TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – If the U.S. Air Force was a house, the enlisted and officer corps could be seen as the two pillars that keep it standing. Through the respective work of each group of Airmen, the Air Force is able to maintain its effectiveness, yet while both groups are vital to the house’s overall integrity, many enlisted look to the officer pillar as a way of transcending the work they’re capable of doing in their current roles.
“I wanted to be a leader,” said 2nd Lt. Rachel Brinegar, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs officer. “I was a non-commissioned officer and loved being there for my troops as well as watching them go on to accomplish amazing things during their time in the military. I wanted to continue to do that in an officer capacity.”
For Brinegar, her transition meant more than rank—it represented an opportunity to not only challenge herself professionally, but provide for her Airmen in a way that went beyond the mentorship and supervisory capacity that she was afforded as a technical sergeant.
“Finding that balance between the roles of front-line supervisor and one concerned more with oversight was a big change in mindset,” she said. “The benefit of making the leap from the enlisted side is being able to recall what I wanted from my officers as an NCO in charge and cultivate a mindset and culture that gives my enlisted the respect and confidence I would want were I still in their boots.”
Having the authority to impact policy that affects Airmen in lasting and impactful ways isn’t the only reason enlisted are taking their shot at becoming officers. There are many who’ve accrued skills and education throughout their enlisted careers and have grown into a position where their status as an enlistee would put limits on how and to what extent they’d be able to exercise their expertise.
Capt. Erick Jackson is the 60th Medical Operations Squadron physical therapy element chief and director of clinical education. During his time in the Air National Guard, Jackson would go on to attain both a bachelor’s and doctorate degree despite a hectic schedule and a myriad of personal hardships including a hesitance to stay within his original course of study.
“I worked as a personal trainer at several gyms while attending school full time and spending what little remaining time working my way up the ranks in the ANG,” he said. “I graduated with a bachelor’s in Education and Training and Development in 1997 and while I attempted to work in that career field, I realized that wearing a shirt and tie everyday was not for me.”
Jackson continued to improve himself, reaching the rank of master sergeant by age 28 and graduating with a doctorate in physical therapy soon after. Even while his professional life proceeded at almost breakneck speeds, his personal life would sustain a world-changing perspective change in the form of a close brush with death.
“In 2006, I experienced an almost fatal motorcycle accident that laid me out in an intensive care unit for a week,” said Jackson. “To this day, I still suffer from a nonunion clavicle fracture from the accident. It was at this point I realized I needed to live my life and do whatever it is I wanted to do because tomorrow was not promised.”
It was with this recommitted motivation that Jackson tirelessly refined his officer training school package, intent on utilizing his extensive physical therapy knowledge to its utmost potential.
Eventually, after years of struggle and work, hardships and setbacks, Jackson received a call at the veterans affairs hospital he was working at informing him that he had landed a Commission Officer Training date. News that Jackson said moved him to tears.
“I literally teared up from joy,” he said. “People were looking at me, but I didn’t care. My co-workers knew something great had just happened because I was smiling and crying at the same time.”
Brinegar, likewise, felt as though the news came in a dream.
“When I finally commissioned, it felt like it wasn’t real,” said Brinegar, who received her commission through the senior leader enlisted commissioning program. “It felt like such a long journey from when I was selected in March 2016 to when I graduated officer training school in August 2018 that when it finally happened, it was somewhat surreal.”
Despite the success Brinegar and Jackson had on the enlisted side, as well as their respect for the enlisted side both as an institution and as a crucial force within the Air Force, they both look forward to the good they’re committed to doing within their current taskings.
Throughout her transition between the two sides of the house, Brinegar has held firm to the idea that led her to want to commission in the first place: the belief that there is always more to learn; to know and do better.
“I learned early on that Airmen of all ranks have something to bring to the table, and leaders at every level need to be open to what they have to say,” she said. “As someone who has retrained as a staff sergeant and now retraining as a lieutenant, my Airmen are far more knowledgeable than I am in the career field, and I can learn an immense amount from them.”
"You have to lead by example," added Jackson. "There are no perfect leaders, we all stumble and face our own sets of challenges. In my case, I've found that if it weren't for all the challenges and failures that I learned valuable lessons from, I wouldn't have come as far or be the leader I am today.”
For more information on the commissioning process, call the Travis education office at 707-424-3444.