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Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley’s path to his new position as the service’s top enlisted airman included a four-and-a-half year period when he left the service entirely.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley’s path to his new position as the service’s top enlisted airman included a four-and-a-half year period when he left the service entirely. (U.S. Air Force)

ARLINGTON, Va. – When it comes to involuntary retraining – a huge issue for today’s enlisted Air Force – the new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley knows what he’s talking about.

McKinley has had three different career specialties in the Air Force, medical, maintenance, and first sergeant — and the only one he chose himself was emergency room technician, back when he first entered the Air Force in 1974.

After McKinley’s initial enlistment, which included a posting to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. as an emergency room technician, McKinley decided to go back to civilian life.

For four and a half years, he attended nursing school during the day and helped run a hospital emergency room, or ER, at night. Then he began to think about coming back to the Air Force.

During a June 26 interview with Stripes, McKinley described his unusual career path, why he decided to come back to the service when his options were limited, and how he made it all work well enough to become the Air Force’s top enlisted airman.

“There were a lot of reasons I decided to go back to the Air Force.

“On the outside, I had a decent job, but it was not security for the future. I was 26, and I had two kids. I was looking for the long term, not just what my paycheck was week to week.

“And so it was the security for the future, it was the retirement system, it was — big time — the medical [care] side of the house... tuition assistance — it’s a combination of things that the military provides you that you don’t really realize how valuable they all are until you don’t have them.

“[For example,] I love to play golf. I had an annual membership at Seymour Johnson that was $90 a year. I could play golf all day long on my days off, any time I wanted to. Once I walked outside the gate and was no longer a member, you know if I wanted to play gold, it was $26 every time I played, versus $90 for the whole year.

“When you start adding up those benefits you don’t realize, it’s tremendous.

“But what I really liked was the camaraderie of the Air Force. You were there for a higher purpose. I liked wearing the uniform.

“So I weighed it all out and decided that hey, I want to go back in.

“When I came back in the Air Force in 1982, I was 100 percent committed. I knew I wanted to make the Air Force a career.”

But it wasn’t going to be that easy.

“[The Air Force was] at the point where they weren’t accepting prior service anymore. There were only a couple jobs open [to me]: crew chief and weapons.

“And so I decided to just try to be the best crew chief I possibly could.

“I never had any thoughts in the world of making chief, no thoughts. I just wanted to try to learn as much about the A-10 aircraft as I could and be the best crew chief I possibly could be.

“Things worked out and I did well, until1990, and I got a phone call that said I had to cross-train because we were doing away with the A-10 and the F-4, the two aircraft [I qualified for as crew chief].”

McKinley was given the same choice facing airmen in current involuntary retraining programs: take a new job selected by the service – in his case, become a first sergeant — or leave the Air Force.

“I chose to be a first sergeant, and I was a first sergeant for 10 years. And for whatever reasons, I was successful, and the leadership saw that, and I went on from there.”

As he continued to climb the Air Force’s career ladder, McKinley said, he found himself reaching back to his earliest Air Force training: lessons he learned as an emergency room technician.

“In tough situations, [my early training] has allowed me to stay calm. I don’t get excited, I don’t get upset, I don’t show anger. I try to sit back and think rationally and make good decisions.

“And a lot of that is based upon my time working in emergency rooms, because when you’re working in the ER [emergency room], you can’t lose control – you have to think rationally and make good sound decisions.

“Working in ERs is life and death. I’ve had many people die on me… and that [experience] put things in perspective. Whether or not a [report] is late or not – it’s important that we get it done, but its not life or death.

Throughout his career, McKinley said, his basic philosophy stayed constant:

“Whatever job the Air Force gives you, you do the very best job that you can. You leave it up to your leadership what’s going to happen to you from there.

“If you do that, and practice your Air Force corps values, you are going to be successful.”

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