JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
In December 1965, R. Thomas Coons left Chesterfield County, Virginia, to join the U.S. Air Force. He didn’t know a career as a military training instructor would be his calling.
Coons had no idea he would lead Airmen, create programs for future instructors and would instruct not only enlisted Airmen but officers as well. Most of all, Coons didn’t know the great love he would have for being an MTI in the Air Force as he donned his uniform for the last time July 30.
“I wanted to put the uniform somewhere where others could see it,” Coons said. “I talked to my son about giving it to him. He said, ‘Dad, what am I going to do with it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, what are you going to do with it?’”
Ultimately, Coons decided upon the perfect place to lay his uniform to rest – the Air Force Airman Heritage Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. With a phone call to Tracy English, 37th Training Wing historian, plans were made.
“For Coons, the emphasis was knowing his story will be recorded and remembered for future generations,” English said. “The Airman Heritage Museum only takes a limited number of uniform donations. It’s the unusual items and very specific pieces of paraphernalia that interest us.”
Coons started his career after basic military training with an administration job in Amarillo, Texas. The Air Force then sent him to Wiesbaden Air Base, Germany. A few years later, he returned to the former Lackland Air Force Base and became an MTI.
An MTI’s campaign hat is different from all others used in the Air Force, awarded after completing the MTI program. Coons' hat is when and where it all began for him.
“It’s where it all started, at Lackland,” Coons said. “I learned to enjoy being in the Air Force and learned how good it feels to do what I do.”
Some of Coons’ noteworthy accomplishments were creating the first student study guide used by trainees, developing a reception center location, and helping organize the Thanksgiving dinner program for trainees in basic during the holidays.
Coons’ assignments took him from Lackland to Germany, Southeast Asia, Alabama, and back to Texas at the former Randolph Air Force Base. No matter the location, Coons applied the skills he learned as an MTI. He instructed officers and developed a major command inspector general team while stationed at the Air University in Montgomery, Alabama.
He retired as a senior master sergeant in 1989 and admits there were hard times during his career. But one thing always drove him forward, enlistment after enlistment – his love for the job.
“If you can whistle when you come to work and whistle at the end of the day when you go home – reenlist. If you can’t, get out,” he said.
Being an MTI not only taught Coons about how to get trainees through basic training; he also learned much more, professionally, and as a person.
“You learn people,” he said. “You get to see different kinds of people and we’re all alike, as far as I’m concerned.”
What Coons learned while being an MTI carried him throughout his career. He didn’t view it as a job given to him. He regarded it as a profession – one of the most honorable things he could do.
“I’m doing something for these young folks that’s going to carry them for the rest of their lives,” Coons said. “It’s not a short-term thing.”
However, being an MTI wasn’t easy. “You’ve got to want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, don’t come down, don’t even apply. It’s probably going to be one of the hardest things – physically and mentally – you’re going to do in your Air Force career.”
Coons said he feels the same way today as he did when he was pushing flights.
“I told them then and I would tell them today … you’re not going to come into my Air Force unless you get through me. You get through me, we’ll send you on,” he said. “I don’t regret a minute of it. As hard as it got sometimes, you still did what you had to do to make them become a member of the United States Air Force.
“You see the recruits when they get off the bus, and about 40 days later, you see them shipping out and they are as sharp as a tack,” Coons said. “You know you had something to do with it. You can’t buy that feeling.”
The Airman Heritage Museum is open to the public and all military ID cardholders, within base access requirements. The museum includes displays about the history of Lackland, enlisted heritage, the Air Force uniform, and basic training from 1933-present.
The museum is located at 2051 George Ave, building 5206. Admission is free. Museum hours are Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is closed Sunday through Tuesday.
Information about the Airman Heritage Museum and the Airman Heritage Training Complex is at www.airmenheritage.com. To schedule a tour of the museum or make an appointment to view the archival collections, contact the museum at 210-671-3055 or email@example.com.