From “Troubled Airman” to highest enlisted tier: A chief’s journey through mentorship

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
“Let me tell you about the power of mentorship,” said Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright, United States Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa command chief, before a crowd of Airmen and civilians at the 86th Comptroller Squadron here.

“What I think is important for all of you is deliberate development. There are tons of opportunities for you to grow, develop, and be a better person, but sometimes we’re not as deliberate as we should be.”

Wright, who is slated to become the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, visited Airmen to discuss with them the importance of having a mentor, and the impact a mentor can have on an Airman’s career.

Wright shared his own story of how his mentor helped him change the course of his career when he was a young Airman.

“When I was an Airman, I was a menace to society,” Wright said jokingly, drawing a roar of laughter from the audience. “Sometimes I’m almost embarrassed to talk about some of the things I did as a young Airman, and how misguided I was.”

Wright remembered taking leave after graduating from his technical training in 1989, and calling his first duty station, Pope Air Force Base, now Pope Army Air Field, North Carolina, to tell them he was going to be late because he was “still hanging out.”

That was when he was introduced to his future mentor.

“Whoever answered the phone said, ‘ok, hold on,’” Wright recalled. “And they gave the phone to Tech. Sgt. Joe Winbush,” he said smiling sheepishly.

The now retired Master Sgt. Joseph Winbush was not pleased. He gave Wright a piece of his mind, and ordered Wright to report for duty at a certain place and time.

“So I jumped on the bus as he instructed, and rode from Columbus, Georgia, to North Carolina,” Wright said. “When I got off the bus, you know who met me? It wasn’t my sponsor, it wasn’t my supervisor: it was Joe Winbush. He threw me into the car and drove me from the airport to Pope Air Force Base.”

“It seemed like a seven hour ride, but it was probably just only 20 minutes,” he continued, shaking his head and smiling. “And man, I got a talking to… I got a talking to.”

That same day, Winbush picked up Wright from his dorm and took him to his house for dinner.

“He sat me down and said, ‘let me tell you why what you did made no sense,’” Wright recalled. “’Let me tell you how to be a professional, how to wear the uniform, how to stay out of trouble, and how to deal with adversity.’”

Thus began Wright’s Air Force career, and his long journey through mentorship. Wright admitted that having Winbush as a mentor was not easy. However, Wright acknowledged that Winbush’s firmness helped steer him in the right direction in his career.

“He was always tough on me; he always told me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear,” Wright said, and took a long pause. “Let me tell you, without now Master Sgt. retired Joseph Winbush, I would be nothing.”

“I’ve received letters of counseling, letters of reprimand, basically every LO you can think of,” Wright added.

After a string of negative paperwork, Winbush ordered Wright to join the base honor guard. In the honor guard, Wright would perform various military ceremonies—including funerals.

It was at one particular funeral where Wright found a turning point in his career, when he was presenting the flag to the deceased’s next-of-kin.

“I got down on one knee, gave the statement, and for the first time I actually locked eyes with the spouse,” Wright said, this time taking a more serious tone. “All she said was ‘thank you,’ and a tear rolled down her cheek.

That day I cried,” He continued. “At that second, at that moment, I said to myself, ‘Kaleth, you have to do something with your life; you have to get right.’ That started the process of my 180; from being a menace of society and a troublemaker, to trying to make something of myself.”

Wright would eventually rise through the ranks and become a mentor himself. One of the beneficiaries of his mentorship was Tech. Sgt. Gerry Volcy, 86th CPTS financial management analysis supervisor.

The two met when Volcy was at his first duty station, not very long after he emigrated from his homeland, Haiti.

“Joining the Air Force after being in the U.S. for a few years was a shock,” Volcy said. “He took me under his wing and started to mentor me to be a positive father figure, role model, and so forth. This eventually evolved to mentorship in my career; I didn’t know or understand what mentorship was, but he reached out to me although I was not in his unit. He continued to keep a close eye on my progression as I became a Military Training Instructor and moved through the ranks.”

“Chief Wright, to me, is that parent and teacher you can’t fool; he will give you the candid feedback you deserve,” Volcy added.

As Wright continued his talk, he encouraged Airmen to abandon the mentality that in order to be leaders, they must first attain a high rank. All Airmen can be mentors in their own right no matter what their rank is, as long as they have the right attitude, he said.

“If you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it now,” Wright stressed, pounding on the table. “That’s part of the deliberate development process; we have to take care of each other. All of us are leaders, I don’t care what your rank is; you can lead from right where you are.”

Although Wright covered a wide range of topics during his visit, his talk hung on one principle: everyone needs to be teachable, no matter how old they are, or what their rank is.