Commentary: Be the leader you'd want to have

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joshua Cook
  • 75th Security Forces Squadron

Editor's note: This commentary is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Airmen Leadership School graduation March 30.

Some might say that the call to military service is in our DNA. My mom, grandpa and great uncle all served in the Air Force, while my father was a Marine and my uncle served in the Army for 26 years. When my junior year of high school rolled around, my parents started bringing up the college conversation. Although I knew the importance of education, the cost college was a big deterrent. Realizing I didn’t want to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, I finished out high school, visited my local recruiter and signed that quintessential dotted line.

Although there were a handful of nights in Basic Military Training where I lay awake in bed, wondering just what the heck I got myself into. I can look back now and confidently say that choosing to join the Air Force was hands down the best decision I have made in my life thus far.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been several times in this journey I’ve hit some rough patches and debated if the military was right for me.  For example, as my four-year enlistment was drawing to a close, one of those rough patches popped up and I had a thought to not reenlist. I extended for a year to feel it out and deployed again shortly after. Following that deployment, I was sure I was getting out because I was in a slump from the 14 hour days and dealing with some bad apples.

Despite these challenges, I decided to reenlist. I didn’t stay in for the 14-hour shifts, missing most holidays with my family nor the ever appreciated “stay dry” while defending the gate as it rained sideways. No, I stayed because of the people and the experience.

The family I grew up with lives thousands of miles away and I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. While that was a hard pill to swallow as a young Airman, it set me down the path to realize that some family we’re born with, while others we meet along the way while gritting through that sideways rain when the days aren’t so great. The ones who are there, celebrating your successes during the highs yet have your back during your lows. This family isn’t thousands of miles away. They are to your left and to your right each day, rain or shine, and they are why I reenlisted.

I’d like to highlight someone who showed me just how good this family can be and what an amazing leader looks like. That person is a fellow defender, Master Sgt. Andrew Sertich.

Sergeant Sertich was one of my flight chiefs back in 2021. I remember completing a “12” hour mid shift and I was at home getting ready for bed when I got a phone call from my mom at 6 a.m. stating that my grandma was taken to the emergency room and she was not doing well. I immediately called Sergeant Sertich and without hesitation he began to help. Roughly an hour later, I found out that because she was not a part of my immediate family, the situation didn’t qualify for emergency leave so I would need to take personal leave. Taking no-notice personal leave can be a bit tricky. Although we were pretty low-manned due to the holiday work schedule, without hesitation Sergeant Sertich stepped up. Even though he was supposed to be off, he came in and worked my shifts so that I could fly home to see my grandma.  Because of his compassion, I got to spend the last four hours of my grandma's life by her side.

Its people like Sergeant Sertich that I think about every time someone asks me why I stay in and continue to serve. I continue to serve so that someday I can have that same impact on someone else’s life, like he had on mine.  I can't think of a better way to do that than to stay in and keep helping my fellow Airmen.

Unfortunately, it seems sometimes good, hard working and competent people find their way out of the military because of a few bad apples, and because those bad apples remain, it can lead to a toxic and a poor work environment. As new supervisors, we need to step up and either be the change needed or provide the appropriate feedback to correct poor behavior. Because we are the next generation of leaders and from now until the end of our careers, we will be those leaders that the new generation either see as their Sergeant Sertich or their bad apples.

Change can only happen if we use the fundamentals we have learned here in Airmen Leadership School and build upon them through experience.