DECATUR, Ill. — Alison Burnham, a recent graduate of Eisenhower High School, made up her mind to enlist in the Air Force, partly because she was inspired by her cousin, Billy Hollendonner, a military police officer stationed in Japan.
When Staff Sgt. Ryne Miller, 28, the recruiter for the Decatur area, recently sat down with Burnham to sign her to her enlistment contract, Hollendonner was on hand while home on leave.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Burnham said, sitting in Miller’s office in Brettwood Village. “Billy has a blast in the Air Force.”
Burnham, 18, is hoping to work in the medical field. Miller explained that he couldn’t guarantee a specific job, but her contract guarantees she will get one of the jobs she requested on her list.
“The jobs get passed out at basic training,” said Miller, who has successfully signed up 36 Central Illinois residents during his first year as a recruiter. “Anyone joining the Air Force has to make themselves marketable for the Air Force. They still need people to work medical jobs, still need people in still photography. But that’s not up to me.”
Despite the fact that Burnham was not assured she would land her first preference, she signed her contract. Out of a list of about 140 occupations, Burnham submitted her top eight choices.
“The jobs she selected are all within her general aptitude area,” Miller said. “She will resubmit her list when she gets down there, according to which jobs are open.”
The Air Force, which bills itself as the most selective of the military branches, is nevertheless meeting its recruitment goals, despite the fact that about 75 percent of young people are not qualified to enlist.
Master Sgt. Samuel Mullins, chief for E Flight, the Springfield-based recruiting command unit, said the Air Force is seeking students with excellent aptitudes for math, science and technology.
“We want the highest quality recruits we can get,” Mullins said.
The service branch has increased its standards for moral and legal issues, including drug usage and arrests for offenses such as assault, vandalism and underage drinking.
“Any kind of mind-altering substance besides marijuana is disqualifying from the Air Force,” Mullins said. “Marijuana can be disqualifying and may require a waiver to allow you to come in.”
Any kind of vandalism requires a waiver from someone at a higher level than a recruiter, as does a second offense of underage drinking.
Even a poor credit history can be a barrier to service.
“We’re talking about national security here,” Mullins said. “Even if they have credit issues and we entrust him with top secret information, it can open us up to being exposed as a country. We take that very seriously.”
Miller said he believes the Air Force offers opportunities to young people they will not find elsewhere, to be “part of the greatest organization there is.”
All airmen are enrolled in the Community College of the Air Force. An airman may also receive tuition grants toward a bachelor’s degree while on active duty.
“We’re very education oriented,” Miller said. “You’re bettering yourself and bettering the Air Force.”
Before becoming a recruiter, Miller was a member of an air crew that maintained flight equipment, including parachutes, goggles and survival vests. He was stationed in Germany, Sicily and the United Arab Emirates.
Joining the Air Force provides “an awesome opportunity to go somewhere else and start your life off well,” Miller said.
Burnham, who signed up in October for the Air Force Delayed Entry Program, has been meeting at the recruiting office twice weekly since for meetings and physical training.
Despite negative publicity the Air Force has garnered in recent months regarding sexual assaults and harassment of trainees by instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, recruiters are not having any trouble making their goals. Air Force leaders have announced 46 policy changes to prevent similar misdeeds in the future.
Burnham said she was a “little concerned” because of the scandal, but the new policy makes her feel comfortable.
“It’s known as the friendliest branch for women,” Burnham said.
In addition to her desire to work in the medical field and serve her country, Burnham, a former high school honor roll student, said what especially appealed to her was the opportunity to attend school.
She also likes the variety of options, which includes possibly attending the Air Force Academy and to become an officer and joining the Tops in Blue, the Air Force show choir that performs around the world.
The Air Force also has six special operations units. Miller has made it his special mission to find recruits for them.
He has signed three recruits who are planning or training for the highly specialized groups: Jared McMillen, a Pana High School graduate, is training as a pararescuer; Bronson Washburn, a Maroa-Forsyth graduate, plans to become a combat controller; and Matthew Schollmeier, an Eastern Illinois graduate, is working toward a position with survival, escape, rescue, evade, or SERE.
Ben Schaab, a recent graduate of St. Teresa High School, is an unlikely Air Force recruit in one respect.
“I’ve never been on a plane,” said Schaab, whose father was a pilot when he was a child. “It will be my first plane ride to basic. I’m more nervous about a plane ride than basic.”
Before deciding on the Air Force, Schaab contacted every other branch, except the Navy.
“I don’t like the sea,” he said.
While some people believe the Air Force is mostly for pilots, Schaab joined because it provided him with an opportunity to pursue his love for mechanics. His contract specifies that he will work in aircraft maintenance.
“I want to work on planes,” said Schaab, who credits his father for his interest in mechanics and St. Teresa football coaches for instilling discipline in him.
His plan is to leave Feb. 5 for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio.
“I’m afraid of heights, but I don’t think that will be a factor,” Schaab said.