TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – He is a husband, father and an Airman with more than a decade of military service. His office is often the friendly confines of a KC-10 Extender, flying thousands of feet above Earth.
He is Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Cook, 6th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator instructor. He is responsible for ensuring 42 Airmen are fully qualified and mission ready.
“I train our new boom operators on refueling operations, ensuring they’re capable of refueling U.S. and NATO aircraft and proficient with loading cargo,” said Cook, a native of Orlando, Florida. “I also ensure boom operators who are fully qualified maintain their qualifications so we can complete our mission successfully.”
Cook joined the Air Force in September 2006 and served six years in the security forces career field where he deployed three times in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. He was also one of four Airmen selected to teach urban warfare and combat skills to members of the Kuwaiti military, and served as a .50-caliber gunner on convoy security teams working with the U.S. Army in Shindand, Afghanistan.
All of those deployments were stressful, especially those moments where Cook provided security for a total of 119 combat patrols, he said.
“There were only four Airmen on the convoy team representing our service and we wanted to do well,” said Cook. “We were responsible for everyone in the convoy and snipers would often target heavy gunners. We patrolled a 50-mile radius. Our mission was to build relations with the Afghan people while providing a show of force when needed.”
In 2013, Cook was approved to retrain into the in-flight refueler career field. After completing the Basic Boom Operators Fundamentals Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, followed by the Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape course, he arrived at Travis Air Force Base, California, in April 2014.
He deployed for the first time as a boom operator four months later in support of OEF and Operation Inherent Resolve. During that deployment, he flew 20 combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan and refueled 108 aircraft. His efforts enabled 12 strikes against anti-coalition forces.
Cook returned from his most recent deployment in March, where he reached a significant milestone; 101 combat missions and earned his fifth air medal.
“I feel like I’m part of an elite group after completing 100 combat missions in the air,” said Cook. “I have over 100 convoys, over 100 combat missions in the air…now I just have to do something in space.”
Master Sgt. Lucero Stockett, 6th ARS boom operator superintendent, said Cook is a role model for his peers.
“Sergeant Cook is beyond the model Airman,” he said. “He leads by example and is an extremely talented instructor. Within the squadron, he makes sure his Airmen are always taken care of and epitomizes the role of a non-commissioned officer.”
“He has vision and passion for what it takes to make the perfect Airman,” said Stockett. “Without Cook, the 6th ARS would not be where it currently is. He contributes a lot to the 6th ARS family and to the Air Force.”
Taking care of Airmen is important, said Cook. So important, he volunteered to become a Master Resiliency Training instructor in July 2016 to help Airmen get through difficult times.
“I wanted to have the opportunity to affect the base,” said Cook. “I know people have gone through things worse than I did. Many had to persevere through struggles growing up and may not understand how to deal with that today. Many people have been through struggles in life and may feel like the whole world is collapsing on them. I wanted to give people an outlet and show them how to deal with those difficult situations.”
To date, Cook has led 20 MRT classes and taught more than 400 Airmen resiliency skills. In each class he shares what it was like growing up with a single mother in a poor neighborhood.
“We lived in a tough neighborhood and my mother worked three jobs to support us,” said Cook. “She did everything she could for us. She would take us to the dollar store and get us something small, just so we could have some hope.”
Eventually, Cook started stealing to help his family.
“I know what it’s like to have nothing, to not have Christmas presents or have food on Thanksgiving,” he said. “I wasn’t stealing because I was a bad person. I wanted to take all the stress off of my mother. I felt like, if she didn’t have to spend money on me, I’d be OK. I would steal clothes so she wouldn’t have to buy me school clothes and I was always fighting.”
Cook was arrested multiple times between the ages of 13 and 17 for a variety of assault-related incidents. After he was arrested for an assault in the summer of 2005 while trying to protect his sisters, a former Marine working in the Orange County Jail encouraged him to change his life and consider serving in the U.S. military.
“He told me, ‘To be a man you don’t have to try and be bad,’” said Cook. “He said, ‘Being a man is about protecting your family and honoring your mother. Don’t be a stereotype.’”
Cook heeded those words and is now a veteran of 11 years of Air Force service, the proud father of a one-year-old boy and will soon celebrate his eighth anniversary with his wife, Tech. Sgt. Asia Cook, 60th Maintenance Group NCO-in-charge of C-17 Globemaster III maintenance training.
Today, he uses his experiences to help others, including the homeless. He recently coordinated a quarterly volunteer event with Mission Solano, an organization dedicated to providing shelters and services for homeless people in Solano County. Every three months Cook and dozens of Airmen from the 6th ARS volunteer at a Mission Solano shelter in a variety of capacities including assembling beds, sorting clothing, serving food and cleaning the grounds.
“There are kids out there in homeless shelters who need good role models,” said Cook. “One of those kids could grow up to be a pilot, a sensor operator or be the person who changes the Air Force for the better 15 years down the line.”
“If I can change one person’s life and give them a gift or feed them, I feel complete, I feel like I’m receiving my blessing,” he said. “Life’s about what you put into it. I want to do my part so when I do leave this Earth, my son, he’ll be proud of me and hopefully I have a positive impact on my Airmen in the process.”
According to Lt. Col. Justin Longmire, 6th ARS commander, Cook has had a significant impact on many Airmen.
“He has had a bigger impact on my unit's climate and culture than any other Airman,” said Longmire. “A year ago, we were looking for a unit charity to partner with. An organization that could benefit from a lot of strong and capable Airmen doing lots of work for them on a regular basis and at the same time, provide some perspective and mentorship opportunities to our members.”
“Cook personally reviewed dozens of charities before recommending Mission Solano,” said Longmire. “At least once every quarter, he coordinates a unit visit to Mission Solano where we serve meals, organize their thrift shop, assemble furniture, clean a mobile kitchen, pick up the grounds, and do any other manual labor they ask of us. He mentors a different set of NCOs every time. He's single-handedly leading the way with resiliency, mentoring, community relations and community service in the unit, which is absolutely amazing.”
Cook was nominated for the 2017 Spirit of Hope Award and the 2017 Blacks in Government Meritorious Service Award for his efforts serving the community.
He said his passion for helping people is endless and he has some advice for America’s Airmen.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said. “I wasn’t a good person growing up, but you can turn that around, especially if you have mentors and supervisors that care about you. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. How you bounce back from those mistakes defines who you are.”