Airman of the Year Saves Lives, Prepares New Airmen for Service

By: Stephen Losey, AF Times, June 27, 2017 (Photo Credit: Andrew C. Patterson/Air Force)

Saving one person’s life usually is enough to establish someone as a hero.

Tech. Sgt. Megan Harper saved two lives in a single evening.

Harper is Air Force Times’ 2017 Airman of the Year due to her nearly 15 years of service excellence — from the battlefields of Iraq as a security forces airman, to her devotion to producing outstanding young airmen as a Military Training Instructor, to serving her community and saving lives at home.

Harper’s flight commander, Maj. Christopher Sweeney, said her passion and enthusiasm have made her respected by all as she trains and inspires her basic trainees. She leads from the front, with compassion, and doesn’t hesitate to do as much as she asks of her trainees.

“She’s an instructor who’s going to get out there and do it with you,” Sweeney said. “If it’s time to get down and do some push-ups, she’s going to get down and do them with you. She’s going to lead you through them.”

Harper, of Mesquite, Texas, is the child of two soldiers — her mother was in the medical field, and her father was a personnelist. She joined the Air Force in November 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks because, she said, “It was my turn to serve

“It was something that I was moved to do, and … be a part of that initiative to take that fight downrange as opposed to having it here on American soil,” Harper said. “When I went to the recruiter, they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I just want to kill terrorists.’ And they looked at me and said, ‘Oh, we have the job for you,’ and told me that security forces, if I wanted to deploy and have a weapon and get into the fight, that was going to be my best chance there.”

The recruiters steered Harper right, she said. She deployed five times — first to Kirkuk, Iraq, in fall 2003 for six months, and later to Balad, Iraq; Kuwait twice; and Manas, Kyrgyzstan.

'Constant action, constant alert'

In Kirkuk, Harper and her fellow airmen provided airbase defense, securing the perimeter and the entries to facilities. It was intense and dangerous, Harper said. Her base was mortared several times, and she was involved in firefights.

“Definitely grew me up,” Harper said. “It was almost constant action, and on constant alert. [But] I was actually more amped up to be part of the mission, as opposed to actually fearing anything.”

 

 Tech. Sgt. Megan Harper leads a small group discussion with airmen in basic military training. Photo Credit: Andrew C. Patterson/Air Force

In May 2004, Harper became the ninth woman in Air Force history to finish the elite security forces Phoenix Raven program, which specially trains airmen to provide security on-board aircraft while in flight — such as protecting the cockpit when foreign nationals are on board — and provide ground security when those airplanes land in dangerous areas. That training program was intensely physical, she said, teaching hand-to-hand combat and baton techniques, as well as undergoing air marshal training.

In 2014, Harper became an MTI and said it was the “absolute best decision I’ve ever made in my career.”

Today, she said, she doesn’t see the same “call to service” that there was right after 9/11. So when a young man or woman decides to take the oath and serve, she’s honored to help them become airmen.

“It’s incredibly important that we teach and we train and we mentor and inspire our replacements, because that’s who we’re handing the security of our nation over to in the future,” Harper said. “I’m incredibly humbled to be able to do that every day — to take someone from a civilian and teach them what it is to serve by that oath, and encompass and embody core values and commitment to service.”

Harper has trained 1,125 new airmen and graduated 22 flights since she became an MTI at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

Recently, Sweeney said, Harper was named a master military training instructor and received the blue rope showing she is among the top 10 percent of MTIs in the Air Force.

She also oversees 14 other instructors as an interim instruction supervisor — the only one in her unit who is not a master sergeant, although earlier this year she was selected for E-7. That promotion will take her past 20 years of service, though she wants to stay in uniform as long as possible.

“They’re going to have to force me out,” Harper said.

 

Tech. Sgt. Megan Harper, a military training instructor, works with airmen on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Harper is the 2017 Airman of the Year. Photo Credit: Andrew C. Patterson/Air Force

Saving lives

 On May 9, 2016, Harper’s quick thinking and dedication saved the lives of two people in separate incidents.

