Chalk Talk: Career assistance can lead to success

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
(This interview is Part 4 of an open-ended series featuring question-and-answer sessions with members of Team Keesler.)

Master Sgt. Brian Johns has a big task to fulfill. As the 81st Training Wing's career assistance advisor and First Term Airman Center instructor, he spends a week of hands-on time with all the first-term Airmen that come to Keesler. For many new Airmen, this may be one of their first extended encounters with a senior NCO.

They shouldn't fret, though - Johns is there to ensure their success, whether it's during FTAC or later in their careers. I've talked with Johns several times since my initial meeting with him during my FTAC class in September 2014. He's given me the heads-up on a few interesting stories that I've covered, so I figured it's time to turn the tables and do a story on him.

Tell me about your background in the Air Force.

Johns: I've been in just over 18 years.  I came in open general. The Air Force made me a medic when I came in back in 1993. It's been a very rewarding career; I've had some amazing opportunities. I've taught technical school and worked on the C-STARS (Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills) program at St. Louis University, a deployment training platform. Then in 2013, I was fortunate enough to become a career advisor. It's one of my favorite jobs.

So you're a medic by trade. What are some of the duties you've had?

Johns: I've done a bunch of stuff as a medic. I started as a medical surgeon technician, moved to an intensive care unit, separated from the Air Force in 1996, and worked as an ambulance guy and in a civilian emergency room. When I came back into active duty in 2000, I was a same-day surgery medic and then moved to family practice.  After that I had the opportunity to work in public health assessment when it first came online, then I taught technical school, went to C-STARS and worked in women's health. It was great working in a civilian place, teaching military members trauma skills right before they deployed. C-STARS was definitely my favorite assignment.

What's your most memorable day from C-STARS?

Johns: One of the most memorable days there started out as a pity party for me. I had just looked at my scores and found out I missed the cut for master sergeant by 0.34 points, then the trauma pager went off. I looked at my buddy and asked what his pager said. We had a serious trauma coming in - bilateral amputee from crush injuries. I couldn't be in pity-party mode anymore; we had to get across the street and save this person's life.

Nothing we had in the emergency room would stop the bleeding. I remembered we had some combat application tourniquets in the simulation lab, and asked if I should go get them. The surgeon said 'Go!', so I ran over there and grabbed the CATs. When I got back, we got them applied and we had a pulse back within 30-45 seconds. We got her stabilized then up to the operating room. Afterwards, I realized that's what we're really here to do, and that's all that matters.

Wow. So tell me about your deployments.

Johns: I've been on one deployment; it was a humanitarian mission on my very first tour in 1994 called Operation Sea Signal. There were 50,000 or so Haitians fleeing a military coup, so our Coast Guard and Navy would get them picked up and bring them to our camp at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where we provided an air-transportable hospital and shelter. I was a 19-year-old airman first class running camp clinics. I was seeing things I never thought I'd be able to experience. It was amazing to be able to experience another culture.

What's been a struggle for you during your career?

Johns:  Myself. That's my biggest struggle. In 1996 I voluntarily separated under force management. I probably had the worst attitude of any Airman you would've met in your life. I knew everything, I was right about everything, and when nobody stopped me from getting out, not even my supervisors, I just took it as these guys didn't know what they were missing. They just said, "Hey, good luck! We'll be at your going-away."
It didn't take me long after that to figure out I had a lot of growing up to do, and that I was the biggest problem I had. I was fortunate enough that the Air Force let me back in so that I could overcome what I had given up on.  Now the job that I have allows me to talk to Airmen that might be in the same situation I was in. I can tell them, "Hey, think about it. Take a minute and get a different perspective so you don't make the same mistakes I made."

Did you ever see yourself as a senior NCO?

Johns: No, never did. When I made technical sergeant, I thought I had made it -- I thought I had arrived. (Laughs)

What's your favorite part of being a master sergeant?

Johns: It's probably the opportunity to interact with Airmen. That's why I love the job I'm in so much right now. I get to interact with Airmen from all over the wing. It gives me a chance to share my story, and maybe catch someone when they're in a place where they don't know if this is the right choice. I can show them that if I can make it, they can make it.

I learned from FTAC that you're pretty big on heritage and history. What drew you into that?

Johns: I've always been a history buff, but it was a conversation with Chief Master Sgt. Gerardo Tapia, our Air Education and Training Command command chief, that drove it home about why it's important to embrace our heritage. Once I let that talk sink in, it really started to resonate with me. Yeah, it may not matter where the ninth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force grew up, but the legacy, programs and policies he left behind for our Airmen and Air Force is important.

There's definitely a link to the past with what we do today - people get called 'Airman Snuffy' as a derogatory term, but do we even know where that comes from or why? Well, that guy earned the Medal of Honor. It's important we know that stuff. The link helps us have a better appreciation for what we do and how we act. I didn't live through any conflicts, but reading and sharing the stories of Airmen that came before that did and maybe paid the ultimate price - those are the things we need to celebrate and understand.

I've heard your name a few times around base since I've been here, and everyone that brings you up seems to say the same thing - you're what a good NCO should be. Is there a secret to being a good NCO?

Johns: Wow, that's a great compliment. I just think that for me, the examples set for me during my Air Force career showed me how to be. I still remember things my very first supervisor told me. He was a buck sergeant at the time. The things he said to me didn't resonate then, and that had to do with my maturity level. But once I got my act together, I realized that he set the example early on.

It's about modeling and credibility. You have to have both - the guys that picked me up when I came back in really set it up. I had a good foundation, but these guys built from there and showed me what it takes to be a good NCO. You have to be accountable, credible, and most importantly, you have to take care of your Airmen.

I've got one last question for you, but it's an easy one. Where are you going to call home once you retire?

Johns: Definitely in Ocean Springs, even if that means I have to do another tour to make it happen. Like my son says, we're going to be O.S. Greyhounds. (Laughs)