Adapting to the Officer Culture
I have been commissioned now for three months. Life as an officer has been much different than I expected. It is amazing how much of your identity is tied into your rank, especially after serving as enlisted for so many years. As I progressed from one enlisted rank to the next, I was treated differently. The differences were subtle but it was something I clearly picked up on while in the situation. It was likely so subtle that outsiders may not have even noticed it. As a prior you might have experienced this before but you may not have realized it.
In general the differences can be summed up by my perceived knowledge and experience both with my job and with the Air Force. Over the years while I was enlisted I became accustomed to what I will call a spectrum of treated behavior. This spectrum taught me how I could behave and what I could say and do based on my perceived knowledge and experience from others. The spectrum was different for every grade. Additionally, I started at one end of the spectrum and worked my way to the other end as I matured in that grade. When I sewed on the next rank, I graduated to the next spectrum. An example of all of this is how a MSgt has more freedom to stand up and fight for what is right for his people than a SSgt does. The spectrum is what teaches him how much flexibility he has to do this.
As I moved from one grade to the next, I began to realize my success in each grade directly correlated to my ability to adapt to the current spectrum and prepare for the next. In my opinion, the best Airmen (big “A” meaning all enlisted/officers in the Air Force) were the ones who were comfortable in the next grade spectrum beyond the one they were in. This is slightly different than simply preparing for the next grade because the spectrum involves how you think and act, not just your capabilities and experience.
When I was preparing myself for commissioned life I expected to be treated differently, but I was not expecting it to shake my identity. As a Master Sergeant select (or (M)Sgt, someone who is selected for promotion to Master Sergeant), my spectrum was known and I was comfortable. I was well respected among my peers and confident that I could accomplish anything with my knowledge and experience. Being a (M)Sgt also meant I was within the latter stage of the enlisted spectrum. I honestly thought the 2d Lt spectrum combined with my experience would be very similar to being a (M)Sgt. Here are some things I noticed in general which were different and caught me off guard.
I knew academically there were two types of respect, but it is different when you experience it for yourself. When I was first commissioned I was still high off the experience of OTS. Professional Military Education (PME) has a way of not only making you feel like you can change the world, but that it is your sole purpose in life; your divine calling as part of service to the Air Force. (For my non-prior readers, PME is the required Air Force training outlined for different ranks throughout your career.) I’m not saying that isn’t true because it is, but PME changed my perspective of my role in the Air Force and caused me to overestimate my influence on the world. I will talk more about this later.
When I showed up at my first base I immediately felt the difference with how I was treated. People noticed the rank on my collar and I felt like I was immediately treated like more of an adult. When I was enlisted I always felt like I was a number and treated accordingly; I sometimes felt as if I was just another drop in the bucket of someone’s to-do list. As a lieutenant people went out of their way to show their respect for me, which honestly took me a while to get used to. They showed this by saying “sir” and saluting, two things which seem very minor but make a huge difference. I can see how this type of treatment can easily get to your head. If anyone knows me or meets me in the future, please don’t let that happen to me. This is what I consider positional respect. Over time the luster of this type of respect began to wear off. I began to realize it felt hollow. In general people respected me but they were respecting my rank, not me as a person. This leads me to the second type of respect.
Career Field Background
Before I dive into this one I need to remind you all that I am in a unique career field. My career field is 13S Space Operations, and it is unique in that it is an “operator” career field but it is also non-rated. We are the career field that operates the equipment used to maintain the Air Force’s many space missions. Due to the nature of our missions our career field is kind of in between the world of non-rated officers such as Security Forces, Intel, PA, etc., and the rated operators such as the pilots, navigators, ABMs, RPAs. This creates a very unique culture. I would probably need to write an entire book about it to fully encompass how it is different.
One example of how we are different is that we operate the equipment side-by-side with our enlisted counterparts (1C6X1). Our career field is about 50/50 officer to enlisted (this is an unofficial ratio), which means we have a unique leadership role in the lives of our Airmen. Our role is much different than Security Forces or Logistics officers who are charged to lead sometimes over 100 Airmen. Such units would have around 7-8 officers per squadron. Our squadrons probably have 40-50. This is a really long explanation to say that I am one of many officers in a training pipeline. Since they can’t train us all at the same time, there is a lot of waiting involved. While we are waiting they try to gainfully employ us and call such employment “casual status.”
While I was in casual status I was tasked to assist one of the actual squadrons performing an ops mission. This allowed me to get to know many members of the unit and gave me a feel for the operational culture of my career field, which is very different than the training pipeline culture. As I did this I began to pick up on a different type of respect. When people talked to me and realized I had a diverse foundation of knowledge, they began to realize I was not your average lieutenant. I personally believe when they discovered this I had earned the other type of respect, which is what I consider earned respect. This created another dynamic because it changed who I related to. If I had started commissioned service when I enlisted I would likely be a Major now, so I found it easy to talk to Captains and Majors. I worked in AFSPC where many of the Captains and Majors in my field also worked, so I shared many of the same experiences they had but from a different perspective. Conversation came very easily, and I sensed mutual respect.
Conversely, I often found it difficult to relate to other lieutenants. I was the only OTS graduate in my unit so I didn’t share that experience with anyone. Besides, how long do you really want to reminisce about your initial accession training? Since I graduated in December I also arrived at my base 4-6 months later than the ROTC and academy grads. Due to the nature of my career field there was a huge backlog of lieutenants waiting for training, myself included. I was in a weird in-between subculture and it was often difficult for me to find my comfort zone.
Redefining My Identity
To summarize this all, I found my “place” or “identity” in the Air Force strongly depended on who was around me. When I was in casual status life was great because I was working in close proximity with seasoned and established officers. I had my own office area so most people knew me as more than just lieutenant. When I was in the training pipeline I was treated like just another lieutenant. I was another person going through the training process and it was more difficult to stand out. With my classmates in the pipeline my identity varied depending on the topic of discussion or who the discussions were with. If we were talking about career mentorship or the Air Force in general, I had a wealth of knowledge and could often easily contribute to the conversation. If the new lieutenants were talking about the academy or our class was covering topics which I had zero educational experience with, I felt like an outsider. I will have to admit because I was so used to being in a comfort zone while enlisted, randomly feeling like an outsider really messed with my self-esteem and confidence. Not serious by any means, but it was something which I did not expect to experience.
The last thing I want to mention is that my opinions and observations are my own. I am writing in the midst of processing all of these experiences so over time my perspective may change. My intent with sharing all of this with you is to help you get a raw and unedited view of what I am going through so you can begin to digest how my experiences can apply to your own life. I encourage you to share your experiences with me, both similar and different. If you would like I can even include it on my blog. Thanks for reading!