Q&A: Leaving with a smile

by Josh Aycock
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

After 28 years of serving his country with a smile on his face, Chief Master Sgt. Vernon Butler, 86th Airlift Wing command chief, is pulling up stakes and heading for the metropolis as he decides what to do as a retiree.

As a career “Wire Dawg” and continual leader, he has seen every angle of the Air Force.  Whether it was under buildings or grieving the loss of an Airman, he has learned from his experiences.    

Q: Why did you join the Air Force?
A: I was following in the footsteps of my father. He is my hero and he spent 22 years in the Air Force as a “Fire Dawg.” For as long as I can remember it is what I always wanted to do.

Q: Was it the right decision for you? Why?
A: It was definitely the right decision for me.  Over the last 28 years my experiences in the Air Force have taught me so much about life, about people and about what it takes to live day to day and at the end of that day be confident that you always tried to do your best.

Q: How are Airmen different today than
when you joined?
A: Today’s Airmen are smarter; they have a lot more post high school education. That may just be a sign of the times, but without a doubt I feel education is a driving force for most of our Airmen today, and because of that drive to better themselves they are able and willing to accomplish whatever the mission calls for. The Airmen here on Team Ramstein are phenomenal.   

Q: Is there anything about your career you would change?
A: My first thought was to list a few things I would do differently, but when I thought about what the question was asking and where I am at right now, nope. I would not change anything. My experiences developed me into the person I am today and with God’s help and a lot of great Airmen, I think I did OK.

Q: Who made the biggest impact on your career? Why?
A: Master Sgt. Bill Evans. His honesty during a feedback session in 1992 when I was a young staff sergeant changed my life and helped me get my Air Force career on track.

Q: What has been your favorite base to be
stationed? Why?
A: It was not really a base but an agency — White House Communications Agency. I started out as a telephone installer (Wire Dawg) in 1983. I am talking single line rotary phones, climbing poles and crawling underneath buildings. To serve in a organization that provided direct support to our commander in chief was amazing. I tell my younger Wire Dawgs all the time: the phone that the president uses every day is maintained by the Dawgs. I was blessed to be selected to help guide those Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors to accomplish that National Command Authority mission.

Q: What has been your favorite assignment? Why?
A: Hands down, the 86th Airlift Wing. This assignment, like no other, gave me the opportunity to really have a say in how we deliberately develop our Airmen. Thanks to the extraordinary work of the group chiefs and the first sergeants, the Airmen of the 86th have been very successful.

Q: What has been the most significant event in your career?
A: There have been so many. I don’t think I can say there is just one. Over the years we work and train so hard to be ready for all types of military contingencies and we, the Air Force, are and always have been ready.
It was a humanitarian operation years ago that opened my eyes and touched my heart to just how important the military is, no matter the situation. I was a part of Operation Fiery Vigil. A volcano, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, exploded near Clark Air Base and some 20,000 American dependents had to be evacuated. I was stationed at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, in a combat comm unit, a warrior fresh off of supporting the first Gulf War.  The base ended up converting vacant dorm buildings — vacant for years and scheduled to be torn down — into lodging as Anderson was the first stop for the Americans being evacuated.  
I worked 16 straight days, 18 hours a day, making beds, cleaning rooms, driving American dependents to and from the flightline or to get something to eat or whatever else was required of me. I remember helping people eight days after the initial eruption — clothes still covered in ash, their faces still stained. I could not work hard enough during that time frame. I still get full with emotion just thinking about that entire situation. It was one of the most rewarding and significant times in my career.  

Q: What was the most difficult event in your career?
A: Death. Losing an Airman. It has happened at every assignment that I have had and it is a part of this profession. I clearly understand that, but it is hard to accept. The senseless shooting of our Airmen at Frankfurt earlier this year hit me very very hard, much harder than losing someone has ever hit me before.

Q: For young Airmen out there reading this, what is your No. 1 “do” in the AF?
A: Live the Air Force Core Values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. If you do this, you will be successful at everything you do, in and out of the Air Force.

Q: What is your No. 1 “don’t” in the AF?
A: Never ever forget to respect the person inside the uniform. We all wear/have some type of rank/grade and it is critical that we always remain professional, but when you need to get the mission done — that crazy short notice, seemingly impossible task — it is all about relationships, and relationships are built on respect — mutual respect. I have the honor of being the command chief for the 86th Airlift Wing, but just as honorable, I am Vernon Butler. Respect.

Q: What message do you want to
provide your family?
A: This assignment has really shown me how crucial you all have been to my success. Thank you, I love you, I miss you, see you soon. To everyone else: take the time today and make contact with and thank those family members/friends that have been there for you along your Air Force journey. Please don’t put it off. Tomorrow is not promised.

Q: What message do you want to leave Airmen?
A: Live the Core Values and keep in mind it is about relationships and respect. Lead from wherever you are at. You don’t have to be the boss to lead, just be approachable. 

To paraphrase one of my military heroes, Gen. Colin Powell, “The day your Airmen stop bringing you their problems, issues, concerns and cares is the day that you have just stopped leading them.” Take care of each other as we are all family now. I know that I will sleep comfortably in my bed at night without a single worry about the safety of our great nation because you all have proven that you are more than capable of succeeding at that task. God bless you all.

Q: What message do you want to leave Ramstein Air Base?
A: Thank you, Team Ramstein for all of your support. It has not always been smooth, but it was always fun, and deep down I feel we all had the same focus — to keep this beast of a mission on track and running like a well oiled machine. I believe as a team we did that. It has been my honor to serve with you.   

Q: What’s next?
A: Well, if I have had a successful career then all thanks and all praises go to my lord and my savior. I have felt for many years that God had something planned for me in ministry. I have just been running away from it. I am not exactly sure what that is, but whatever it is I will do. My testimony for years has been strength, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” My plan is to finally plant some roots in D.C., Virginia or Maryland.