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The Capitol, crabcakes, and cultivating character

Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy, 81st Training Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, sits behind Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody’s desk during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. McElroy was selected to accompany base leadership on the trip, which was meant to foster partnerships between Air Force and state congressional representatives. (Courtesy photo)

Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy, 81st Training Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, sits behind Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody’s desk during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. McElroy was selected to accompany base leadership on the trip, which was meant to foster partnerships between Air Force and state congressional representatives. (Courtesy photo)

Brig. Gen. Patrick Higby, 81st Training Wing commander, pauses in the 9/11 Memorial Chapel during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. Higby and Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st TRW command chief, visited Capitol Hill to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on Mississippi with state congressional representatives. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Brig. Gen. Patrick Higby, 81st Training Wing commander, pauses in the 9/11 Memorial Chapel during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. Higby and Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st TRW command chief, visited Capitol Hill to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on Mississippi with state congressional representatives. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st Training Wing command chief, stands in front of the Air Force Honor Guard Memorial during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Va. During the visit, Keesler leadership met with Mississippi congressional representatives to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on the state. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st Training Wing command chief, stands in front of the Air Force Honor Guard Memorial during a Capitol Hill visit, May 14, 2015, at the Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Va. During the visit, Keesler leadership met with Mississippi congressional representatives to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on the state. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

A glass contemplation wall honoring the “missing man formation” sits on display, May 14, 2015, at the Air force Memorial, Arlington, Va. Keesler leadership visited the Air Force Memorial during their annual Capitol Hill visit, where they met with Mississippi congressional representatives to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on the state. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

A glass contemplation wall honoring the “missing man formation” sits on display, May 14, 2015, at the Air force Memorial, Arlington, Va. Keesler leadership visited the Air Force Memorial during their annual Capitol Hill visit, where they met with Mississippi congressional representatives to discuss Keesler’s growth and development, and its economic impact on the state. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- So there I was - watching my wing commander dragging the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh's area rug around his humongous office in order to catch the iconic Hap Arnold Wings emblem on the rug in our photos.

A few minutes later, I was sitting behind Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody's desk, eating the chocolate-covered peanuts on his conference table.

Something I couldn't imagine happening to me with only a year and a half in the Air Force.

Later that afternoon, I was riding in a railcar underneath Capitol Hill with Brig. Gen. Patrick Higby, 81st Training Wing commander and Chief Master Sgt. Harry Hutchinson, 81st TRW command chief, as we spent the latter half of the day visiting with Mississippi and Florida state representatives.

Every year, wing and numbered Air Force commanders and command chiefs visit Capitol Hill to meet with their state senators and congressmen, and I was chosen to accompany our leaders on the trip May 13-15.

The objective of the Capitol Hill visit program is to help wing commanders and state representatives forge partnerships to ensure a positive economic impact on bases and surrounding communities. This ensures that state and base leaders share a common interest of growth and development.

And it was my job to watch, interact, learn and absorb.

The first day

I rolled out of bed at 4 a.m., and made sure I had all my stuff together. Chief was picking me up soon; I had to make sure I was squared away.

It's not every day a command chief picks an Airman up at the dorms to go to the airport.

Despite the early hour, conversation came easily. Chief's the kind of senior NCO that loves to be 'in the trenches' with Airmen; he relishes getting to know those around him.

Once we made it to D.C., and checked into our hotel, we were on to the first order of business: Find and eat some Maryland-style crab cakes. Nothing else would be accomplished until our hunger had been satisfied.

Chief continually raved about just how good our crab cakes were throughout the trip. As a former east coast resident, sharing the Maryland staple with Chief proved to be one of my highlights of the trip.

After we had our fill, it was time to see the sights . . . from Chief's point of view.

That got me thinking. Where do chiefs come from?  We see them around base and on the leadership boards, but how often do we get to see where they started? I was able to learn where my chief came from.

He came from working late nights and extra jobs as security on the side as a staff sergeant and from frequenting the same dives and watering holes that have sat outside Andrews Air Force Base for the last 30-plus years. He comes from lifelong friendships with past coworkers.

He's a diehard Washington Redskins fan, too.

I got the inside scoop on Chief in his up-and-coming days; it was as much a chance for him to reminisce as it was for me to start realizing what the lesson of this trip would be.

But more on that later.

The second day

Talk about sensory overload.

Up and at 'em early in the morning, I got into my service dress, made sure my camera was charged and headed downstairs to meet Chief.

