Knowing expectations make chief difference

  • Published
  • By Frank McIntyre
  • Public Affairs
"I was a bad Airman -- the guy who the First Term Airman Center was invented for," said Chief Master Sgt. Jim Suttles. "I was good at my job, but struggling to be a good Airman."
Not what you'd expect to hear from the new 71st Flying Training Wing command chief master sergeant. Changing expectations, or becoming aware of them, is how the chief went from the verge of being kicked out of the Air Force to being Airman of the Year in just 12 months.
It may also come as a surprise to learn the chief had been on his own since he was 16, homeless and living in his car in East Los Angeles, while he struggling to survive while finishing high school.
"I almost didn't graduate," he said. "I had to take the bare minimum classes, ones I had a natural aptitude for, because I could only attend school until 11 a.m. Then I had to work from noon until 11:30 p.m. at minimum wages just to have food to eat, and eventually put a roof over my head.
"That was the background I had coming into the Air Force. I joined for basic survival reasons -- I needed a place to live, I needed a future, I needed a chance. I graduated from basic and technical training with honors and went to my first base - that's when I fell apart," Chief Suttles said.
"I went to my first base and all the controls were released so I started to revert back to what I knew best - living on the street. That got me in a lot of trouble and the Air Force was seriously considering kicking me out. That first year was very difficult for me. My boss wanted me to zig and I would zag, that led to letters of counseling, letters of reprimand and heading towards an Article 15.
"I finally got a good supervisor, one who cared about the troops, and he sat me down and said 'Airman Suttles, these are my expectations of you, these are the organization's expectations and these are the expectations of the Air Force. If you do these things, the Air Force will reward you, however if you don't meet these expectations then these are the actions I must take.'
"Finally after almost a year of service somebody took the time to tell me what was expected of me," the base's top enlisted member said. "Basically my first supervisor had failed me and I failed my first supervisor. My second supervisor turned me around. The next thing you know, a year later, I'm the Airman of the Year for the hospital, and the following year I am the youngest member on President Reagan's medical support team and the youngest member in the emergency room.
"My work ethic is not to get ahead in life, my work ethic is all about gratitude. Every day I give 100 percent, not so that one day I'd be a chief, but because I'm so thankful the Air Force has given me an opportunity. I owe just about everything I have to the Air Force -- I'm truly grateful."
Gratitude is what led Chief Suttles to his current assignment and a position to help the Team Vance enlisted force recognize what is expected of them.
"The term sergeant means to serve, so I am the command chief servant. Service is the Air Force's second core value and that's why I'm here. I'm not stepping on anybody's back and I'll put as many on my shoulders as I can hold. From my perspective, the organizational chart is flipped. I'm at the bottom and will support everyone else."
Young Airmen who may be having early adjustment struggles similar to the chief's will be among those he supports.
"Having been there, done that, I am not quick to throw Airmen away. I don't believe in the term 'bad' Airmen, I believe there are Airmen with problems. Sometimes we can correct and resolve those problems, sometimes we can't, but we do not have bad Airmen. We have Airmen with troubles."
In the 24 years since a young Airman Suttles resolved his problems, he has had a career filled with notable achievements ranging from annual command-wide recognition awards to several honor graduate awards, including the John Levitow award.
But with all the honors and awards he could display in his office, the place of honor goes to the flag he was presented at the funeral of retired Army Sergeant First Class Glenn Suttles, his father.
"After I finally straightened out from all the problems I was having in my first year in the service, I went to see my Dad and we became best of friends. He retired after 21 years of service, a well-decorated Vietnam war hero with a couple of Purple Hearts and a couple of Air Medals. Unfortunately he passed away before he was able to witness my success ,but as I sit here today as Command Chief Master Sergeant, I know he would be very proud of me. I met his expectations."