Air Force Master Sgt. Rahim Saafir

Air Force Master Sgt. Rahim Saafir (Jessica Iñigo / S&S)

From a life dripping with chaos, mayhem, gang-banging, and drugs, a street kid from Chicago’s West Side took to the straight and narrow after he saw his close friend shot in the back with a sawed-off shotgun.

Instead of living up to the bad boy cliché and going toe-to-toe with his rivals in revenge, Rahim Saafir, then 13, made up his mind to take another path — and tell others about it.

He started by going from a fast-paced city life, to a place where things went a little slower. He moved in with his grandmother in Arkansas and became a hard-working schoolboy. Though grades were never an issue — he managed to maintain an A average even throughout his gang days — he worked diligently to stay on the right path.

Now, 21 years later and with only few bumps in that road, the Air Force master sergeant uses himself as an example to educate others and to continue to develop.

The 17-year servicemember uses his real-life experiences to learn how to effectively speak, manage, lead, delegate and motivate in the International Toastmasters Communication and Leadership program. He placed third in the International Speech contest in Paris, held May 23-25, representing the Word Weavers Toastmaster Club of Wiesbaden, Germany.

Saafir has been a member of Toastmasters — an international organization that helps members become better public speakers — for 2½ years, and is only a couple of speeches shy of becoming an Advanced Toastmaster. His speeches are mainly based on his experiences growing up in Chicago.

He said his communication skills have improved because of Toastmasters, which in turn has improved his military career.

He joined the military for the same reasons many people do: to travel and become better educated. The superintendent of mission support for the 469th Air Base Group, Mission Support Flight, at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, said he has done that and more.

He credited several military members with not only helping him, but also inspiring him. One was now-retired Chief Master Sgt. Dave Kilman, a former boss and mentor.

“I got into trouble some years ago. It was a setback, but he stood by me,” said Saafir. “He lifted me up and kept me on the right path.

Now, he said, he has numerous decorations and awards as a top noncommissioned officer — including senior NCO of the quarter for the first three months of this year at Rhein-Main — thanks to Kilman’s vote of confidence and advice.

“A lot of times people think they can handle things on their own. But people have to be honest with themselves,” Saafir said. “Everybody needs some help once in a while.”

He said the help he has received throughout his life has continued to open doors and help him better learn about himself and others.

Saafir compares himself and his road to success to Bruce Lee and Lee’s mastery of martial arts.

“There’s no pinpoint. He studied and used so many. That’s how I’ve become.

“I am Muslim, but I am a firm believer that you get to heaven by your deeds. There’s no line just for the Baptists or Christians. I think if you continue to do righteous things you have the same opportunities. You could take some good out of every religion.”

Saafir wrote about this belief in a Toastmaster speech called “None but the Righteous.” He said he has learned how to better deal with diverse people from reading the Bible, Quran and Torah, as well as through his travel during military assignments.

He has been to a number of places throughout his career, including Panama, Korea, Japan and Colombia.

Now, every time he has to give a speech to an international crowd during a Toastmaster meeting, or brief servicemembers at Rhein-Main, he pulls from his experiences and travels.

The decorated master sergeant in Germany has traveled far from the young thug in Chicago. And part of his success is because he couldn’t stop talking about the journey.

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