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Recruiters on the hunt for more MTIs

An airman receives an Airman's Coin from her military training instructor during graduation week.

An airman receives an Airman's Coin from her military training instructor during graduation week.

Lackland AFB, Texas -- Master Sgt. Eric Gaona wants you to have the chance to make a lasting impression on future airmen. He wants you to become a military training instructor.

The job is always a tough sell -- a four-year commitment, 14-hour days, the stress of molding civilians into new airmen. But Gaona and his team of MTI recruiters are feeling the pressure even more these days because they have 36 slots to fill a quarter, or 144 a year.

Today, the Air Force has 473 MTIs. By year's end, the MTIs will have transformed more than 35,000 civilians into airmen.

"The best feeling we get is what we feel on graduation day when that parent comes up to you, often with tears in their eyes, and asks you how you did it," Gaona said. "For some of those parents, it's the first time they've heard a sir or ma'am."

Developing leaders
Being an MTI isn't only long hours and hard work -- the two things Gaona is probably asked about most.

It's a career booster.

"We're developing leaders here...," he said, "and the quality of leadership skills that come from leading 60 individuals every eight weeks is incomparable."

It's an ongoing challenge for Gaona and his three-member team -- two other recruiters and an airman who provides administrative support -- to make their numbers because of the permanent change-of-station and time-on-station requirements of many applicants, but the heat will really be on in the coming months because roughly 250 MTIs wrap up their commitments in 2013.

Manning for MTIs in 2009 dropped by 50 percent, forcing the service to bring on those 250 MTIs in a matter of months.

"We don't want to find ourselves in the same situation again," Gaona said.

To ensure there is a healthy supply of military training instructors, Gaona came up with the quarterly goal.

"We don't want to hire 250 at a time again," he said. "Recruiting has a plan now; 36 is a hard number."

All MTIs are enlisted airmen with three or more years of service who applied for the special duty assignment.

The qualifications are demanding. For example, you must undergo a mental health evaluation and you must have a recommendation from your unit commander.

"We're screening for the highest-caliber Air Force leaders because they're going to be making little carbon copies of themselves," said Gaona, whose team is assigned to the 737th Training Support Squadron. "They have to be somebody that airmen can emulate."

MTI training is at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where basic military training takes place.

The seven-week course covers everything from instilling discipline and instructing drill to delivering briefs and providing counseling. Students have to demonstrate what they've learned during a 90-day certification period.

Those who finally make the cut get to pin on the MTI ribbon and collect an extra $450 a month in special duty pay.

"It's a big responsibility," Gaona said. "You are taking 40 to 60 young individuals, from all walks of life ... with different values. You are tasked with stripping away everything negative and making a professional out of them."

Transforming lives
MTIs have a hand in shaping the future of the Air Force, which is what the 737th's commander sees as a huge plus of the job.

"It's a prime opportunity to see the results of what you do in the Air Force beyond what you do to maintain that day-to-day state of readiness," Lt. Col. Jared Granstrom said. "You get the opportunity to take a civilian fresh from home and transform them into airmen."

Gaona knows -- from his own experience and from talking with recruits -- just what a lasting effect an MTI can have on an airman.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. William Dambacher is the one who Gaona credits with taking him through the transition of civilian to airman, especially teaching him the importance of self-discipline.

"He left quite an impression on me," Gaona said of Dambacher. "He turned my life around."

Three years after boot camp, Gaona found himself back at Lackland to follow in Dambacher's footsteps. Now, he's leading the effort to attract the Dambachers of the future, who undoubtedly will have a profound impact on tens of thousands of would-be airmen.

"Nobody," he said, "forgets their MTI."

MORE INFO
Want to know more? Call Master Sgt. Eric Gaona at 210-671-3833 or 210-671-1018