My Story: How Engaging an Airman Made a Difference

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Grengs
  • 52 FW/CCC
One afternoon, I came home from work to find my wife and two kids gone.

Now, when there's no note saying, "I went out shopping, or I'm with a friend," and I have the only car, I knew exactly what happened.

Most people have had that person who shows a genuine interest in their lives. Sometimes, it's a first sergeant, a commander, or even a co-worker. For me, it was one of my NCOs in charge.

It was 1993, and I was a senior airman stationed at Tinker AFB with my wife, Estelle, and our two young children. At that time in my life, I was a demanding perfectionist, a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy especially at home. I also tended to get angry over things that now seem insignificant and to be blunt, I was selfish and immature in a lot of ways.

When I received the phone call from Estelle, who was in New Hampshire with her family, I wasn't surprised. She had finally had enough and called her parents to tell them what was going on. Her parents didn't hesitate, they immediately bought her and the kids tickets to go home, and like that, she was gone.

All along, while my personal life was in crisis, my work life didn't reflect it. I was a model Airman. I went to work and performed my duties exceedingly well - I bled Air Force blue. I loved what I did and I never allowed my co-workers and supervisors to think there was anything else different about what was happening at home...that is, until that day when everything fell apart.

At that point, I felt my marriage and family were done, it was over - Estelle had left. Her parents had already started making plans for her to move on with her life, and those plans didn't include me. When you're in your early 20s and you've been married about three years, it was easy to think, "this is it."

The next day, I went to work and immediately told my NCOIC, Staff Sgt. Mike Anderson. You see, SSgt Anderson had earned my trust and respect. So, it never crossed my mind not to share what had happened with him. I needed answers, and I knew he might have some.

I simply told him, "Estelle has left me, and she took the kids."

His first response was, "You need to go get your family."

I was shocked. "What do you mean?"

"You need to get your family. This is your family at stake. This is about you and your wife, trying to work this out, getting the help you need."

He knew that if my wife and I were going to make this work, we needed help...but first, I needed to go get her and the kids.

So, I got on a plane and flew out on what I call a "covert" mission to bring my family home. With a little bit of faith and a lot of forgiveness on Estelle's part, I convinced her and the kids to come home.

Once we got home, I dedicated myself to changing and making my marriage work; I never wanted to lose my family again. We got involved with our church and received the counseling we - really I - needed. I also sought professional counseling from services in the local community. Now, 23 years into our marriage, I'm still committed to ensuring my family is my first priority. Like any couple, we still have our ups and downs, and I still have my selfish moments, but we're happy and we're together.

Because my NCOIC cared enough to engage with his Airmen, he gave us the tools to save a marriage and set the example that has continued to influence me to this day. He connected with me and built that trust, so that when I did have a problem in my life, no matter how embarrassing, I could go to him.

Knowing your Airmen and being engaged allows you to appreciate their value, what they bring to the team and their unique abilities and skills. It also allows you to get to know them at a level that if things may not be going right in their lives, you can detect that. And, most importantly, they'll come to you to let you know they need help.

Being engaged with your fellow Airmen, no matter your rank, is your responsibility. It's also an opportunity to make a difference and establish a legacy of taking care of people.
I know we work in a fast-paced world with relentless mission requirements, but you have to find the time to talk to your Airmen. Don't talk over them or talk around them, just talk to them and let them know that they are valuable part of the team. It's those moments when you go to grab a cup of coffee and listen to them, that you start making a difference.

This doesn't mean we don't hold them accountable, but when our Airmen know we genuinely care about them and respect them, they understand and even appreciate when we have to uphold standards. Airmen need to know we've got their backs, not only in the good times, but in the bad times too.

So, as you look back at your life and your career, what matters the most? It's the people. It's the relationships. It's the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference.