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30 years of service: mistakes made, lessons learned

Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Hughes, currently 22nd Air Refueling Wing command chief, hugs his son, Sean, in June 2013, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. after his fini-flight. Hughes will retire June 1, 2017, after 30 years of service in the Air Force. (Courtesy photo)

Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Hughes, currently 22nd Air Refueling Wing command chief, hugs his son, Sean, in June 2013, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. after his fini-flight. Hughes will retire June 1, 2017, after 30 years of service in the Air Force. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- A picture of him as a master sergeant hangs on the wall in his office, welcoming every Airman who walks through the door. To some it may seem as a decoration of self-importance, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you it holds a much different significance.

“I have the picture there to remind me that I can’t think like a command chief,” said Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Hughes, 22nd Air Refueling Wing command chief. “If I have an expectation that an airman, a staff sergeant or a master sergeant see the world the same way that I do, then that’s a poor assumption, and I’m thinking wrong. Because if you forget who you are, you forget where you came from, you forget the challenges you had or you forget the path that you’ve taken, chances are you will never see any other options or roads to take.”

Hughes joined the Air Force in 1987 with an open-general contract and received the job of in-flight refueling specialist for Strategic Air Command.

“I joined the Air Force because I was not going in a good direction,” said Hughes. “I failed out of college and was working dead-end jobs. Some of the people I was hanging out with were not good people. Some of the things I was doing weren’t very good either.”

Throughout his career, he deployed numerous times as a boom operator, many of which he volunteered for. Around his 10-year point in the Air Force, he had more days on temporary duty assignment than he had at home station.

“I still hadn’t grown up even though I joined the Air Force,” said Hughes. “I was living the same lifestyle that I was living before I joined the military. Some of it was the aircrew lifestyle back then—you could stay out until three in the morning, raising hell, doing whatever you wanted, and as long as you flew your missions, nobody messed with you.”

He had been in the Air Force for about 12 years and had been a staff sergeant for six years when he came to a crossroads.

“I got to a point in life where everything was coming un-glued,” said Hughes. “I had a couple of significantly emotional events [occurring] and I was trying to figure out why, because I didn’t understand. For a long time, I just thought I was a victim of life. I didn’t realize that it was me.”

During this rough period, Hughes came to a realization that changed the course of his military career.

“It was like stepping out of a fog,” explained the chief. “At that point, I realized that the things happening in my life were because of my actions, because of what I was doing, because of how I was living my life up to that point. The only way to have a different life than the one that I had was to change. Rather than do the minimum necessary, I actually had to work hard, learn things that I never wanted to learn and change the way I see the world.

“The first step is recognizing that the path you’re on is a bad path,” he emphasized. “Start pointing a finger at yourself. You’re the one who has problems with everybody, you’re the one who thinks that nobody understands you, but maybe you’re the one who doesn’t understand yourself. Once you’re aware of it, have that desire and drive to be a little bit better each day and to get it right the next time.”

After this epiphany, Hughes then achieved the rank of technical sergeant his next try, the rank of master sergeant his first try, senior master sergeant his second time and chief master sergeant his first time testing. He continued to have many achievements throughout his career, to include winning Air Education and Training Command Instructor Boom Operator of the Year 2001, the General Dutch Huyer award—a specialized aircrew mission award for exemplary service, distinguished graduate Senior NCO Academy recognition and many more awards.

“If I strip everything away, I love my job,” said Hughes. “I loved being in a deployed environment and taking all of the training and all of the preparation and then going somewhere and actually executing what you were trained to do. [The boom pod] was a great place to think and a great place to be as an introvert—it was very comforting environment for me. I’m a hard-core introvert, so climbing on an airplane with only a tight-knit group and not having to talk to anybody if you don’t want to is nice.”

As Hughes made higher rank throughout his service, he found himself moving away from the job he loved and into a more unfamiliar role. He held many special duty positons, including academy military trainer at the Air Force Academy and serving as a flight instructor at the AETC school house at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, training a new generation of boom operators, which required him to grasp a direct leadership role and step out of his comfort zone.

“The transition from being a technical expert into being responsible for people wasn’t natural for me,” he explained. “When I went to the school house and actually had to start teaching people, it really forced me to be a receptive leader. I had to understand who [the students] were, what their motivating factors were, why they were there and then try to tap into that.”

Though Hughes will be retiring from service this year, he continually aims to mentor Airmen and pass on philosophies.

“Chief Hughes is very engaging and always there to help people,” said Col. Albert Miller, 22nd ARW commander. “He has an ability to connect one-on-one with Airmen. He gets to know the Airmen, their story and what he can do for them on a personal level. He’s extremely dedicated overall. He’s not taking terminal leave. His last day of his 30th year will be in uniform; he wanted to work until the very end.”

Many of Hughes’ previous supervisors and fellow Airmen have influenced his leadership style throughout his career and shaped his definition of what it is it means to be a leader. It is a methodology he imparts when mentoring Airmen.

“A leader is someone who is standing somewhere on a ladder, sees someone below, grabs them by the hand, pulls them up on their level and has a conversation with them,” said Hughes. “A great leader is someone whose interaction leads that person to success in some way, shape or form. And if you’re an even better leader, you put your hand underneath them, and you push them to surpass your level and be better than you ever could be.”

Hughes has been in a leadership position for about 19 years, and although being a mentor to Airmen is a role he thoroughly enjoys, he emphasizes that it comes at a price.

“I stayed 30 years because I love it. I used to love it because of the job, and now I love it because of the people,” said Hughes. “But there’s a burden that comes with leadership. What if you’re messing that up? What if what you’re doing isn’t making a positive difference? What if how you’re approaching things and solving problems is creating issues rather than solving them? Over a period of time those questions wear on you.”

After many years of mentoring Airmen and shaping the type of leader that he wants to be, Hughes is now walking toward the door to retirement.

“I know it’s the time to leave, and I get that, but I also think that I have something left in the gas tank,” said Hughes. “At this point, I have more to give. I’m becoming the type of person I wish I was 20 years ago. I have a whole different idea of what life is and I’m at a point where I’m finally starting to understand the puzzle coming together, and now it’s time to leave.”

After three decades of honorable military service, Hughes is now looking at what the future may hold for him.

“A little horse farm and about 10 acres—that’s what’s next,” said Hughes. That’s where I need to be. That’s where my family needs to be. I need to disconnect for a while. Owning a horse farm is basic hard work. I think that for a period of time I don’t want to be morally responsible for anybody else. I need a very simple life to recharge my batteries, so that when we’re ready to start making a positive difference in other people’s lives again, I’ll be ready to do that.”

Hughes’ influence on others won’t end after he retires. He eventually plans on using that small farm to make a positive difference in the lives of foster children, wounded warriors and many others.