Reflections of Chief Master Sergeants

Chief Master Sgt. Brian Thomas, 319th Air Base Wing command chief (right), presents his chief coin alongside mentor and friend, (ret.) Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, March 23, 2018, at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Markham gifted Thomas this coin when Thomas pinned on chief in 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Elijaih Tiggs)

Chief Master Sgt. Brian Thomas, 319th Air Base Wing command chief (right), presents his chief coin alongside mentor and friend, (ret.) Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham, March 23, 2018, at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. Markham gifted Thomas this coin when Thomas pinned on chief in 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Elijaih Tiggs)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Recalling his early memories of the chief master sergeants who left impressions of exemplary leadership and model airmanship, (Ret) Chief Master Sgt. Calvin Markham expressively described Chief Master Sgt. Roberts. “This 6’3” polar bear grip, crusty old chief master sergeant walks in the room, and he represented protection,” said Markham using his hands to depict bear paws. “He took care of his Airmen. Whatever squadron he was in, that was the best squadron. When he was talking to you he knew all about your family when he walked into a room you knew everything was okay.”

Markham visited Grand Forks Air Force Base to be the guest speaker for the 2018 Chief Induction Ceremony March 23, but before the night of the ceremony, he sat down with Chief Master Sgt. Brian Thomas, 319th Air Base Wing command chief, and discussed their AF careers. Markham and Thomas were stationed together at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall in England where Markham began to mentor and guide Thomas from senior master sgt. toward becoming a chief.

Following his assignment as a squadron chief, Markham was appointed command chief of 352nd Special Operations Squadron in England where he met Thomas. Catching Markham at an opportune time, Thomas asked how he could become a command chief himself. “Let’s get you to chief first,” replied Markham.

Markham said chiefs are the voice of reason to commanders. Chiefs have the responsibility to influence and affect things for Airmen because chiefs are the ones in units, squadrons, groups, wings, and even major commands who have direct access to commanders.

Markham duly noted the hard work Thomas contributed as the superintendent of the 352nd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. When the opportunity arose, he used his direct access to his commander to nominate Thomas to lead a Joint Task Force.

“Being a good leader is being a good follower. It is recognizing people who you know are going to lead in the future or right then,” said Markham.

Although there were two other chiefs in the 352nd SOMXS with Thomas, to Markham it seemed they thought they had arrived and were at the finish line of their service. Markham had faith in what he believed Thomas could achieve. When Thomas returned after successfully establishing a working environment in the JTF, Markham knew this was who he could trust to get the job done.

“When you become a chief, you have just crossed the starting line,” said Markham.

Continuing to place trust in Thomas’ character and work ethic, Markham made the decision to recommend Thomas to be the temporary command chief when Markham left for his next assignment. Despite having available chiefs, he chose to give the opportunity to Thomas, who he knew would excel and exceed expectations because of his caliber.

“That was the environment of excellence that we created. We don’t care what your rank is, if you are the right person for the right job, we are going to put you there, and then we will get you the rank you need to back that up,” said Markham.

Not without fault, Thomas stated that after becoming a chief, he realized everyone always needs feedback, because it provides people with the opportunity to grow and become better.

Although he was told nothing will ever be about him once he made chief, Thomas admitted it took him some time in the beginning of his time as a chief to understand. Once the day came when he did realize that, Thomas said he made some decisions and changes to his actions to better interact with his fellow Airmen, and that the difference was night and day.

“Airmen don’t know if you’ve been a chief one day, or 10 years,” said Thomas. “You have to do your absolute best to stay knowledgeable on what is going on in the Air Force and what is going on in the world that affects them, then get out and talk to them.”

Aspiring to be the best chief he can be, Thomas still has mentors who are in the service to help him continue to grow. Command Chief Master Sgt. Stan Cadel with the 25th Air Force, is a mentor and friend of Thomas’. Thomas said he admires Cadel’s relatability and how he takes care of Airmen, which Cadel gained as skills from being a first sergeant for more than a decade. Thomas also mentioned he views Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright as a transformational leader due to how well he communicates with and relates to Airmen.

“There are a lot of behaviors that a lot of chiefs could stand to emulate from Chief Wright,” said Thomas. “That’s why he is so beloved right now, because Airmen from any Air Force specialty code, any culture, any ethnicity, anywhere can relate to Chief Wright.”

Thomas’ mentorship and friendship with Markham is more personal from their professional experience in service together. When Thomas first made chief, he said Markham gave him his first chief coin.

“He gave me this coin in 2013, and I have carried it on me in my uniform all around the planet, from Africa, to Iraq, to Afghanistan and Asia,” said Thomas. “I carry this coin with me every single day, because I respect him that much.”

Thomas said he regards Markham so highly because of his commitment to taking care of Airmen and how he epitomizes what it means to be a true servant leader with boldness.

Markham said he continues to carry high respect for Thomas as well, because since the days he recognized him as a high caliber senior master sergeant, he has proven his capability time and time again.

“Now Brian is a command chief,” said Markham. “I’m proud of you, brother, so damn proud of you.”