Pro tips for new Airmenderek

You made it through BMT, Tech School, and now it’s time to get into the “real” Air Force and do awesome things and make tons of money, right? Well, it’s not always so easy. Here are some things I wish I had known earlier in my career that you may find helpful.

TSP

Start putting money into your Thrift Savings Plan early. I actually did this one correctly and started it immediately at 10%. Since I started it in the beginning I have never missed the money. I’m not a financial adviser, but it’ll probably be best to put your money into the Roth version, since your income and tax bracket will probably be lower when you start in the Air Force than when you retire. Also, don’t leave your money in the default “G” fund. This is a safe fund, but you’ll earn very little interest. Instead, put it into the appropriate Lifecycle Fund, or if you are comfortable with your choices and have done the research, balance your money in the G/F/C/S/I funds yourself. There are calculators on the TSP site that will show you what kind of cash you can retire with after the interest compounds for a few decades.

CDCs

Finish your Career Development Courses as soon as possible. Everyone to include your supervisor, NCO in Charge, first sergeant, commander, and flight commander will keep bugging you to finish your CDC’s and it’ll be the first thing they ask you about every time they see you. The sooner you finish, the sooner people will leave you alone. It’s also an easy way to stand out as a “stellar airman”, to finish them faster than required, or faster than your peers. Make sure you score well on them as well. You only need a 65% to pass, but getting a 90%+ will again, help you stand out quickly.

Marriage

Out-of-the-DormsDon’t get married in tech school, to get out of the dorms, or before you are ready. It’s a stereotype that all tech school marriages will fail, but stereotypes are often rooted in truth. You may find a handsome young man or attractive young lady in tech school that you think you just can’t live without, and think that getting married is the only way you can stay together, and hey, you don’t have to live in the dorms either! But getting married after only knowing someone a few months is rarely a good idea, especially when your decision is influenced by other factors like looming separation with your crush, and the freedom of not living in the dorms. Every now and then you’ll hear of someone getting married in tech school that is still together and still happy, but it’s rare and generally not advisable.

Bullets

Write down everything you do for your Enlisted Performance Report (EPR). Your EPR is made up of “bullets”, one line descriptions of something you did during the year. These bullets are typically written in three parts:

  • Action – What you did
  • Impact – The impact of your actions
  • Result – The result of your actions

They are usually riddled with acronyms, Air Force lingo, and abbreviations and are almost impossible to decipher until you have been in the Air Force for a while.

Here’s an example of an old one of mine:

– Awarded DG in SBIRS initial training course; earned “Ops Excellence” award for 3rd qtr 2008–#1 of 15 Data System Operators

DG means “Distinguished Graduate”, which is the top of the class. SBIRS is an abbreviation for Space-Based Infrared System. “Ops Excellence” is an award I won for a certain quarter, and then the last bit is a “stratification”, a ranking against your peers.

To someone reviewing your EPR or an awards package of Officer Training School application, this bullet says that you were the top of your class in tech school and won a quarterly award for being awesome at your job, which resulted in you being #1 out of 15 of your peers doing the same job.

Stratifications are much more important for officers than enlisted members, but with the upcoming changes to the enlisted evaluation system in 2016, they will likely become more important for enlisted members.

It is your responsibility to collect the information for your EPR, but your supervisor will most likely craft the bullets into the standardized format. It’ll be much better for you if you hand your supervisor a spreadsheet full of information to put into your EPR when the time comes, rather than having to scrounge up information about things you did a year ago.

Numbers are good for bullets, so you want to collect information like hours you volunteered somewhere, dollar amounts of projects you managed or systems you worked on, pounds of food you collected, percentage increases in productivity after you implemented a new process at work, etc. Be specific and collect as much data as you can. Keep a spreadsheet or Word document on your computer with a list of all of the things you’ve done all year so that when your EPR comes due, you’ll have more than enough bullets to fill it up. Keep track of work-related bullets as well as volunteer work and self-improvement.

Education

If you plan to get an education while you’re in the Air Force, start as soon as your supervisor will let you. I’ve seen “What is your biggest regret” threads on /r/airforce that feature many people saying they wish they had started on their education earlier instead of partying or sitting in their room. Even if you don’t plan to get an education, finish your Community College of the Air Force degree. It’ll really set you apart from your peers and it’s another thing people will stop bugging you about.

CLEP or take DANTES exams to get out of as many classes as possible. They are free, so take them even if you aren’t sure you’ll pass. Won’t hurt anything.

Apply for Pell Grants if you start going to school. They may write you a check for thousands of dollars.

Read the education page for more info.

Fitness

24p2FweI don’t agree with it at all, but failing a fitness test, especially multiple, can have a huge impact on your career. It can limit you from certain special duties, keep you from re-enlisting, give you a referral EPR (bad), get you paperwork, and eventually even get you kicked out of the Air Force. Unfortunately you can be sub-standard at your job and likely skate by, but if you start failing PT tests, you’re going to be in a heap of trouble.

So keep your fitness up, it doesn’t take too much effort to pass with a decent score, especially if you are still young. It’s much easier to maintain your fitness than to ramp up right before a fitness test. Though I must admit I still do this and know many other people that do, so do as I say, not as I do.

Take advantage of Free Stuff

Keep an eye out when reading your emails, during commanders calls, and everywhere else for free activities and offers for military members. Pretty much every base has a ticketing office that will sell you cheap tickets to local attractions, Disneyland, etc. The Airman and Family Readiness center offers free classes on financial management, writing a resume, finding a job after the military, etc. Sometimes they offer “single airman” activities where you can go as a group and pay a cheap group rate to do something fun like white water rafting or skydiving.

Take advantage of military discounts. Some people don’t feel right to ask for them, which is fine. I’ll almost always ask, personally. If they say no, fine, just continue with the purchase. Don’t act entitled and complain about it if they don’t offer one. It’s certainly not required for them to do.

Stay off the naughty list

Commanders are briefed regularly on the status of their squadron in regards to ancillary training, fitness testing, medical appointments and check-ups, etc. Your goal should be to stay off of this “naughty list.” You don’t want your name highlighted in red in front of all of the leadership, so make sure you stay current on your ancillary training, show up to your doctor appointments, be where you’re supposed to be at the time you’re supposed to be there (or a little earlier), finish your CDCs quickly, finish your CCAF, and follow the other tips in this guide.

Manage your money

Just like you want to avoid getting married in tech school, you should also avoid buying a brand new Mustang as soon as you get to your first base. Again it is a stereotype based on truth that many young airmen see their first regular pay check since graduating high school and decide to spend over half of it on a car payment. Don’t be that guy. Buy something within your means. Take classes at the Airman and Family Readiness center if necessary to help you set up a budget and manage your money.

The most common reason people lose their security clearance is due to money problems. If you work in a job that requires a clearance and lose it, you’ll quickly find yourself doing things you don’t want to be doing (usually involving manual labor).

Be careful with alcohol

If you’re underage, don’t drink. Seriously, it’s not worth it. During the short time I was in tech school I saw many other airmen get in trouble for underage drinking, and I was a tiny tech school. It’s not worth throwing away your career for one night of partying. If you’re of age, be smart. Don’t drink and drive, be extremely careful in sexual situations if one or both of you are drunk. This is stuff that you’ll be briefed about until you’re sick of hearing about it, but it’s for a reason, because people keep making these mistakes.