Education apparently never ends

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti
  • 512th Airlift Wing
One reason I joined the military instead of heading to college after high school was to take a break from all of that learning.

It's been 28 years and I'm still waiting.

I just completed National Defense University's Senior Enlisted Joint Professional Military Education Course, which I had sidestepped for a few years despite it being a priority for the chief of the Air Force Reserve Command.

I'm confused as to why the younger me thought he could sign on with the Air Force and avoid education, seeing as anyone's enlisted career starts with completing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to measure how much we already know and in which fields we may be more likely to succeed.

After this, of course, we attend basic military training, followed by technical school in a work specialty and then a year or so completing a career development course and on-the-job instruction. Along with these come Airman Leadership School, more upgrade training, the Noncommissioned Officer Academy and Senior NCO Academy. This doesn't even include the continuing training we need to stay deployable or any civilian courses we take on our own.

My advice, then, for anyone hoping to avoid education would be to actually steer clear of the military as U.S. forces of the future won't be less reliant on it.

I served on developmental team and meritorious promotion boards in 2011. In both cases, our mission was to rank the top technical sergeants through chief master sergeants, nearly all of whom had done very good things during their time in uniform. Most had deployed, sometimes multiple times. What often separated them was their level of civilian education. When everyone is pretty sharp, it's up to us to set ourselves apart if we want to be noticed.

Though I'm a reservist, I have been on active duty for about half of the last five years, working nearly exclusively with fulltime GIs. I mentor Airmen of all ranks, including junior officers, and there is a growing frustration among many enlisted members because they feel that they don't have responsibilities commensurate with their education.

My nickname should be Chief Reality since that's what I give a dose of to everyone who complains to me about that. I can appreciate their dissatisfaction, even sympathize with them, but I have no answer other than they should apply for an officer's commission if they want more responsibilities. That, or they should start preparing for a post-Air Force career. Being angry with the system that we freely entered, though, is unproductive.

Our service doesn't require its NCOs to go to college, though it certainly encouraged it by creating the Community College of the Air Force, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Our GI Bill education benefits are now transferrable to children or a spouse. That is remarkable.

Education level has been a dividing point between the officer corps and enlisted force since the earliest years of our nation's military services. It's not up to the Air Force to undergo a dramatic culture shift to accommodate us because we, too, see the value in college education. It's up to us to put ourselves in the best position to succeed within the constraints of the system.

However, there's a catch: NCOs lead primarily by the examples we set. Even if we don't value civilian education ourselves or feel that we can stop with a CCAF degree, being a good supervisor means we must advise our Airmen on what's best for them. We need to encourage them to get as much education as they can to give themselves a better shot at success in the future, whether or not it is in the military. The best way to demonstrate this is to be a continuing student ourselves. NCOs who have children are setting a good example for them at the same time.

For the first 12 years of my career, I was focused solely on the work, which led to a fairly quick rise to master sergeant. When I became a senior NCO, though, I had the least amount of formal education of my office. That realization is what finally pushed me to finish my CCAF degree. Completing it helped me be selected to attend a 2-month Defense Department course at the University of Oklahoma. The nine credits I earned there contributed to me finishing a bachelor's degree at age 41.

Still, when I applied to the Air Force Reserve Command last fall for consideration to attend some senior-level leadership courses, I was surprised when I wasn't selected. I soon learned why. One of the two reasons cited by the panel was that I hadn't yet completed the Senior Enlisted Joint PME Course, the one I had avoided doing since I don't much care for online training.

I got the message loud and clear: if I didn't do that class, despite it being a priority for the top officer in my command, why should a panel under him select me for any other courses? Being Chief Reality, I didn't shake my fist at the sky. I committed to doing it.
That board's decision to hold me to this standard was the right one. It also showed me that after 28 years in uniform I still have a lot to learn.

(Proietti, an individual mobilization augmentee with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is on a temporary duty assignment with the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Del.)