JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas – An Air Force Reserve military training instructor and MTI recruiter swapped his campaign cover for a RED HORSE ball cap this month, and has returned to his pre-MTI career field with new tools that he'll use in the next phase of his career.
In 2017, the 433rd Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas – the only Reserve MTI squadron in the Air Force – was undermanned, with every Reserve military training instructor digging deep to serve a critical Air Force mission that affected every component of the Air Force.
While administrative support from its headquarters (the 340th Flying Training Group at JBSA-Randolph) helped ease the strain, leadership knew that filling the vacancies was paramount, and was easier said than done for the all-volunteer special duty.
One MTI – then Tech. Sgt. Robert Elliott – saw an opportunity to put his passion to work and applied for the squadron recruiter position. Today, the squadron is not only fully manned but is also carrying a full share of the Air Force basic military training mission.
Elliott, now a master sergeant, will tell you that he did work hard to recruit the right people for this indispensable role, but reaching goals wasn't just because of him. All he did was make people aware of the incredible opportunity to change lives and affect national security in a way few others will ever know.
For Elliott, that wasn't just a recruiting spiel. He knew what it took to become an MTI, he knew how it felt to impact thousands of American Airmen at the beginning of their journey, and he knew that being an MTI grew him in ways he had not imagined possible.
"Master Sgt. Elliott did an incredible job for the 433rd in his time here," said Lt. Col. Anthony Erard, 433rd TRS commander. "Not only did he get our unit manning to 100 percent, but he did so with outstanding candidates. The impact he has had on the 433rd, on basic military training, and the Air Force in general will be felt for many years to come."
With things are running a little smoother, now that manning numbers have improved, you might consider this the perfect time to relax and enjoy the manpower prosperity. Not for Elliott. He's handed the recruiting baton to a dynamic MTI teammate – Master Sgt. Hugo Escobedo – and he's heading west.
Knowing that the MTI recruiter role continues to be in exceptional hands eased Elliott's regrets about leaving.
And Escobedo, who has already racked up significant contributions to the squadron and BMT, is ready to carry the torch. In addition to pushing flights as an MTI, he has been an MTI instructor, served in BMT management and logistics functions, and is a certified Professional DynaMetric Program leadership facilitator.
Erard echoed Elliott's perspective.
"We have the utmost confidence in Master Sgt. Escobedo’s ability to keep all the positive momentum going. MTIs from the 433rd are in more demand than ever, thanks to the pandemic. Sergeant Escobedo will ensure we stay fully-manned and able to meet the needs of our active partners in producing world class Airmen for the world’s greatest Air Force," Erard said.
Elliott came to the 433rd from Nellis AFB, Nevada, where he was a runway repair specialist with the 555th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers (RED HORSE) Squadron, and now he's returning as a senior noncommissioned officer with a bag full of leadership skills developed while helping basic trainees develop Airmanship skills.
While his story doesn't seem unusual for Reserve Citizen Airmen, he came to this place in his career via a round-about journey that included four years on active duty (most of which was spent deployed), a brief stint in the Reserve ("I was not a great Reservist – I just didn't get the system"), a 17-year break in service that included starting a family and raising his daughter (now a nurse), as well as establishing a business (real estate, home construction, remodeling, concrete services), and finally yielding to an ever present and increasingly demanding need to return to the uniform.
In 2009, he worked with a Reserve recruiter, accepting an opportunity with RED HORSE. Similar to his active duty time, he was frequently deployed, but time and experience stood him in good stead, broadening his perspective and enabling him to more clearly understand how his role affected the Air Force Reserve and the country.
That perspective motivated him to become a subject matter expert in his functional area, and he soon became the "go-to" guy for those in need of advice or assistance. After half-a-dozen years with RED HORSE, he saw an advertisement for Reserve MTIs in Citizen Airman Magazine and was intrigued. While he loved RED HORSE, he didn't want to stop growing professionally, so he applied. In December 2015, he started his MTI career.
"There was nothing familiar about being an MTI," said Elliott, contrasting the experience with how he felt years prior, when nothing made sense. "Even if you 'know' what MTIs do, that won't prepare you for the reality of doing it. But, being an MTI will propel you as an NCO and a leader - you can't not grow here."
His growth – throughout his career, but especially as an MTI – was bolstered by mentorship and guidance from peers and senior leaders across the Air Force and Reserve, including various command chiefs, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and commanders.
As the MTI recruiter, he visited Reserve installations to brief leaders and Airmen on the MTI field, opportunities and benefits.
"Unfortunately, you learn as much from negative examples as you do from positive," he said. "I have had some powerful, positive mentors, though, and that's the kind of leader I want to be."
One of those leaders was Chief Master Sgt. Cynthia Villa, now the 4th Air Force command chief.
"Focus on the people you're talking to, remove distractions from the environment so that it's obvious that you care about people and their needs," he said. "Simple, maybe, but she lived it, was consistently 'there' for you, and you got a true sense with her that she is legitimately concerned."
Villa's example encouraged Elliott to make people a priority, and even affected how his office was set up.
"This table, away from the computer and other distractions, is where I talk with people – it's how Chief met with people, and you could see the impact that her 100-percent attention had on others," he explained.
It's an attitude he hopes he conveyed to his teammates, as well as candidates he met around the country. In addition, he values honest communication and ensuring that people really know what to expect before they apply.
"People who want to be an MTI should absolutely apply, but come to the position understanding that BMT has a shelf-life," he said. "This is not the place to homestead – serving as an MTI should be an opportunity for career progression and leadership development, as well as serving America's newest Airmen."
And that is the key to being an MTI: the skills MTIs develop are only valuable when shared with others.
"Come here, absorb all you can and take it back to your original career field, where you can be a great mentor for others," he advised. "Stay in touch with your career field colleagues. Maintain unit and former teammate relationships, so you'll be ready when it's time to go back to your AFSC."
The Reserve assignment process is very different from the Regular Air Force (or active duty) process, which can be problematic with assignments like MTI duty, where there isn't an automatic process in place to return members to their previous career field. Reserve Airmen need to stay on top of that issue, he said.
"Plan and manage your career," he advised, explaining that they will garner the greatest benefits if they limit their time (around four years), and start looking for their next assignment at about the three-year mark.
Elliott's focus on developing and mentoring others is one of the characteristics that he and Villa share, she said.
"Rob Elliott has been an amazing teammate. As a command chief, I do not have the answers to everything, but I’m blessed to be surrounded by solid senior NCOs like Rob who I can reach out at any given time and capitalize on their expertise," she said. "We share a passion to serve, mentor, and develop Airmen. We’ve learned from each other’s perspectives and have challenged each other to work at becoming better leaders; always learning and growing."
Although leaving the MTI world caused him some regret, having returned to the RED HORSE team, Elliott looks forward to sharing lessons learned over the past four-plus years with his teammates, and is excited to be able to continue to learn and grow as a leader.
"There will be fluctuations in MTI manning – people leave, others come in to take their place – but the 433rd team is the best in the business and they're taking the squadron to the next level," he said.