MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Joshua Smith was 17 years old and starting to earn a reputation for skipping his high school math class every afternoon when he was called into his guidance counselor’s office. The most surprising part of the meeting for Smith was seeing his visibly distressed mother in the office.
“My mom was on the verge of tears, because they were so close to kicking me out for missing so many days of school,” Smith said.
Fast forward almost 15 years and Smith is now a technical sergeant and an Airman leadership school instructor for the 22nd Force Support Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base.
The guidance counselor tried to figure out the cause of the situation, and Smith explained that there was very little learning happening in class. Instead, the teacher was allowing students to cheat and copy from each other without consequences.
“The teachers were choosing which rules they want to follow, so I was picking rules too. The guidance counselor told me, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’” Smith said.
Smith said he then and there decided to join the military. He had loved jets and planes since he was a child, he said, so he decided that the Air Force was the branch for him.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Smith was on his way to basic military training. He went with an open general aptitude slot, but was selected for the aerospace ground equipment specialty code. Fresh-faced and excited to learn, he was assigned to Moody AFB, Georgia, and immediately fell in love with his job. The flip side that he discovered shortly after being in the “operational” Air Force, however, was a perception that standards and discipline were a problem.
“I refused to be one of the people that sits there and complains about a lack of discipline,” he said. “I’m going to be one of the people that if I see it, I’m going to do something about it.”
Military training instructor
In 2008, Smith acted on his words when he returned to Lackland AFB, Texas, to earn his campaign hat as a basic military training instructor and begin molding trainees into Airmen.
“I absolutely loved it,” Smith said. “You end up caring so much about how the trainees are doing that you won’t let yourself accept anything that’s less than perfect.”
Smith trained hundreds of new Airmen during his duty tour and he sought to put his own “signature” on each one. The high standards he held himself to were passed down to his trainees, he said, and it wasn’t the sense of power that kept him going through the 20-hour days he often pulled -- it was the feeling of satisfaction when he saw everything come together for his new Airmen.
Those same high standards that made Smith so at home in the training environment did not make the transition back to the “operational” Air Force at McConnell AFB the smoothest, though.
“If you do something for four years of your life, it’s going to stay with you,” Smith said. “I said to myself that I need to be self-aware -- try to get other people’s perspectives and understand what I’m going back into; but walking back into the ‘operational’ Air Force, that wasn’t enough.”
Smith soon found himself looking back on small interactions he had with Airmen around base and thinking how ineffective some of his corrections were. The tactics that were so heavily used in basic training weren’t having the desired effect as he adjusted to the base.
“Honestly, it’s a very difficult transition to live in (the basic training) world for four years and come back to the ‘real’ Air Force,” said Master Sgt. Rachael Hall, the commandant of the 22nd FSS’s Airman Leadership School. “His transition back into his unit was a little difficult for him.”
Return as an instructor
After two years, Smith’s leaders approached him about a job opening in the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Thomas N. Barnes Airman Leadership School on base. Smith said he had always thought being an ALS instructor would be fun, but that he never seriously considered it until that moment.
He quickly began putting together a package and preparing for the new job, but he first had to be interviewed by Hall.
“I was little worried initially, because he seemed so perfect,” Hall said. “What I found out was that his personality is completely different. He loves to laugh; he loves to make jokes. He was definitely the right pick for this job.”
Smith spent a short time shadowing ALS instructors to learn how the job was done and committed to thoroughly learning the lesson plans before he actually taught a class. He immediately began to bring the same discipline and high standards that have guided him throughout his career into the professional military education environment.
“He was rather intimidating our first couple of days of class,” said Senior Airman Kiani Ebuen, a 22nd Maintenance Group maintenance operations scheduler. “His uniform was pressed; he had a high and tight haircut and not a string or wrinkle in sight. We were more intrigued by an instructor who not only implements rules and lessons but follows them as well.
“We could all just read the material on our own and then take the test, but Tech. Sgt. Smith engraved these lessons and tools into us where we could use them to better ourselves as a future supervisor in the Air Force and as individuals as well,” Ebuen added.
His role as a different kind of instructor let Smith see a more direct impact of his teachings and allowed him to help instill confidence in new NCOs.
“As (a NCO), I owe it to my Airmen -- not just to myself and the Air Force -- to make sure they’re doing it right,” Smith said. “I never want to ignore the Airmen; never put off their problems or put a Band-Aid solution on it. Never tell them to cut corners to get ahead. Everything that guidance counselor did not do, I made a promise that I will do that for the Airmen.”