Bittersweet: Closing a chapter, starting anew

Story and photo by Staff Sgt. Tyrona Lawson
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Each First Term Airman Center graduating class has the honor of welcoming a chief master sergeant to speak to the new graduates before stepping into the “real” Air Force. Invited chiefs share knowledge they have acquired in a span of 20 or more years serving their country. Their experiences are valuable lessons for new Airmen and something they can model their future careers around.

The graduation of Class 11-04C started out as just a normal graduation to all except one family in attendance: Airman 1st Class Edward Walker, 698th Network Support Squadron; Master Sgt. Keli Benford, 603rd Aerial Space Operations Command first sergeant; and Chief Master Sgt. Eric Benford, 86th Mission Support Group superintendent and the classes honored guest.

Chief Benford delivered his message to the movement of media around him, camera clicks, bright flashes and the on looking stares of Airmen in awe. Though the Airmen were in tune with the chief, they couldn’t help but wonder “who is this guy?” and “what is so special about today?”

With the closing of his speech, the last graduating Airman was called forward. Airman Walker accepted his certificate from the chief with not only the usual handshake, but a hug baring sentiments from both.

“Today is special for me,” Chief Benford said. “I have the honor of graduating my son from FTAC. It is a milestone for me because I’m completing my career and happily passing the torch to my son.”

With the cat out of the bag and another group of enthused Airmen out the door, I took the time to talk to the chief, his wife and Airman Walker about careers, milestones and the rare opportunity they have shared.

Question: Joining the military is a big step. How did your father’s military career influence your decision to join the Air Force?

Airman Walker: His career influenced me a lot. It paved a road for me. I felt like I wasn’t joining in the dark and that I will be building on what my parents have done. It is kind of like I am walking in my parents’ past.

Question: How do you view your mentorship role with your son now that he has started on a new career path?

Chief Benford: I want to be more involved with his future development and career progression. My mentor style with him is, “Here is what I know, here’s what I got for you. Do it now, not later.”

Question: Do you feel as though you have a lot to live up to since your dad is a chief?

Airman Walker: I don’t feel any pressure. I don’t want to be labeled as the “chief’s son.” I will just be the best I can be. There is no pressure being what you are.

Chief Benford: I always told him, “Do your best.” Whether he only goes to staff sergeant or technical sergeant, I just want him to do his best.

Question: It must feel a little weird being stationed at the same base as your parents. How do you feel about that?

Airman Walker: It’s a blessing. While people join the military and come overseas to leave their families, I came here to be with mine. I only see the positives of being on the same base as my parents.

Question: How do you feel about your father’s retirement? Is it sad to see him end his career as you are starting yours?

Airman Walker: It is sad for me, but not in a bad way. I am proud of my dad and I know this means a lot to him. I know he will be sad, so that makes me sad. This is a very special moment for him.

While all were in agreement that the start of one career and the ending of another is bittersweet, the thing they can’t agree on is whether the chief will cry when he says goodbye to the Air Force.

“He will probably cry when it hits him,” his son said.

As I wrapped up my interview, I couldn’t help but notice that I had a smile on my face the whole time. For a moment, I didn’t feel as if I were conducting an interview, I felt as if I was sitting down at the dinner table having a conversation with family.

The bond between father, mother and son seem to stretch further than the Air Force denominator.

As Chief Benford closes his Air Force chapter and we bid farewell to one of our best, he passes the flag to his son to start a new chapter, writing his own passage in the Air Force ― one that I am sure we will be reading in time.