 First, she performed the Heimlich maneuver on a trainee who began choking in the dining facility at Lackland. Another trainee motioned to the instructors' table that the choking trainee needed help, and Harper and another instructor responded. The trainee was holding his neck and turning blue, Harper said, so she told him to stand up and that she was going to perform the Heimlich maneuver. She dislodged the stuck food with three forceful thrusts, and the trainee was fine.

Less than three hours later, as she was leaving base, Harper saw a pedestrian who had been struck by a motor vehicle and stopped to help. The young woman’s breathing and heart rate were shallow, she said, so Harper sprung into action.

She went back to her car and grabbed gloves, dressing and a few bandages, and light-up discs to set up around the area and redirect traffic. She then started to perform first aid. She took off her ABU blouse, balled it up, and slid it under the victim’s head to keep her stable in case her spine or neck was injured.

The victim was bleeding profusely from the back of her head, which was also swelling severely, so Harper applied pressure to try to stop the bleeding. When Harper was silent, the victim would start to violently shake, so she kept talking to the victim to calm her down, reassure her that an ambulance was coming, and kept her from going into shock.

Harper followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited until about 2:30 in the morning in case they got in touch with the woman’s family, so she could tell them what happened. Harper knows the woman survived the night and was in critical condition, but because of privacy rules, she never found out what happened to her afterwards.

For her actions, Harper received the Air Force Achievement Medal — though Sweeney said that due to Harper’s humility, other airmen had to drag the details of the incidents out of her.

Harper is also heavily involved in volunteer activities that support veterans, such as the Bataan Death March memorial race and drives to collect hygiene supplies for female veterans in San Antonio and uniforms for junior ROTC cadets.

She also works with Team Rubicon, a veterans organization that responds to natural disasters such as tornadoes and flooding, and programs to help underprivileged youth like the Juvenile Justice Center, an alternative school for at-risk young people who have been kicked out of school.

Harper also heads up a mentorship program for young LGBT troops coming in to the military. And later in June, Harper is scheduled to brief a two-star general on implementing transgender policies at basic training.

“She is knowledgeable, she is approachable, credible, all of those professionalism pieces you look for, that’s her,” Sweeney said. “She’s just hungry for it. She just really wants to be the best airman she could be.”

Schriever IMA Selected for Vital Command

By Airman William Tracy, 50th Space Wing Public Affairs, Published February 15, 2017 SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, CO

Lt. Col. Marcus Corbett, 50th Security Forces Squadron Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the commander, will soon command full time at one of the Air Force’s preeminent installations.

Corbett will be adopting a new role as 10th Security Forces Squadron commander at the U.S. Air Force Academy. While the IMA program provides the tools for reservists to operate in an active-duty environment, Corbett’s role differs from most IMA functions. He has been specially selected, among other candidates, to command an active-duty squadron, a rarity for the program.

Corbett was one of only five IMAs to make the candidate list.

“For an IMA to be selected, let alone meet the candidate list, is a big deal,” said Lt. Col. Michael Speck, 50 SFS commander, who knows firsthand the effectiveness of Corbett’s leadership through the IMA program, where he served in his place in times of absence. “Not all active-duty security forces officers are selected to command and it is a competitive process. For an IMA to be selected is an achievement, especially for a high profile unit such as the Academy.”

Corbett said he is excited to lead security personnel at the Academy, accepting the challenge of maintaining safety for an area which often hosts massive family gatherings, contingents of senior ranking officers and the president himself.

“It’s the most secure open base in the Air Force,” said Corbett. “There’s concerts, football games and athletic events. Then there’s events like Corona were generals across the Air Force show up, and graduation and parents weekend, where tens of thousands of people come into the base for a short period of time who don’t have identification or credentials. So, the challenge is conducting these happenings in an efficient process, while protecting the assets of the base.”

Corbett hopes to learn from the Airmen as well as share his expertise with them to help maintain the security of the base. 

