MACOMB TOWNSHIP — It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: You don’t have to enjoy flying to join the Air Force.
According to Master Sgt. Brad Gardner, a recruiter at the U.S. Air Force’s new recruiting office in Macomb Township, the biggest misconception that people have about the Air Force is that it’s primarily made up of pilots for fighter planes, helicopters and other aircrafts. Perhaps they’ve just seen “Top Gun” one too many times.
“A lot of civilians don’t realize that we offer over 150 different careers in the Air Force, and 96 percent of us do not fly,” he said. “There are many, many job opportunities people can pursue here that will keep them on the ground.”
These jobs include everything from engineering and air traffic control, to mechanical and technical support, to positions as electricians, doctors and security guards. Gardner spent the first several years of his 19-year Air Force career as an aircraft mechanic, while Staff Sgt. Michael Harris, another recruiter at the Macomb office, started out as a firefighter.
“There’s a good chance that you’ll be sent overseas (if you enlist), but a lot of times, you’re just doing the same work over there that you were already doing here,” Harris explained. “Even if you can’t fly, you can still help out the mission in a lot of different ways.”
With so few Air Force jobs actually putting servicemen and women in the air, there is also a much smaller probability that they will be placed in the middle of a dangerous combat situation.
“The Air Force’s front lines are very different than those of the other military branches,” Gardner said. “You can be hundreds of miles away from a battle site and still technically be working on the front lines. The only people actually in combat are our pilots and our special (operations) units — that’s it.”
The Macomb recruiting office opened on April 6 and is the first of five sites to open nationwide as part of the Air Force Recruiting Service’s transformational efforts to consolidate its recruiting offices into centralized locations. Previously, its six recruiters had been working out of separate offices in Mount Clemens, Utica, Eastpointe, Madison Heights, Auburn Hills and Clarkston.
According to Gardner, the Macomb office was selected both because of its location — 47178 Hayes Road, near the northeast corner of Hayes and 21 Mile Road — and its cost, which was lower than that of comparable buildings in Oakland County.
“We’re all trying to save a little bit of money these days, and this way, we’re only paying rent on one building instead of six,” he said. “This is also a good, central location that’s not in the middle of a bunch of heavy traffic on Hall Road. The other advantage is that, with all of us under one roof, if people come in and their recruiter isn’t here, there’s still someone else who can help them. We don’t want to be losing potential recruits to the Army, Navy or Marines.”
In addition, despite the recruiting office’s close proximity to Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, Harris noted that this did not factor at all into the Air Force’s decision to locate in Macomb.
Gardner and the other recruiters plan to do plenty of community outreach throughout metro Detroit in the coming months. This will include giving presentations at local high schools, asking local businesses to distribute Air Force literature, and even conducting swearing-in ceremonies during major sporting events like Detroit Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings and Lions games.
“Looking forward, we really want to get back to a grassroots recruiting process of getting our recruiters out in the community so they can talk to people face to face,” Gardner said. “Those big ceremonies are part of that because they’re a great marketing tool for us, and they give the new recruits a real sense of pride about (choosing to enlist). We also want to show people that the youth of this nation are out there defending their freedom.”
Harris stressed that people should never underestimate the power of strong recruiting. He explained that it was fond memories of his own Air Force recruiter that inspired him to get into this area of service three years ago.
“The Air Force has been very good to me, so I wanted to give back by helping them bring in some new people,” he said. “When I enlisted, my recruiter was very forthcoming, honest and straightforward with me — he didn’t try to sell me any sort of pipe dreams — and that’s exactly how I always try to be with my recruits.”
Young recruit Ken Thomason, 18, of Roseville, enlisted in the Air Force last July. Admitting that he was doing poorly in school and searching for a fresh start in his life, Thomason now hopes to provide electronic maintenance on the navigation and communication systems of aircrafts.
“I originally wanted to join the Marines,” he said, “but I just really didn’t like my recruiter over there. Then I learned that there are a lot better career options for me once I get out of the Air Force, because I can go straight into working at an airport.”
Harris believes that, while enlisting in the Air Force involves tremendous personal sacrifice — namely, being away from loved ones for long periods of time — the rewards of serving more than make up for it. And that’s because of far more than having all your rent, food, utilities and insurance expenses paid for by the U.S. military.
“Obviously, there’s a great deal of pride that comes with serving your country,” Harris said. “Yes, you have that feeling of leaving your family and friends behind once you’re deployed, but you’re also meeting a lot of new people who are dealing with the exact same thing. So you develop a special bond with them, and they become just like family.”
For Gardner, the best part of his job occurs when his new recruits return home after two months of basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. That’s when they truly become Air Force officers.
“I love seeing the change in the airmen when they come back home from basic training,” he said. “Their families come to see them and say, ‘That’s the most amazing transformation in eight and a half weeks that I’ve ever seen.’ They tell us, ‘You guys did in eight and a half weeks what I couldn’t do in 18 years.’”
For more information about the U.S Air Force’s new Macomb Township recruiting office, call (586) 532-0671.
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