JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
After more than a dozen years as a 433rd Training Squadron military training instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Reserve Citizen Airman Senior Master Sgt. Jason Wagner is moving on.
Conflicted, he's excited about a new opportunity at a new base and a new career field (as well as promotion to chief master sergeant), but reluctant to leave a team he helped develop, a unit where he's grown as a leader, teammates who are more than family, and the excitement and satisfaction of preparing Air Force trainees for the greatest "job" they'll ever have.
Wagner, who grew up in an Air Force family, lived in California, Kansas, Germany, and Canada and developed a passion for learning about and getting to know and understand people from every walk of life. It's a passion that would stand him in good stead throughout his career.
The former security forces Airman committed to the Air Force while a junior in high school, and the Friday before Sept. 11, 2001, he received his first official orders. Tuesday, 9/11, the terrorist attacks drove him to try to accelerate his report date.
"I know I annoyed my recruiter, trying to get him to move my entry date up," Wagner said. "I took my exams early, completed all graduation requirements early. People asked me if I still planned to go. Of course, I was still going, but the 'why' changed."
Reflecting on his career, he mused how 9/11 changed everything he and his peers expected their careers to be, drawing a parallel to how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything his sister, who graduated from high school this year, and her peers expected adult life to be like.
At some point, significant events are going to intrude on your plans, though, so he encourages others to be open to opportunities inherent in those events – and, in fact, accepted that guidance from his own mentors on more than one occasion.
Becoming an MTI wasn't part of his original plan, but his career was marked by unexpected situations that ultimately brought him to this time and place.
After completing security forces tech training, he and one other graduate didn’t have orders. After waiting forever (it seemed), personnel contacted them to find out who they were and why they were using a meal card in the dining facility every day. Somewhere along the way, their records - every document - went missing.
The result was a new base for Wagner, who had been scheduled for Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. His new assignment was Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, where he spent six years, including three deployments.
Every effort to get a permanent change of station from Cannon to anywhere was unsuccessful, and after six years of long "cop" hours and three major deployments, with no end in sight, Wagner and his family decided it was time to separate from the Air Force.
Both he and his wife were teaching for a living when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After she spent six weeks in intensive care, he realized that they were not going to make it.
In 2009, Wagner accepted an Active Guard Reserve military training instructor position at the 433rd. It wasn't part of his plan, but he embraced the opportunity, and the result was more emotional and mental growth than he could have anticipated.
Reserve service represented the opportunity to stay in place long enough to put down roots and spend time with family.
"Dad was my biggest fan," he said. "He was more excited about every success than I was, and he posted videos and pictures of everything I did."
Although his dad passed away two years ago, he saw Wagner earn his training instructor badge and hat, watched him march countless flights across the bomb run, celebrated his promotions and reveled when his son was welcomed into the exclusive Master Military Instructor “Blue Rope” Association.
Not all experiences were positive, but those that were not still brought opportunity, education and experience.
In 2012, as Wagner approached the end of the traditional four-year special duty tour, he faced a dilemma. He could go, as eventually, all must, or he could stay and try to be part of a cultural transformation in the enlisted training environment.
"There was a growing number of us who didn't agree with the idea that you have to treat people as if they're subhuman," he said. "There was an entrenched toxic culture, I had a chance to be part of reimagining basic military training, and I wanted to stay."
While working with like-minded members to heal the BMT culture and create a growth environment, Wagner also did an internship with a local behavior analysis unit, which helped him complete his bachelor's degree in psychology, and helped him sort out his thoughts on the problems he had seen in BMT.
Having been part of improving the culture, and with two tours behind him, Wagner was ready to move on. Unfortunately, an enlisted member with a 7-level in his or her field automatically drops to a 3-level after six years out of the field.
Regular Air Force (active duty) members rarely face that situation because they are limited by automatic personnel systems to the four-year tour (with extension possible for some), followed by an Air Force-directed move.
"We don’t have a mechanism to automatically pull a member out of the MTI special duty, so you have to aggressively manage your career and have a plan for your next position," Wagner said. "As a master, I applied for six security forces units, but it was too late – with a 3-level, I was no longer eligible.
It isn't easy to walk away from a job you love, Wagner knows.
"Special duties – MTI, first sergeant – are supposed to be special. You will miss out on so many other opportunities if you try to turn a special duty into a whole career," he cautioned.
Wagner encourages those considering applying for MTI duty to do it.
"What we get to do here, we will look back on it fondly for the rest of our lives. We see 35 to 40 thousand Airmen every year, Airmen who are the perfect cross-section of America. Each one has a different reason to join, and every reason is a good reason," he said. "You could be an integral part of their career, a memory they will remember forever, and they will be a part of your Air Force legacy."
Knowing his MTI chapter was coming to a close, Wagner wanted to push one more flight, and his final flight experience has been nearly as unconventional as his first.
As a new MTI, having completed all the training and hands-on requirements to earn his MTI hat and "cookie" (badge), he was ready for the final step: to march his graduating flight down the bomb run for the pass in review. But he didn't have a flight – they had graduated two weeks before him.
"I had to 'borrow' a flight from a teammate, and honestly, he wasn't happy about it – he worked hard for the honor – but he knew I needed that final step," Wagner said, laughing at the memory. "He even sent me a 'motivational' message through the dorm chief."
Now Wagner's training his final flight at a time when his squadron is making Air Force history. In May, the 433rd TRS was asked to pull all Reserve MTIs out of the regular Air Force squadrons to come ‘home’ and push flights for the 433rd as it accepted a full share of BMT production responsibility.
But Wagner is also preparing to leave, so he's been pushing his flight while squeezing leave into the mix, and building his personal business (in real estate) before he leaves his Active Guard Reserve position in San Antonio, where he and his family have made a life, and heads for a traditional Reserve chief master sergeant position at an unfamiliar base in another state supporting an operational flying mission.
This summer, Wagner will report to the 913th Airlift Group at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, to be the superintendent.
"To be honest, I'm terrified," he said. "But this opportunity will not come again, and I am blessed and excited to 'support the four fans of freedom.' There's a place on my wall for my hat; that's been my career for 12 years. But this next thing, superintendent of an airlift group that represents the Reserve to an entire state, this is an incredible opportunity, and I'm ready."
Being an MTI is hard. It's stressful. It's amazing. It's crazy. It will break your heart and it will fill you with joy.
"Being an MTI is everything and nothing you ever thought, all at the same time, and I would not trade the experience for anything in the world," Wagner said.