EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Think of a leader that you know. How did they get there? What was their path? Odds are they made mistakes along the way and likely had an opportunity to become better from those experiences.
Second chances are important milestones in the lives and careers of many Air Force leaders. For Chief Master Sgt. Tony Jenkins, 33rd Operations Group superintendent, a second chance solidified his faith in the Air Force and gave him direction as an Airman and wingman.
After high school, Jenkins attended community college. He made some poor judgement calls, wasn’t excelling in school and quickly realized he was headed in the wrong direction. He decided joining the Air Force was what he needed to turn his life around and enlisted in March 1997, as an aircraft communication and navigation systems specialist.
His first assignment was to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. He thrived in his duties and personified what we now call the “whole Airman concept.” He was dedicated at work, took college classes and worked an extra job on the side. His plan was to complete a four year enlistment, receive his education benefits, find his purpose, then ultimately separate.
During his first assignment, Jenkins deployed to Morón Air Force Base, Spain for a two month rotation that seemingly breezed by. On the last night of the deployment, Jenkins and some fellow maintainers went out to celebrate.
“We went to this fair downtown, we were having a good time and I ended up getting into a fight with a local on the street,” Jenkins said. “I don’t remember why I got into the fight, I was intoxicated, but I ended up in that fight and cops arrested both of us and took us to the local jail.”
Shortly after he was booked, Jenkins was released under the supervision of Moron’s only first sergeant, Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Barron and placed on international hold status. He had to stay behind to take responsibility for his actions while his fellow Airmen returned home.
There were three weeks of court dates and hearings and Barron made sure every moment was filled with meaningful labor.
“During that three weeks I worked for that first sergeant I swear I painted everything on that entire installation; the ATC tower, the bowling alley, gym, I ran the movie theater on Friday nights,” Jenkins said. “I was pretty much the base handyman but they never treated me like an outcast.”
Jenkins felt they could have discarded him because of the mistakes he made but instead they bought into him as an Airman and in turn, he says this is when he bought back into the Air Force.
“It could have gone the complete other way. I could have just as easily been booted out of the military,” Jenkins said. “I would have nowhere to go. My education wasn’t finished and I’d be working a stocking job up to midnight.”
Support came from more than just Barron, who took care of him. Jenkins said the rest of the team at Morón and his unit at home were all supportive and helped him through a time where he was scared for his future. And although he faced additional disciplinary measures when he returned home, the mistake he made would not derail his new path.
“So that was my tipping point, when I realized there are people in the Air Force who really do care about individuals and helping each other out,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins returned to Travis with a new outlook and purpose. He wanted to be there to support other military members and make himself available to help however he could.
His experience replays in his mind almost daily for the next ten years. Another ten years later and he still thinks about it several times a week. Carrying that experience with him helped him to create one of his key leadership mentalities.
“I am definitely not a one mistake Air Force type of guy. I truly believe people can make mistakes and turn back around as long as they learn from it, rehabilitate where they need to and pay the Air Force back,” Jenkins said. “Everybody makes mistakes.”
Jenkins became the epitome of taking your mistakes and using them to find growth. Shortly after returning to the United States he cross-trained and became an HC-130 flight engineer. His new position took him around the world and gave him a role in some of the most historic Air Force missions in recent history.
During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jenkins and his flight crew provided aerial refueling to helicopters, directly supporting airfield seizure operations. Following the 2004 tsunami and earthquake, he helped fly supplies into the most affected parts of Indonesia. Jenkins also supported psychological operations over the Philippines, believed to have directly influenced information that lead to the extermination of militant leader and FBI Most Wanted subject, Khadafi Janjalani.
Through it all, Jenkins remained dedicated to helping young Airmen the same way he was helped all those years before.
While working a staff position at Air Education and Training Command, Jenkins was promoted to chief master sergeant. That’s when he realized just how much dedicated leaders and motivated subordinates contributed to his success.
“I realized when I made chief how critical it is to have good people around you to help you get to where you are,” Jenkins said. “So now that I am in those positions, I definitely try to take them more serious because I see how it affects people.”
Jenkins’ motivation now stems from simply loving his job and wanting to be an asset for the people around him.
“I could retire tomorrow but I continue to do it because I just like it. There is not a day that I am coming to work upset about coming to work, I have not had that feeling for at least 15 years,” Jenkins said. “My motivation is wanting to feel like I am valued and I want other people to feel like they are valued.”
His second chance at an Air Force career brought Jenkins to where he is today. In January, he was selected to serve as command chief of the 621st Contingency Response Wing at McGuire AFB, N.J.
Jenkins is keeping a blank slate and open mind for his new assignment but plans to use everything he has absorbed during his journey to be prepared for his new role.
“Preparation is a factor for everything. Whatever you are dealing with, you should be prepared for,” Jenkins said. “You should never be walking into something blind unless it just happens that way.”
Jenkins cited a favorite quote of his that depicts the symphony between being prepared and rebounding from mistakes.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
“Because you never know when you are going to get punched in the mouth,” Jenkins said while laughing. “So you need to have a whole bag of tricks to figure out how to stand up, keep fighting and keep going.”