As I was writing in my journal last night, I took a peek at past years’ entries on February 20th and I came across the 2010 entry. There were a few words I wrote in that entry that intrigue me now, some 4 years later: This entire process has become extremely overwhelming and I don’t like it one bit. That entry leads me to this week’s Flashback Friday moment. In February 2010, I was named Samurai Airman of the Year at Yokota Air Base. It was a great moment for me but it was also a very, very intense and overwhelming experience.
How I first came across this moment? The moment actually started a couple of months earlier…in December 2009. I was sitting at my cubicle in the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron’s Force Management Office when my flight superintendent called me into his office. He told me to shut the door and I thought I was in trouble. He then informed me that I was selected as the 2009 374th Civil Engineer Squadron Airman of the Year. I was surprised being that most of the high-level awards in CE squadrons have historically gone to members of the fire department, explosive ordinance disposal, electrical systems, HVAC, or emergency management career specialties. Those specialties usually were out there in the field—so to speak—and they usually got all the positive pub that came with being a civil engineer. I was an operations manager. I rarely had to even leave my desk to get things done and my only contact with the base populous was when customers called into our office to complain about issues in their facilities. I definitely didn’t expect to be nominated much less win. My superintendent felt differently, though. He noted how I spent 6 months in 2009 running the Force Management Office as a junior enlisted airman and that I had gained the respect of many of the non-commissioned officers, senior non-commissioned officers and the unit commander. Winning at the squadron level meant that I had to compete at the parent organization level and I ended up being selected as the 2009 374th Mission Support Group Airman of the Year. That’s when things got really hectic for me. That’s when I realized that what I had done in 2009 was being watched by a lot of people with significant influence. Winning at the parent organization level made me a heavy favorite to win at the installation level. In the 3 weeks between winning the Mission Support Group Awards and the Yokota Annual Awards, there was so much inquiry into my life…into my personal life, into my academics. I had to fill out an assload of forms and disclaimers. It was bit much. Then came February 3, 2010. There I am, at the Yokota Annual Awards, among my peers. It was a long presentation and the Samurai Airman of the Year Award was the final award presented that night. I’ll never forget the words that the MC said: “The 2009 Samurai Airman of the Year, from the Mission Support Group…Senior Airman AnJuan Thomas”. I remember all those in attendance standing and clapping. I remember standing to walk up to the stage and the director of the 374th Force Support Squadron giving me a chest bump. It took me about 50 seconds to get from my seat to the stage to meet the installation commander and the command chief master sergeant and in that long walk to the stage, everything seemed quiet to me even though I could see all of the applause and felt all of the handshakes and pats on my back along the way. When I took the photo op, my Air Force career changed and for the remaining 3 months that I spent in Japan—and the remaining 3 years I spent in the Air Force, at large—my career changed.
What it meant to me then? In that exact moment, it was a truly overwhelming feeling. I had never imagined that I would receive such an honor…not after what happened 3 years earlier when I was thisclose to getting kicked out of the Air Force. In the days and weeks after winning, I became very uncomfortable with being Airman of the Year. When I woke up on February 3, 2010, only about 5% of the base populous knew who I was and the vast majority of those people were in the Civil Engineer Squadron. When I woke up on February 4, 2010, everybody knew who I was. I was on the cover of the installation’s newspaper. I had to do AFN radio interviews, an AFN commercial with the other winners. I had to do a lot of photo ops. I spoke to kids at elementary and middle schools. It was a lot. I couldn’t walk anywhere on the installation without being noticed. My office mailbox became inundated with congratulatory messages and letters and all kinds of perks. In winning at the installation level, I was an odds-on favorite to win at my major command level, which would put me in prime position to be 1 of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year…truly amongst the best of the best in the entire Air Force. It was overwhelming for me. I had a hard time being the #1 junior enlisted airman in my squadron, much less the entire installation that I worked on and possibly in the entire Pacific Air Forces command. I had always been a team-first guy and all of this individual attention made me uncomfortable. I actually prayed that I wouldn’t win at the PACAF level and I didn’t. The attention—and the microscope on me—didn’t subside until I left Japan for my Maryland assignment and even then, it took a while for me to shake all of that and return to being normal.
What it means to me now? Looking at the entire situation, in hindsight, I should’ve been more appreciative of the moment. I was the first ever in my career specialty—3E6X1: Operations Management—to win the Samurai Airman of the Year Award. That was a pretty historic moment for my office and I shared that moment with them…even had a duplicate of the 30-pound bronze trophy made to present to the office for display long after I was gone. Having visited the National Museum of the United States Air Force a few months back, I saw all of the former winners of the Outstanding Airman of the Year Award and I left wondering how it would feel if I was amongst those greats. Winning Airman of the Year was a celebration of me and my contributions to my office, my squadron, my parent organization, my installation, and the Air Force as a whole. All of the attention, as I see in hindsight, was warranted. It increased my profile. My then chief enlisted manager told me back then that I should’ve used it to make a run at commissioning. But I didn’t see it like that then. All I saw was just constant requests for my time when all I wanted to do was continue on with what I was doing. If I could back in time, I would definitely have a different mindset towards it.