We took the metro to The Pentagon. There were people everywhere. On closer inspection though, many were military members in civilian clothes; they keep their uniforms at the office and commute in their regular attire. They were low-profile, the exact opposite of us in our ribbons, stripes and shiny shoes on full display. I thought it would be more difficult to get to the Pentagon than it was, but it has its own metro stop!

Never in my life did I think I'd go to The Pentagon.

It was time to see how the big boys play.

Welcome to the nerve center of the military. Where majors get coffee; where no one bats an eye when colonels and generals walk into the room; where senior NCOs are office assistants; where two-stripers like me don't normally exist. In a sea of brass and stripes from all branches, I stood out like a sore thumb.

Whatever uneasiness I felt quickly dissipated though. It's unusual for someone of my rank to be strolling around the Pentagon, so there must be a good reason for me to be there. Hearty handshakes, introductions and honest interest filled my morning.

This was the first big hint that behind all the stars, bars and command positions, there's something more there.

But what was it?

After our initial brief, it was time to explore.

Brig. Gen. Higby has been previously stationed at the Pentagon, so Chief and I got the insider's tour, and it was spectacular. With 17 ½ miles of corridors, the building is equal parts museum and office space.

Each corridor, hallway or area has a different theme: A memorial chapel and quilt displays from 9/11 are displayed where the plane struck; murals, artifacts and flags adorn the POW/MIA-themed corridor; maps, facts and photos line the walls as tribute to the War on Terror in another area. Themes ranging from the origin of the Defense Department to women's roles in the military to a room honoring every single Medal of Honor recipient show true care and pride in our heritage. The building is a living, breathing monument. It was amazing.

Once we had seen the sights and got our fill of the aforementioned candy-eating and rug-moving, it was time to head out.

That afternoon at Capitol Hill was the real reason for our visit; to meet with Mississippi representatives and discuss the state of the base and the future of Keesler on the Gulf Coast. Senator Thad Cochran, Congressman Steven Palazzo and Florida Congressman Curtis Clawson exchanged handshakes, ideas and stories with us.

While I assumed I'd be a fly on the wall, I was actually encouraged to speak and provide input. This trip was full of firsts for me; 18 months ago I never thought I'd be sitting in a senator's office sharing my story.

But there I was.

That night

Capitol Hill wasn't our last stop for the day. Brig. Gen. Higby had one more stop for us to make that evening - a local restaurant at the National Harbor, where we'd be meeting up with the who's-who of Air Force cyber operations.

Our get-together with the "cyber tribe" proved to be a few things for me: a crash course in networking, an introduction to the cyber community, and where the rest of my overarching lesson was formed.

Throughout the evening several people asked me what I had learned on my trip. Each time, I had a different answer. I felt they were good answers, but none really felt like the definitive lesson of the experience.

Earlier, a man named John Maluda introduced himself to me. He was very interested to hear what I had learned and all about my experiences in the Air Force thus far. It wasn't until the end of the dinner I found out he's a retired major general and also Brig. Gen. Higby's mentor.

It's difficult to say what ranks or positions these people held, but that wasn't the meaning of the night. This was a gathering of friends. These weren't bosses and subordinates. These were the people behind the uniforms, shiny brass and stacks of stripes.

From coin-checking someone using their own coin, to Chief giving Brig. Gen. Higby a hard time for wearing a pink shirt (it's salmon, c'mon), everyone was chatting, reconnecting with old friends and generally causing a small ruckus.

An Airman's takeaway

For those who are expecting some worldview-changing knowledge to be dropped, I think it's more subtle than that.

What I learned is at the end of the day we're all just people.

Maluda didn't introduce himself as retired Maj. Gen. John Maluda to me because that's not what defines him. How he treats other people defines him, he explained.

As Chief emphasizes, a chief master sergeant is what he is, but not who he is. He's Harry Hutchinson. Ranks, positions and statuses are secondary facts about someone past how they act and what they can do to enrich those around them.

Maluda explained to me that I have two choices in my military career - become a chief master sergeant or commission and become a general officer. I don't have to make this decision today or tomorrow, but during my journey to either of those positions I can define who I am and those around me by leaving an everyday legacy.

Chief has spoken about this idea during some of our chats, and I think I'm finally starting to understand it.

He and Brig. Gen. Higby had an opportunity to bring me along and help me grow as an individual and Airman . . . so they did.

And while I may not be able to give that same experience to my fellow Airmen, I can certainly help in other ways.

My personal success, I think, can be easily measured not only by my accomplishments, but by those of the people around me. By helping others succeed, I can lay the groundwork of a lasting impression.

And it can all start with a simple handshake and introduction.

So now it's my turn to pay this opportunity forward - my name is Duncan and I'm looking forward to learning what I can do for you.