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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.
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.
Not to mention with the new Blended Retirement System, the government will match what you put into it up to an extra 5% of your pay. You would be incredibly foolish not to use this benefit. You are leaving real money on the table if you are not putting at least 5% of your base pay into this account.
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 and may even earn you a day or two off from your commander.
Don’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.
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.
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.
I 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 in 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.
Read a few Air Force Instructions
Air Force Instructions or AFI’s are the regulations that govern most things in the Air Force. They are written orders from higher level commanders that tell you all kinds of important things that you must do. There are a few that are especially applicable to junior airmen, and you should read them or at least be familiar with them and be able to find what you need.
Most AFI’s are available online through the Air Force ePubs web site. Simply go there and use the search feature to find the one you want. There are also a lot of electronic forms stored here, which you may need for your job or for general Air Force things that you are doing.
Here are a few AFI’s that I think every junior airman should be familiar with:
- AFH 33-337 – The Tongue and Quill – This is a long document that tells you how to format and write every type of correspondence in the Air Force, from an email, to an MFR (Memo For Record) and everything in-between.
- AFI 36-2903 – Dress and Appearance – This tells you how to wear your uniform, in great detail. As a junior airman you will be judged on your ability to wear the uniform correctly, so this is a must to know inside and out. When you’re an NCO, you will be required to enforce the standards on the airmen under you, so the sooner you are a pro at this, the better.
- AFI 1-1 – Air Force Standards – This is kind of a catch-all instruction that talks about many different things that will be important to you in your career. It is also a good jumping-off point, because it references a lot of other AFI’s that will provide more detail.
- AFI 36-3003 – Military Leave Program – You don’t need to read this one top to bottom, but know how to reference it when you have any tricky questions about leave. For instance, did you know that if you are taking leave, you can actually leave the day before after working half the day (if your supervisor approves it)? Read this AFI!
- AFH 36-2618 – The Enlisted Force Structure – Newly re-written in 2018, this document defines what is expected of every rank of Airman in the Air Force, from the Airman Basic to officers and civilians. At a bare minimum, read the sections for your rank, and your supervisor’s rank.
Manage Stress and Your Mental Health
There are a lot of stressors in the civilian world (relationships, family, friends, loneliness, money, depression, anxiety, long work hours), and there are a lot more that are unique to the military. Thankfully, there are also a lot of resources available to support your mental health. The trick is, you have to use them. Your supervisor, peers, and leadership can’t read your mind, and won’t always know if you need help.
If you feel you feel sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, overly stressed or angry, are unable to sleep, suicidal, homicidal or anything of the sort, please reach out to some of these resources.
If you feel like you may hurt yourself or someone else, please use these immediate resources.
Chat online – For those that aren’t comfortable calling someone
Text for support (Text to 838255)
Or, walk into an emergency room if you are a danger to yourself or others.
Air Force / Local Resources
Most bases should have the following resources available.
- Mental Health Clinic – Trained mental health professionals on base. They are good for long-term help and therapy, obtaining medication, that may help with your issue, etc. Contrary to popular opinion, this will not ruin your career. The only time it would have a chance of affecting your career is if your diagnosis or issue prevented you from doing your job.
- Chaplain – 100% confidentiality, good first point of contact, as they should be educated on finding you the best options to follow-up with. You can tell them absolutely anything, and it will never be repeated. Not to mental health, your commander, first shirt, anyone. They are usually on-call 24/7 at most bases, and are generally very helpful and nice people. They will help you even if you are not religious, and will not preach at you or try to convert you.
- MFLC – Local trained counselors. Can meet you on base or anywhere in town other than your home. You don’t even have to give them a name. Counselors are rotated every six months or so to maintain your anonymity. They don’t keep any records and the talk is not documented anywhere in your medical or personnel files.
- BHOP – Some bases can give you 1 – 4 sessions with behavioral health providers.
- Airman and Family Readiness Center – Most bases have an AFRC, and most of them will have classes on managing stress in your life, managing your finances, managing a drinking habit, etc. They also frequently have special activities programs available for free for single airmen, so if you’re feeling lonely and isolated, it can be a good way to meet other people with your interests on the base.