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35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, left, and Tech. Sgt. Brian MacLean look at MacLean’s new stripes at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week.

35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, left, and Tech. Sgt. Brian MacLean look at MacLean’s new stripes at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, left, and Tech. Sgt. Brian MacLean look at MacLean’s new stripes at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week.

35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, left, and Tech. Sgt. Brian MacLean look at MacLean’s new stripes at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Tech. Sgt. Marcus T. Houston, right displays a promotion certificate at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week after 35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella surprised him with a new set of stripes.

Tech. Sgt. Marcus T. Houston, right displays a promotion certificate at Misawa Air Base, Japan, last week after 35th Fighter Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella surprised him with a new set of stripes. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The American Forces Network camera crew, the wing commander announced, was in the room to do a story about the joint Japanese-American all-units meeting. It seemed plausible enough — but it was a ruse.

Tech. Sgt. Brian MacLean didn’t catch on till Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander, asked him to step forward during last week’s meeting and flashed something blue. New stripes. Just like that, the astounded staff sergeant was a technical sergeant. The cameras rolled and MacLean’s hands trembled.

“I just couldn’t believe it happened to me,” he said later. “When he called me over, I was kind of in shock. That’s when I felt the shaking start.”

The Air Force calls it “Stripes for Exceptional Performers,” or STEP, for promotion to the ranks of staff sergeant to master sergeant. The program allows wing commanders to promote a select few hard-charging performers who don’t score well on promotion tests for whatever reason. “These are very special promotions based solely on merit and individual performance,” said 35th Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Missel. “By policy, it’s pretty much limited to one per career … it’s a very high honor.”

STEP isn’t intended to promote servicemembers early or “below the zone,” Missel explained, but is designed to award hard-working, superior-performing individuals who may have difficulty testing.

The Air Force each year releases a limited number of slots for STEP promotion, usually less than 200. For fiscal 2006, Pacific Air Forces received 47 quotas for STEP promotion, PACAF officials said. The slots are typically then distributed through each numbered PACAF commander to their respective wings based on eligible population.

PACAF officials said earlier last week that so far 13 PACAF individuals had received the promotions: two at PACAF headquarters; four at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa; four at Misawa; two at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; and one at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing received four quotas: one for master sergeant and three for technical sergeant. Squadron and group commanders nominated candidates and submitted a total of four written packages for master sergeant and eight for technical sergeant. Those were reviewed and scored separately by Angelella, Missel, and vice wing commander Col. Mike Bartley, with the wing commander making the final decision.

“The real criteria is day-in, day-out, sustained superior performance,” Missel said.

MacLean, of 35th Contracting Squadron, and Marcus T. Houston, 35th Medical Group, received their technical sergeant STEP promotions at the same all-units meeting. Houston, 31, was told he was getting a coin.

“I’ve been wanting it for a long time,” he said, mentioning he’s already tested four times for tech sergeant. “The Air Force, my supervisors, my commander, all recognize that I deserve it. That means a lot.”

Misawa’s other STEP promotees are Tech. Sgt. Dave Dotson, 35th Maintenance Squadron, and Master Sgt. Teresa Huertas of 35th Fighter Wing support staff.

“I cried. I was too happy,” said Huertas.

Missel said Misawa could still get another STEP promotion — possibly. Both PACAF Commander Gen. Paul Hester and 5th Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright “hip-pocketed” a stripe, so there’s still more out there to compete for. “We have forwarded the name of an individual to 5th Air Force to compete for one more stripe,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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