. I worked hard every day to meet this challenge. Now the torch will be passed. The journey for every Airman is different and will contain many highs and lows, but I hope that when the day comes for you to reflect on the end of your Air Force career, you will look back on your own journey and sacrifice with pride and honor for you too will always be an American Airman.