“The beautiful thing is that I will have a squadron full of Airmen and personnel who have approached this challenge, and succeeded significantly at it,” said Corbett.

Speck is not surprised Corbett was selected to lead a major squadron such as the 10 SFS. 

“While I was TDY (Tour of Duty), he did a superb job leading the unit and communicating with the group and wing commander,” said Speck. “With the way the military has been heading in recent years, we rely more and more on our Reserve forces. Lieutenant Colonel Corbett is an outstanding officer and graduated commander in the Reserve force, and he will lead the 10 SFS extremely well paving the way for other active-duty command opportunities for reservists in the future.” 

The transition from Reserve to active duty can be difficult, but Corbett, who served on active duty for 11 years prior to going Reserve, is ready to embrace the lifestyle once again. 

“I am looking forward to it,” said Corbett. “The thing that I miss the most (about active duty) was being around Airmen on a daily basis. As a reservist, you have limited time at the unit.” 

The Academy is not an entirely new area for Corbett. A former graduate, it’s a return to familiar territory, although he said the base has changed. 

“They have some new structures and upgrades,” said Corbett. “They are constantly improving the infrastructure. Though there are still little things that bring back memories.” 

While his upcoming command approaches, Corbett and the Schriever Airmen he served with will not forget the memories and friendships made during his time here. 

“I’ve enjoyed Schriever, loved how it was quiet and secluded in a way,” said Corbett. “The 50th Security Forces Squadron is a great unit. From senior leadership all the way down to the Airmen. They have some phenomenal people, they are very professional and I thoroughly enjoyed my time here.” 

Speck is confident Corbett will continue to make a positive impact at the Academy.

“I’m sure he’ll find success, he will do a great job over there,” said Speck. “I’ve met many officers and enlisted, both active-duty and Reserve over the years, and I can definitely tell you that Lieutenant Colonel Corbett is a stellar officer.”

Changes of Commands at the 377SFG at Kirtland AFB, NM

By Dave Coulie

 

377 SFG Commander, Colonel Dustin Sutton passes the unit guidon to incoming 377WSSS Commander Lt Col Joseph (Jay) Parsons at Change of Command ceremony on 8 June 2017 at Kirtland AFB, NM. Lt Col Jay Meier is outgoing commander. Guidon bearer is CMSGT Clayton Watson.

 

 

377 SFG Commander, Colonel Dustin Sutton passes the unit guidon to incoming 377 Security Support Squadron Commander Major David Bullock at Change of Command ceremony on 20 June 2017 at Kirtland AFB, NM. Major Eric Judd is outgoing commander. Guidon bearer is SMSGT Regina Bailey.

 

377 SFG Commander, Colonel Dustin Sutton, accepts the unit guidon from outgoing 377 Security Support Squadron Commander, Major Eric Judd, at Change of Command ceremony on 20 June 2017 at Kirtland AFB, NM. The following day at another Change of Command Major Judd became commander of the 377 SFS replacing outgoing commander Major Brenton Pickrell. Guidon bearer is SMSGT Regina Bailey. 

In the month of June 2017 the 377th SFG at Kirtland AFB held Change of Command ceremonies for all three of its component units. Members of the Pete Magwood (New Mexico) Chapter attended all three ceremonies and were recognized and honored by the SFG Commander and all departing commanders for the great partnership between the Units and the Chapter. The Chapter members thanked the outgoing commanders for their strong support and warmly welcomed the new commanders."

What it's Really Like to Be A Dog Handler in the US Military

By: Ashley Bunch, June 1, 2017, Military Times (Photo Credit: Marine Corps)

The public face of the military working dog community mostly comes from TV and movies, which feature these dogs with impeccable detection skills, incredible obedience and lightning speed.

But what it takes to get there isn’t always depicted on screen.

With “Megan Leavey,” the Hollywood version of a real-life story of a Marine Corps dog handler’s heroism, set to hit theaters June 9, Military Times reached out to several service members who work with military working dogs, or MWDs, to see what it’s like to be a handler in today’s military.

