Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. --
“Wow,” exclaims retired Chief Master Sgt. Rodney McKinley as he stares at an empty lot filled with dirt, where the old Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Medical Clinic once stood.
“A lot of things have changed, some have stayed the same” he added. “However, for some reason it still feels like home.”
More than 40 years ago, then Airman Basic McKinley first stepped into that very same medical clinic as a new emergency room technician fresh from technical training. He would not know it at the time, however, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, would be the launching point for an Air Force career that would see him eventually become the 15th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
Recently, while reminiscing with a friend, Ray Iacomacci, about their times serving in the Air Force, Chief McKinley, decided to take a visit to the place where his operational Air Force career started; Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina.
“When reflecting about where you are currently, you always think about where you began,” Chief McKinley said. “It so happens my Air Force story began at Seymour Johnson. So, I called Ray, my close friend and roommate from all those years ago, and off we went.”
“When he told me, we were going to Seymour Johnson AFB, I smiled from ear-to-ear,” Iacomacci added. “I may have even shed a few tears. This place is so important to both of our life stories, it was hard not to get excited.”
Chief and Iacomacci visited Team Seymour on September 13, 2019. During the visit, he made several stops on the installation to talk with Airmen about the Air Force and their journey, while also reflecting on his own path in the Air Force.
One of those Airmen was Senior Airman Qwan Barber, 4th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief. He explained how much of a privilege it was to meet Chief McKinley and hear his story.
“You never know who you will get to meet in the Air Force, Barber said. “There haven’t been many to attain his rank and status. It’s really cool to see how there is somebody so high-up that started right here at Seymour Johnson.
In many cases, Chief McKinley was able to draw parallels between many of the Air Force’s newest Airmen and his own career as an Airman.
“It’s really refreshing to see all these young Airmen essentially starting their journey from the same position as me,” Chief McKinley said. “When I started, I had no plans of being the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force. I was just an Airman trying to do my job the best way I possibly could. Along the way somebody saw something in me and mentored me to the level I ended up. I see the same potential in all of the Airmen I’ve met here today.”
At one stop, Chief McKinley and Iacomacci strolled through the old Airman and Family Readiness Center. Each of them laughing and recounting work stories about the charge of quarters desk and games of pool in that very building, nearly 40 years ago, which used to be their dorm.
“This building is full of memories,” Chief McKinley said. “This is most definitely a place that has made a lasting impact on my life.”
“I met my wife right here while on desk duty, Iacomacci added. Of course, I used to always beat Airman McKinley in pool as well.”
“In your dreams,” Chief McKinley retorted.
Toward the end of the visit, Chief McKinley held a roundtable to discuss issues affecting the Airmen and even held an in-depth discussion on being a good front line supervisor and caring for Airmen. He also discussed briefly the new suicide prevention measures the U.S. Air Force is undergoing.
“We have to communicate with each other better,” Chief McKinley said. “We have to care for each other and get to know each other better. It takes five minutes to ask someone how they are doing. However, by just asking you are providing the foundation for a lasting relationship and communication.
As the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, Chief McKinley represented the highest enlisted level of leadership in the U.S. Air Force. He was responsible for providing direction to the enlisted corps and representing their interests in all levels of government. He also acted as the personal adviser to the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, who, at the time was Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, on all issues regarding the welfare, readiness, morale, and proper utilization and progress of the enlisted force. He served in the position from 2006 to 2009.
“I will never retire from being an Airman,” Chief McKinley said. “I will always continue watching and engaging with our Airmen for the rest of my life. Whether its professional military development or attending an Airman Leadership School graduation, my passion is speaking to the future leaders of our Air Force.”
Seymour Johnson AFB may have grown in scope, mission, and population since that first day Chief McKinley first stepped on the installation those many years ago; however, his story is etched into its history forever.
“This place will always be the start of my story,” Chief McKinley said. I may have not been born here, but for this retired chief, Seymour Johnson Air Force will always be home.