Thirty years in the making: 4th Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. retires today

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- "I only stayed in for 30 years because I kept forgetting to get out."

All kidding aside, passion, pride and enjoyment are among the many reasons Chief Master Sgt. Eric Johnson, 4th Fighter Wing command chief master sergeant, dedicated the last three decades of his life to the Air Force.

It all started in 1976 when his college plans had to be changed and were ultimately cancelled, so he had to come up with some options.

"I looked at the different services as possibilities. I can't even keep a white T-shirt clean, so joining the Navy was out. I didn't want to live outdoors for the rest of my life, so I decided the Army wasn't what I was looking for. And I simply don't think I have the demeanor of a Marine. So ... the Air Force, with it airplanes, computers and other cool stuff started to look mighty appealing," he explained.

After completing basic training, it was off to Lowry AFB, Colo., for F-111 electronic warfare specialist training.

"I picked that job because it sounded cool. The job description said I'd be working on airplanes. Little did I know that things in that career field changed just as I was joining."

As it turns out, right before he got into the career field, it was split between flight line and back shop operations. He was assigned to the back shop. And although he preferred to be on the flight line, he did his job and did it well.

"I firmly believe that whatever job you're given to do, you do it with passion, you do it completely, and you don't stop until it's finished," he said, adding that all Airmen should strive to be that way.

Throughout his first enlistment, he did his job, but never expected it to turn into what it is today.

"I never thought for a nanosecond that I'd be where I am today, having served 30 years. It never crossed my mind. I was having fun, I enjoyed where I lived and the people I worked with; I just didn't know what I had my hands around."

But in 1979, when he began studying for staff sergeant, he realized that he was born to serve, and that he loved doing it. He realized that what he did was important, that what he does protects the rights of everyone, even the flag burners and the protesters. He knew he was willing to sacrifice his freedoms to protect everyone else's.

So now that his future as a career Airman was decided, he continued on, enjoying every assignment he was given.

"At all of my assignments, there was at least one person who really hated the place, but I had fun at every last one," he said. "My favorite assignments, however, would have to be the deployments, no matter where they were. I loved that the limits on using my talents and abilities were removed. It was all about the mission, so extraneous tasks and demands were minimized."

Through all of his assignments and all of his experiences, one instance stands out in his mind as the proudest.

In December 2001, he stood on the flight line at Seymour Johnson and watched our transporters, logisticians and maintenance personnel launch the 335th Fighter Squadron Chiefs as they deployed for their role in Operation Enduring Freedom.

"The pride I felt knowing we were the strike force that was taking the fight to the enemy for attacking our nation brought tears to my eyes," he said. "It was the first time in my career we were fighting for our nation and not someone else's."

Throughout it all, Chief Johnson has had the support of his wife of 24 years, Betsy, and his children, Lindsay and Ben. And even though he missed a lot because of deployments and assignments, he said it was definitely worth it.

"I missed both of my children's senior years, and a lot of birthdays. But looking back at it today, I think it's enhanced my family's lives and given my children a better perspective on reality."

His wife echoes this sentiment.

"Our lives have been made so much richer because of the communities we've lived in all over," Mrs. Johnson explained. "We're so enriched by the many cultures we've experienced and the communities we've lived in, and we understand and have so much pride in the Air Force and in him because of the base activities we've participated in. The more we got involved, the more we understood and appreciated him, his co-workers and the mission."

While he credits his family's support for helping him achieve great things, he also credits a valuable lesson he's learned over the years.

"Now that I sit here as a 30-year chief and the command chief master sergeant of the most lethal fighter wing the world has ever seen, I understand better today than ever that you become successful by putting other people's needs, not wants, first."

Today is the last duty day of Chief Johnson's 30-year dedication to his country. As he leaves, he reminds us all that we're here for a purpose, and we need to remember that.

"The bottom line is we're assigned to Seymour Johnson for a reason. It's not because North Carolina is a great place to live, but because our nation needs us to provide airpower in defense of our nation's interests. And every Airman, whether a cook, a cop, a crew chief or a pilot, is critical in accomplishing that mission."

As for Chief Johnson's contributions to the mission and to Seymour Johnson, wing leadership feels he's been a great success.

"Chief Johnson has been a great friend and advocate for every Airman in the 4th Fighter Wing," said Col. Mike Holmes, 4th FW commander. "He has always worked hard to make life better for everybody who works here and make sure we continue to accomplish our missions. The Airman's Center, our improved sponsor programs and the new dormitories will provide a lasting reminder of his time here at Seymour Johnson."

And while the chief is proud of his accomplishments during his time as the command chief, he's disappointed at the same time.

"I'm leaving this position very satisfied, yet very dissatisfied at the same time because there's so much that needs to be done, but there's only so much time," he explained. "I like where the wing is now, but there are still plenty of places we can improve. We continue to get better every day."

Now that he's leaving it all behind, he's got his future planned out ... well at least the next year.

"After I leave here, I'm going back to school for a year. Once that's done, I'll find out what the good Lord's got for me to do."