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Home : News : News
NEWS | July 25, 2023

30 Years: AETC command chief retires from First Command

By Tech. Sgt. Keith James Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson, command chief of Air Education and Training Command, closes out his 30-year career on July 28 in the same place where every enlisted Airmen begins their Air Force journey: The First Command.

In June 1993, then-trainee Thompson, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, arrived at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to complete Air Force Basic Military Training, before shipping out to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, for technical training school, where he learned how to be a helicopter maintenance craftsman.

Retraining after his first enlistment to become a flight engineer, Thompson would accumulate more than 3,650 hours as an instructor and evaluator flight engineer in the C-130E and MC-130H aircraft, including 500 hours of combat time.

Throughout his career, Thompson would serve as in a multitude of roles such as a NCO-in-charge, flight chief, evaluator and functional manager, superintendent, senior enlisted leader and finally being selected as the command chief of AETC.

As the command chief, Thompson serves as the senior advisor to the commander on all enlisted matters, including all issues affecting the command's mission and operations, and the readiness, training, utilization, morale, technical and professional development, and quality of life of all enlisted members in the organization.

Thompson answered a few questions and provided his thoughts, ahead of his retirement ceremony this week.

Q: From an Airman’s first steps into the Air Force to the day an Airman separates or retires, AETC has a hand in developing Airmen for their current job and the next fight. How does AETC provide Airmen a solid foundation and then development throughout their careers?

Thompson: One part of the answer we have to talk about is the development piece. Development is the sum of education, training, and experience. It’s not one of those it’s not two of those, it’s all three of those. You can learn about something, and you can learn how to do that something, but until you actually apply it and gain experience that development is not complete.

If you were to look at the spectrum of development and you put education on one side, training in the middle and then experience on the other side you would see that AETC has the predominant responsibility on the education side and about half of the training side, and then your MAJCOM has the other part of the training, which is mostly on-the-job training and a whole ton of the experience part.

So, teamwork between AETC and the rest of the Air Force is important. At AETC we do provide that foundational education and some foundational training, but that has to blend appropriately with OJT and everyday experience for that development to be complete. I think the beauty of the way our system works is that when you come into the Air Force we start you with that education and that training in the beginning and we get you on that path that our Air Force values.

If it’s done right, it will blend into that OJT and continued development. Then periodically you will come back to AETC whether that is in your occupational role or in your foundational role to receive more education and training throughout your entire career.

Q: What would you say was one of the most challenging obstacles of your career? What would you say to our modern Airmen about the challenges they face in the future?

Thompson: Where I fit into the organization and how could I best contribute to the organization has always been the challenge I’ve struggled with the most as an Airman.

What do I need to do better, what do I need to know that I am not aware of to be successful, and how do I fit into the grand scheme of things, are some of the things I believe our Airmen struggle with today.

In today’s era of strategic competition our near peer adversaries of Russia and China are different kinds of competitors and are nothing like who we have faced before. I believe our Airmen will struggle to understand their role in how do they fit on the team, their role with what will be required of them to accomplish the mission, and just simply what this competition or conflict will look like.

We as an Air Force have complicated that a little bit with terms like agile combat employment and multi-capable Airmen. Due to not everybody knowing how they will fit into that role or understanding how they will be used causes some challenges for how Airmen train, be ready and prepare for those roles.

I would tell them that we have always been multi-capable Airmen. The training and education Airmen receive coupled with experience received on the job has prepared us to successfully complete and adapt to a multitude of missions.

Q: AETC’s decision to fight through COVID-19 proved pivotal in ensuring the Air Force continued to assess and recruit candidates. Why was that so important?

Thompson: When COVID-19 was ramping up, the Air Force and the other branches were trying to make some really hard decisions on how we continue initial entry training and skills training or even do we continue to assess people into the service. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps had decided to take a pause for a couple of months. At the time, Lt. Gen. (Brad) Webb, AETC commander was inclined to be supportive alongside the other branches. However, Gen. Stephen (Seve) Willson, vice chief of staff called him and said, “Whatever you do, don’t stop training.”

I think that it’s important when you look at how our Air Force assesses people and the way our training pipelines work. We are running at, or near maximum capacity, most of the time. We have the ability to train about 40,000 people a year and train just under that in BMT. You can see really quickly that every week we don’t assess a new class, train a new class and graduate a new class, there is no capacity on the backside to make that up.

In the strategic picture, it becomes important for AETC to figure out how to continue the mission of assessing, training and completing initial skills training in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that at the time, the severity of it was unknown. General Webb decided that we were going to “fight through this” and take it on like it was a contingency or deployment operation and we were all going to figure it out together.

General Webb stated that it wasn’t going to be him or other commanders trying to figure it out alone, but it was going to take the NCOs and SNCOs. It was through this collaboration that the command got after the mission of “fighting through”.

Q:  What advice would Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson have for Airman Basic Erik Thompson? What is your message for America’s sons and daughters thinking about joining the Air Force?

Thompson: Airman Basic Thompson would need to hear these three things. One, breathe through your nose. Two, be a good critical thinker. Three, enjoy being in the moment.

Be proud of what you’re doing. Be proud of the commitment you’re making and the steps that you are taking to join this small group of folks who have sworn to uphold and defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and who have chosen to be an American service member fighting in the forces which guard our country and defend our way of life. What a noble and awesome profession you have chosen. Be proud of that and don’t ever let anyone take that from you. And if you’re going to do it, do it all the way.

Q:  How has watching BMT graduations and training first-hand over the years reminded you of your time days after entering the Air Force?

Thompson: Being able to watch BMT is one of the guilty pleasures I have had as the AETC command chief. If you haven’t been to a BMT graduation recently, you should go! It’s amazing to watch and if it doesn’t stir some great memories or make some great sense of pride, I would honestly be worried about you.

I recall going to basic military training on a visit with a group of about 100 command chief candidates. As we pull up to the parade field, there were three military training instructors to greet and escort us. As the bus came to a stop, I watched 99 other chiefs and then myself check to make sure our uniforms looked right, all their pockets were down, hats fixed and no strings, ensuring we looked presentable in front of three technical sergeants. That’s the type of behavioral response being back at BMT invokes and creates.

I watch people’s reactions every single time I go back to BMT. You can see that people are visibly moved by the events going on at BMT. They are transported back in time, or they understand the gravity of what is happening as every week, between 500 and 800 men and women raise their right hand and reaffirm the oath of enlistment and start their journey as Airmen in our Air Force.

Q: How would you describe your family’s journey with you in the Air Force? Would you say you have a formidable Air Force family too?

I have the most awesome family. My wife, Victoria, is just incredible and formidable. She served as an Airmen and is now a veteran and is such a great teammate and partner, who has been by my side for 28 years. We have two kids together, and they have embraced being a part of the Air Force family. Through the years they have absolutely flourished. You talk about perseverance, tenacity and resilience, Air Force kids have it! My wife has always been full of grace and understanding when the Air Force calls.

Q:  What does your next chapter look like?

Thompson: Hopefully, I’ll continue to work alongside some of the great folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with over these 30 years, only in a civilian capacity. I am really looking forward to spending more time at home, and I’m always looking to improve as well. So maybe I’ll go back to school, continue to learn new things, and have fun while doing all of this.

Q: Any final words for the Airmen of the First Command?

Thompson: Thank you! What you do every single day is incredibly important. We are the First Command for a reason. When you focus on the fact that we touch every single Airman that joins our Air Force and shape their career from day one, you understand the importance of what you do and how exciting that opportunity is.