“It is very hard for handlers to watch movies about MWDs nowadays because we are always their biggest critics,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Monica Rodriguez, who’s been a K-9 handler for four years. “As far as the mental and physical connection between the handlers and dogs, they are spot on. It is one of the most touching qualities about a dog team.

“The reports on the dog’s capabilities to find bombs or drugs are fairly modified due to obvious reasons, but it paints a good picture.”

Staff Sgt. Monica Rodriguez poses with her military working dog, John.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monica Rodriguez

From fitness to post-traumatic stress to retirement, here’s some more of that picture, courtesy of MWD handlers who are in, or recently out of, uniform.

50 pounds, plus pup

“Being physically fit in Security Forces K-9 is a crucial part of our job, especially in deployed locations,” said Rodriguez, who is stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, and has performed 15 presidential protection missions. “We have to have the strength to get ourselves and our dogs out of harm’s way. We have to be able to lift our dogs as well as wear 50-plus pounds of gear.”  

The dogs can weigh up to 100 pounds. And like their handlers, they have to stay in shape.  

“We have to be informed of different ways the environment can affect our MWDs and be prepared to respond in any given situation to care for our MWD,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Sara Lyons, a seven-year dog handler who works out five or six days a week while serving at Italy’s Aviano Air Base. “My MWD also gets a good amount of exercise during work by walking patrols and training.”

The fitness standards don’t change for male and female handlers — and neither does the weight of a 100-pound dog. That’s fine by the female handlers who were interviewed.

“As a female, especially in the military, you want to be treated as an equal,” said Heather Cortez, a former senior airman who handled dogs for four years in uniform and now works for a civilian K-9 company. “I've always been determined and independent, that is how I got to where I was in my career. No one helped me along the way or did my training or tests for me. I definitely had support over the years from family and friends, but everything that I accomplished up to that point in life I did on my own. And as a female you want your male counterparts to recognize that as well and treat you how they treat the guys.”

Then-Senior Airman Heather Cortez poses with her military working dog, Blecky. Cortez served as a military working dog handler for four years and now handles working dogs for a private-sector company.

Know your dog  

Preparing for physical challenges may be critical to the job, but managing a dog’s stress level, and knowing its warning signs, can be just as important. The dogs are military assets and can’t be treated like children, the handlers said, but they can break down, and their will to work can suffer — or disappear altogether.

“These dogs are affected by stress and PTSD the same way we are,” Rodriguez said. “Some of us can't stand to hear the sound of an explosion or a back fire to a vehicle. It’s the same with them. Some dogs may shy away and some dogs may [be aggressive] toward the handler or someone else. You never know until you experience it with them.”

Prep work can involve exposing the dogs to “stressful scenarios to help them combat future situations that might cause stress,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Stone, a kennel master at Joint Base Andrews. The dogs are put on a cycle that encourages “as much rest as possible,” Stone said, and veterinarians are on call when needed.

Despite the support network and advanced training methods, the basic challenge faced by handlers isn’t much different, at least on the surface, from any dog owner who’s tried to train their pooch.

“In my opinion, the most difficult part of the training process is not knowing what the dog is actually thinking,” Rodriguez said. “A simple task can take so long for the dog to learn, and for us humans it can get frustrating.”

However, the learning curve isn’t always bent toward the dogs.

“All handlers get the same training, but some are new to K-9,” Cortez explained. “Some dogs might be pretty advanced, but if their handler is new, they have to do baby steps along with them. That can also frustrate the dog because he or she may just feel like you are in their way.”

Saying goodbye

One common, but usually misstated, theme of MWD stories comes at the dog’s retirement. Often there is talk of reunion with a handler, but there’s rarely a mention about other handlers who worked with the dog at some point, and how they all want to take the dog home with them.

