RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Air Education and Training Command's senior enlisted leader retired Aug. 13 after serving 31 years, two months, and 27 days, ending a career longer than the average enlistee is permitted to serve.
"I enlisted in the Air Force for the same reason a lot of people are enlisting in the Air Force today," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Tappana. "Due to the economy, a search for independence, and leaving a small town for the first time, my intent was to serve four years, receive the experience, get out and get a 'real job,' it just didn't work out that way."
Chief Tappana began his service with the Traffic Management Office, "moving people and equipment from one place to another," and admits the choice to make the Air Force a career did not happen overnight.
The chief described his first mentor and supervisor Tech Sgt. (Ret.) Jim Steen as, "the kind of supervisor they tell us about in Airman Leadership School, (Sergeant Steen) knew what we were doing, where we lived, set high standards and didn't let us get away with just anything."
It was that leadership, and the physical and emotional support of his fellow Airmen during a difficult time of adversity, that helped solidify his career path and commitment to serve.
Early in his career the chief's family experienced a medical hardship, but it was that struggle and the support of the Air Force family that truly inspired the decision to stay in. Describing the most pivotal moment in his career, chief thanks one Master Sgt. (Ret.) Mark Davila for one simple question, "Are you okay?" The Air Force is never easy chief says, but he knew then he was never alone.
From there, adaptation to the military became easy for the Tappana family through the demonstration of compassion and encouragement by the Airmen who surrounded his family with care and support.
Through the years, the chief also learned service members must give their family the same care they give to the Air Force. He believes our core value is service before self, not service instead of self, and both compromise and balance are crucial to the Air Force family.
Chief Tappana's first advice to young airmen is to "focus on the job you have and to blossom where you're planted," he said. "As soon as an opportunity comes up, we will pick you up and transplant you to a bigger, better garden.
"Careers begin to go south when people start worrying about the next job and the one after that. The key to success is to excel at what you are given," he added.
While serving in different positions and multiple capacities over the last 30 years, the chief has witnessed many changes to Air Force programs. Improvements he believes the Air Force benefited from include the focus on fitness, embracing education, family care, technological growth, and more non-traditional roles in combat contact.
Admitting that he smoked cigarettes for six and a half weeks during basic training and his only letter of counseling as a young Airman was from a Traffic Management Office chief for not providing an ashtray for customers, Chief Tappana agreed the Air Force is now a healthier force. Airmen must exceed what used to be only a 1.5-mile run once a year to meet physical requirement standards.
"We are giving enlisted people far more responsibility now than we did 30 years ago," he said. "When I came in, in 79' Traffic Management Officers had to be officers, enlisted were not allowed to run TMO."
The chief encourages giving more responsibility to Airmen and empowering them with education allowing people to produce a lot more for the Air Force.
Chief Tappana explained there was an assumption until about 10 years ago that "a majority of our combat would involve a pilot in an aircraft. For my first 20 years we didn't think about the fact that our vehicle operators would be running convoys through the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, or that our young PA professionals would be outside the wire serving on Provisional Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan."
It's a new world for us, and our Airmen do phenomenally," he said.
"That includes keeping up with the speed at which change is happening, the chief said.
"I've had the privilege of watching the Air Force move from a basic typewriter, to computing, to mobile phones, and blue tooth wireless devices," he said. "The blackberry I carry today is the back up to the laptop I carry that connects to the entire world without actually being connected to anything."
Additionally, the chief admits social media is important to the Air Force as long as the force can figure out how to use it as an advantage.
"We've got a lot of senior people trying to 'FaceBook' because they think that is what the junior people want, and we end up trying to put a square peg into a round hole," Chief Tappana said. "I think the Air Force hasn't figured out how to do it all yet, we try to make FaceBook fit paradigms we (the Air Force) have, and we also have people who are afraid of it because it's new.
"I don't think social media is anything to fear, it's a communication tool, an opportunity to revolutionize how we communicate with our people, the chief said. "Social media will not do anything for us, like a hammer is not going to put a nail in on its own, you have to pick it up, and aim it right," the chief said. "If nobody picks it up or touches it, we don't win, we don't lose, we don't get anything; if someone picks up and uses it irresponsibly, then yes, we lose."
For Chief Tappana, winning in the Air Force is "helping put together a plan and watching it unfold, or watching from afar as people you've worked with or people that have worked for you get promoted and advance in their career.
There have been many proud moments for Chief Tappana in the Air Force, like walking through the airport with his uniform on as people thank him for his service, giving 100 percent to the core values of the Air Force, being an effective public speaker, and taking care of this nation for more than 30 years.
Leaving the force is not bitter sweet or sad the chief explained, "it's a step forward into a new path and a future where I can watch my Air Force from the other side."
From here, Chief Tappana and Tresie, his wife of 24 years, will travel north to Alaska to pursue the one thing he regrets not doing, earning a college degree.
"I want to teach," he said. "I want to be more well-rounded, work on my photography, read more and most importantly, perform a role that makes a difference."