RAF MILDENHALL — Everyone loves a good surprise. Especially when it translates into money and respect.

A good surprise is what Master Sgt. Kevin James got when he stepped off a plane after a recent deployment.

It was a dark, mid-December morning on the flight pad of the 352nd Special Operations Group when dozens of airmen welcomed James and the other returning troops after months downrange. The group commander, Col. Brad Webb, alerted the airmen to a comrade out of uniform.

Then-Tech. Sgt. James grimaced to his wife as the colonel called his name, and he reluctantly stepped forward.

But his apprehension turned to excitement as applause echoed over the otherwise quiet airfield. James became a senior noncommissioned officer, effective three days earlier.

“It was an amazing experience,” James said. “Definitely one of the best parts of this deployment.”

He was one of four RAF Mildenhall airmen to receive a surprise promotion via the Stripes for Exceptional Performers process. Supervisors nominate candidates without their knowledge and the application moves up the chain of command until the base commander ultimately signs off on the upgrade.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe allocates only 40 STEP promotions to all its installations every year.

Master Sgt. Julie Steele’s superiors almost tipped their hand about her promotion. Her bosses at the 100th Air Refueling Wing legal office prompted her to a “safety meeting to get a safety award.”

But the “safety meeting” quickly turned into a celebration for Steele, which included the arrival of her husband and children, who were alerted by a co-worker.

“It was great to have everyone down here to enjoy it,” Steele said.

Two other Mildenhall airmen received the promotion. Staff Sgt. Tiffany Loftus of the 100th Maintenance Squadron became a technical sergeant, and Staff Sgt. Monica Strong, from the 100th Logistical Readiness Squadron, was also promoted to technical sergeant.

In addition, the following RAF Lakenheath airmen received STEP promotions: Tech Sgt. Kallie Beinhower, 48th Mission Support Squadron; Master Sgt. Roma Biagas-Duresseau, 85th Group; Tech Sgt. Christopher Sweetin, 85th Group; Tech Sgt. Jeremy Torres, 48th Component Maintenance Squadron; and Tech Sgt. Larita Trudell, 492nd Fighter Squadron.

Benefits of the promotion are tangible and abstract. Paychecks are boosted by thousands of dollars annually, but the respect factor is what James and Steele said they both savored.

“You get treated with more respect once you get to this level,” Steele said. “It’s a good place to be.”

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