Commentary by Lt. Col. Chris Callaghan
71st Operations Support Squadron
7/21/2011 – VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFNS) — When we hear the word stereotype, we tend to attach negative connotations to it. After a conversation I had a few months ago, that word changed for me.
In late March, my wife Kelly and I attended a course at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, as part of our preparation for squadron command. The course was a week long, and on the last day, we attended a Basic Military Training graduation at Lackland AFB, Texas.
Following the graduation, we had lunch with trainees who were just one week from graduation themselves.
We ate with a female trainee from southern California. She didn’t have her assignment yet, but wanted to be in either air traffic control or acquisitions. I, of course, encouraged her to become an air traffic controller and join us here at Vance AFB.
We talked about why she joined the Air Force. She didn’t run through a variety of great reasons many of us have for joining: service, patriotism, opportunities, education or experience. Instead, she told us that she joined the Air Force because she wanted to be “stereotyped as an Airman.”
She explained that in her hometown of Compton, Calif., there are stereotypes and expectations that seem to go along with whether you are male or female, your national origin, and what part of town you are from.
As she learned about the Air Force, it became apparent to her that, as an Airman, none of that “stuff” mattered. What does matter is our mission, our commitment, our professionalism, the core values by which we live, and the freedoms and ideals we defend.
This explanation by an 18-year-old Airman about to join our ranks absolutely floored my wife and me, and has had us talking about it ever since. There is a lot we can take away from what this Airman said.
First, it reinforces that our reputation as the world’s most dominant and most respected air, space and cyberspace force reaches far and wide.
Second, it tells us that our reputation is based on our people who serve something greater than themselves.
Third, it should convey to all of us that the impression we make on others translates into a calling for many to serve our country.
Her words reflect the trust and confidence that the American people have in us, and how important that trust is in defining us as Airmen and defining what we stand for.
By joining the Air Force, that young woman from southern California earned the label of “Airman” in the hopes of being stereotyped with us, her fellow Airmen, for the integrity, service and excellence for which we are known. When she goes home to Compton, wearing her uniform, she will return mostly as the girl they all knew, but she will also be the Airman she has become.
She won’t fit the stereotype someone else had for her; she will have changed in their eyes. By deciding to serve and put on the uniform of her country, that Airman has become something far greater than the superficial expectation someone used to have for her.
When I think of the American dream, I think of Airmen like her who are living it. To me, being considered by others as a stereotypical Airman is a tremendous honor. That’s a label we should strive to attain every day.