USAF CMSgt retires after 30-year career

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Paul Valenzuela
  • 621st Contingency Response Wing

I originally joined with plans to do four years, get my education and either commission or leave the military for work in the private sector. Here I am, 30 years later, retired from the Air Force and wondering how I stayed in all these years. Easy, I have loved every stage of my career and feel fulfilled knowing that I was able to support and defend this great country we live in. There were challenges that I faced. I spent many long hours over weekends and holidays as a maintainer in this great Air Force. I had my share of deployments, numbering in double digits, to all the far corners of this earth. I have missed birthdays, births, anniversaries, first steps, last breaths, and several “insert special event here” moments throughout my three-decade career, but I would not have changed any of it for the world.

I started my journey on March 8, 1994, in Wichita Falls, Texas where I would return some six weeks later for technical school to become a crew chief, or aircraft maintainer. After learning to fold my underwear and T-shirts into 4-inch squares, I was ready to get to Sheppard Air Force Base to start my training as a maintainer on cargo and tanker aircraft. At this time, my father was also stationed at Sheppard AFB as a fighter maintenance instructor. He and my lead instructor were good friends. Those that know me well, know I am always good for a solid “prank or joke.” A former deputy maintenance group commander told me, “take the job seriously, but don’t take yourself serious.” Those words optimized who I am today.

After technical training, I found myself at Travis Air Force Base, California where I would remain for 20 years. I traveled the world on deployments, Maintenance Recovery Teams (MRT) and other trainings. I started off in the 60th Maintenance Squadron (Equipment Maintenance Squadron back then) and the C-141 Starlifter Isochronal Inspection section. What a great gig. I learned the aircraft top to bottom, inside and out and before long I found myself becoming a “go-to” kind of guy. The leadership I had and the training I received there set me on an upward trajectory. As the C-141 was retiring and the KC-10 Extender was arriving I found myself at a crossroads. I was informed I could go to the C-5 Galaxy Isochronal Inspection Section, the C-5 Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, or I could interview for the Aero Repair (AR) section. I chose AR. I did get to be a part of the team that prepared and towed the Golden Bear (8088) to its final resting place at the corner of Bergan and Travis Blvd. which made me smile every time I drove by it.

I could author an entire book on my AR escapades since I was there for over 12 years. My first deployment was as a senior airman to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. I was given a Red X waiver (maintainers know what this is) and went as the AR 7-level which means greater leadership responsibility. To this point, I had truly little knowledge of the KC-10, but my enthusiasm and eagerness to learn a new airframe gave my leadership the incentive to do this for me. While in Al Dhafra, an amazing crew chief by the name of Pat Glenn took me under his wing and showed me everything I could want to know about that aircraft. The foundation he set allowed me to be recognized as an additional 7-level crew chief on future KC-10 deployments and not just “the AR guy.” I pulled from what he taught me and drove myself to get Cross Utilization Trained (CUT) on both KC-10 and C-5 hydraulics and engines along with all crew chief qualifications as well. I wanted to be qualified to assist anyone whenever necessary to keep the mission going.

That quench for doing more drove me to volunteer for a 365-day deployment to Iraq. I did a bunch of jobs: badging new folks, generator and vehicle repair, background investigations and the like. I made some good friends in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force intelligence communities. I received training from them, helped their communities alongside our Iraqi partners, and with that, word got out and made its way up to the commander of all forces in Iraq and he paid me a visit to see the work I had accomplished within the intelligence sphere. He was amazed that I was a mechanic and not an intel person. I told him “I saw what needed to get done and just did it.” A week later I was on a team that spent the rest of my 15 months (I extended) traveling around Iraq and introducing different capabilities to our Iraqi partners. Those 15 months were the pinnacle of my career.

I came back to Travis AFB, moved over to the C-5 Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, where I was the lead production superintendent when the C-5M modification was taking place. Later, I made senior master sergeant and moved to Edwards Air Force Base to be the aircraft maintenance unit superintendent for the initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) of the F-35A Lightning II aircraft. Yes, a career heavy mechanic was now running the Air Force’s only test program for its latest 5th generation fighter. It took a lot of training but I was able to see that aircraft through initial operational capability, the first firing of the gun, extreme freezing weather validation in Alaska, advanced weapons testing in Florida, and finally completion of IOT&E. I made chief master sergeant following that and applied for, and got, orders back to Travis AFB in one of the contingency response squadrons.

Contingency response is unique to say the least. There are now 34 Air Force Specialty Codes in each squadron and their day-to-day at Travis AFB is varied. However, the training that the airmen go through to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and knowledgeable on each other’s jobs makes it an amazing place. In my time there as a senior enlisted leader, we sent a team to Texas to supply water and other relief when a big winter storm hit. That team had a 24-hour notification. Most notably, we sent a team to Hamid Karzai International Airport to execute the largest noncombatant evacuation operation in history thus far. I have been able to be a part of so many operations throughout my career, each one of them have left a lasting mark in my memory. The missions were important and memorable, but the people I served with -- through mortar and rocket attacks, extreme heat and cold, 12+ hour days, weekend and holidays, and full chemical warfare protection gear during exercise -- that is where the magic is and that is why I remained in the service as long as I did. I am going to miss them.