The gift of mentorship

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Paul "Unk" Tom
  • 5th Flying Training Squadron commander
If asked what the number one reason for any success I have achieved in my career is, I would answer without hesitation -- my mentors. 

While they did not give me a free ticket to promotion or an inside avenue to assignments, they were pivotal in providing me the inspiration, vector and characteristics to harness the opportunities I would face in my Air Force career. 

They are my trusted guides, the source of my vision and role models who help me through the toughest challenges. 

I was sitting in front the computer just the other day, wading through the e-mail that had piled up during my leave, when the phone rang. It was a familiar voice from Oregon, retired Air Force Col. Norv Richie, a close friend to the family who had played college ball with my father. 

The most upbeat, professional and personable gentleman you would ever meet, he was simply giving me a call to see how my command was going and what I was pursuing in the future. Like a guardian angel he was able to briefly pull me away from my work to reflect on myself. 

As selfish as this sounds, we all need to occasionally step back and take a look at ourselves from the outside, to continually assess how we are doing and where we are going. A mentor is an excellent facilitator for this type of introspection. 

Coincidentally, had it not been for a visit from Colonel Richie to encourage me into the Air Force ROTC program 23 years ago, I would probably be selling snow cones on Kailua beach in Hawaii for a living. 

No matter what job you have in the military, there will be a time you are asked to lead or think independently. A mentor who shares expertise in the art of leadership or technical knowledge is a priceless commodity. 

Retired Col. Gregory Phillips, my first squadron commander in the Reserve, was a pioneer at starting Reserve associate units from the ground up. He was involved in the first Reserve associate Airborne Warning and Control Systems, Air Education and Training Command trainer and F-16 Fighting Falcon training programs in the Air Force. 

His vision and ability to influence people toward building successful associations in operations was phenomenal. He taught me if you provide your organization a vision and give your people ownership of that vision, they will take it upon themselves to do amazing things. 

Learn what you can from your supervisors, and don't be afraid to share your leadership philosophies and technical expertise with your subordinates. 

Sometimes mentors don't need to say much because your association with them as a role model is enough to inspire your service. 

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Gene Castagnetti has been that type of mentor in my life. A Silver Star recipient from the Vietnam War, his command presence, unquestionable patriotism and dash of humility is enough for anyone to aspire to as part of their commitment to service. 

Currently the director of the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, he stated that his career as director has provided "one of the greatest privileges of my life." One of the greatest privileges of my life was receiving my commission from Colonel Castagnetti and having him as a mentor and role model over the past 28 years. 

Mentorship is an important part of our Air Force culture and every Airman should seek the opportunity to be mentored, as well as to be a mentor for others. 

Air Force Instruction 36-3401, "Air Force Mentoring," is a good place to find official guidance. There are also, as cited in my examples, tremendous opportunities for mentorship from the service members you will meet during your life. 

Finally, it is our duty as leaders to mentor and establish the professional relationships that enable our fellow service members to learn from our experience, vision and our examples as role models.