“A lot of reports will say an MWD got reunited with his or her handler, but what some people don't know is that dog has most likely had multiple handlers,” Cortez said. “It's kind of sad because you wait until the dog is able to retire, but in the end you most likely won't get to take the dog home with you because someone else will get the opportunity first.”

Staff Sgt. Sara Lyons, a military working dog handler with 31st Security Forces Squadron, takes her dog JD through an obstacle course May 16 at Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Ryan Brooks/Air Force

It’s a particularly difficult part of a job where building a relationship with your partner is essential to the mission.

“The K-9 career field is a bond with an MWD that you won't ever forget,” Lyons said. “There will be challenging days, but they are all worth it.”

The other dog handlers interviewed had a similar message. As Rodriguez put it, “Our job consists of blood, sweat and tears, but that's what makes us a special breed. We are very passionate about our jobs and our partners because they are not only working dogs, they are family. We literally trust them with our life.”

From the start of the shift, Cortez said, “when you get your dog from the kennel, you make his or her whole day.” It creates a relationship that goes beyond the job, she said — though some things are better left at the office.

“I have two cats at home that I adore very much,” she said.

Silent Sentinels: Gate Guards, Our First Line of Defense

By A1C Breanna Carter, 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs, 4 May 2017

 

Airman 1st Class Ramon Cruz, 90th Security Forces Squadron installation entry controller, makes a phone call at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., May 1, 2017. The gate guards have frequent contact with the law enforcement desk, which provides them with information and help to further defend the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by A1Cl Breanna Carter)

 

Airman 1st Class Zarquis Butler, 90th Security Forces Squadron installation entry controller, salutes an officer at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., May 1, 2017. Defenders must render proper customs and courtesies while on shift. Defenders at the gate are the first line of defense for the installation. (U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Breanna Carter)

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, WY  

I wake up every morning, get ready and drive to the base for work. This is my every day routine and once I arrive to the base, I patiently wait in line to hand my ID to the gate guard. I then drive through without a second thought about the daily challenges these men and women have to overcome.

I recently had the opportunity to step back from my daily practices and see first-hand the routine of our defenders at the gate. It begins early in the morning, before the sun has begun to rise, at guard mount. This is pretty much a formation where defenders check their equipment, conduct roll call and receive their duty assignments. 

After that, they’re ready to relieve those at the gate and begin their long shift.

“We’re on duty for at least 12 hours and we’re posted here about three times a week,” said Airman 1st Class Zarquis Butler, 90th Security Forces Squadron installation entry controller.

There are many challenges our defenders face at the gate, and if you’ve been at F.E. Warren long enough, then you know one of those challenges is weather. After about 45 minutes of standing at the gate my fingers were already numb and the wind in my face was intolerable, but our defenders were unbothered and set on maintaining their bearing and staying alert.

“The weather can be tough to deal with and the traffic gets backed up past the highway, but we try to keep a positive attitude,” Butler said. “We’re the first line of defense to the base and the first face that people see before entering, so knowing the importance of what we do is good motivation.”

One thing I quickly noticed is that people can be very upset about the time it takes to get through the gate.

“Sometimes people get mad at us because they feel we’re taking too long, but I have to remain calm and continue to go through my procedures,” Butler said. “I check IDs against a list of people that aren’t allowed on base or shouldn’t be driving. There are also times where we have to perform random vehicle inspections. It’s important that I don’t get distracted by those that are upset because my priority is the safety of this installation and its personnel.”

Though there are challenges, there are also good days according to Airman 1st Class Ramon Cruz, 90th SFS installation entry controller. It doesn’t take much to make their day.

“I’m a people person so I love being out here,” Cruz said. “There have been times where the command chief came out to help us and it makes you feel good to know leadership cares. There’s also times where people will drop off donuts, bagels, pizza and sometimes hot chocolate when it’s cold outside,” Cruz said. “It feels good to know people think about us.”

So there you have it. When you get used to driving through the gate, it’s easy to see our defenders simply as a checkpoint before getting to your destination, but try to keep in mind how essential they are to the mission and defending this base day in and day out.

 

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