Trading stripes for bars: commissioning programs could change your career direction.

Why'd a new staff sergeant give up a soaring Air Force enlisted

career? Why'd a master sergeant suddenly trade in six stripes that

took 15 years to earn? Why'd an airman first class who was just

starting her career be willing to go back to an initial training


For these three enlisted members, change is what life is all about.

And the recent change these three have undertaken is their decision and

selection to obtain Air Force commisions.

Enlisted members wishing to trade their stripes for gold bars have

several commisioning options available.

Reserve Officer Training Corps

Abigail Curtis, a second-year cadet at Auburn University of

Montgomery, Ala., decided to turn in her four active duty stripes and

leave behind an already soaring career to participate in the Air

Force’s largest commisioning source, the Reserve Officer Training

Corps, under the Airman Education and Commissioning Program.

“It allows me to stay on active duty, retain all active duty

benefits, acquire time in service, all the while getting my education

paid for,”. 26-year-old Curtis said. “I can’t say enough

how incredible this program is. My classmates are either exhausted from

having to work while going to school or strapped for cash because of all

the expenses. I’m neither. I almost feel guilty about it.”

ROTC, headquartered at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., is the oldest

source of commisioned officers for the Air Force. It’s active on

more than 144 college and university campuses with more than 1,000

additional schools offering the program under crosstown agreements that

allow their students to attend ROTC classes at an area host school. The

program commisions about 2,500 second lieutenants each year, according

to Air University’s public affairs office. In fiscal 2003, that

number included more than 300 prior enlisted members.

Right now, airmen have three main ROTC commisioning programs from

which to choose: Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program,

Professional Officer’s Course-Early Release Program and the Airman

Education and Commissioning Program.

Officer Training School

If you’ve already completed a bachelor’s degree and

separating from active duty isn't something you want to do, perhaps the

next largest commisioning source is your gateway to those gold bars.

Officer Training School, also headquartered at Maxwell is the

“flexible partner”. Of commissioning programs. In fiscal 2003,

of the approximately 1,600 individuals commisioned at Maxwell, 545 were

prior enlisted, according to analysts at the Air Force Officer Accession

and Training Schools. Beginning in fiscal 2004, approximately 1,000

lieutenants will join the Air Force each year through Officer Training

School in all major career areas.

The school provides two officer training programs: Basic Officer

Training, an intensive 12-week program that prepares officer candidates

for the technical, physical and professional requirements of

commisioned service. Commissioned Officer Training, a four-week

initial officership training for 1,200 to 1,500 judge advocates,

chaplains, medical service officers (doctors, nurses, pharmacists,

bioenvironmental engineers and hospital administrators) and medical

scholarship recipients each year.

For Master Sgt. Cully Patch with the Air Force Research Laboratory

at the Rome Research site in New York, it was this “other”

option that caused him la hang up his six stripes and a 15-year enlisted


“With a spouse and two children, I couldn’t afford to get

out and attend ROTC,”. Said the 32-year old master sergeant.

“It was much more stable to use the tuition assistance,

veteran’s benefits and student loans to pursue my degree during off

duty time and apply to OTS directly.”

Patch expects to leave for Maxwell in early 2004, then he’ll

train to be an intelligence officer.

“I’ve always dreamed of being a pilot in the Air Force,

and since I’m past that age, I wanted to still pursue a higher

responsibility and better support the aviators I once dreamed of

being,”. He said.

Air Force Academy

Besides the two large commisioning programs, there’s a

smaller one that just might be what you’re looking for–the Air

Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. And there’s even a

lesser-known program within the academy that can help you reach that

gold bar commision: the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

During its history, the academy has become a leader among

undergraduate institutions, allowing cadets to complete four years of

studies leading to a bachelor of science degree. Academics include

classes in the basic sciences, engineering, humanities, social sciences,

and military strategic studies. Within this framework, all cadets

complete a core curriculum of 112 semester hours. They can

specialize in any of 30 academic majors and four minors.

Military development is central to the academy experience and

distinguishes it from other institutions of higher learning. Four

primary areas are stressed: professional military studies, theoretical

and applied leadership experiences, aviation science and airmanship programs. Military training. The idea is to provide cadets the

knowledge, skills, values and behaviour patterns necessary to make them

effective leaders.

According to the Academy’s public affairs office, 35 prior

enlisted people received their commisions in 2003 from the Academy.

The Academy Preparatory School gives enlisted men and women and

other selected applicants who weren’t offered academy appointments

the opportunity to improve their selection potential.

The prep school offers a 10-month program from July through May.

The program integrates academic preparation, military training and

athletic conditioning to develop the skills and character necessary for

academy success. There is intensive instruction in mathematics, English

and basic sciences.

Approximately 240 cadet candidates enter the prep school each

summer. Between 75 and 80 percent of them earn an appointment to the

academy the following year.

Joy Lawal hopes her 10 months at the Prep School will be her

connection to that gold bar. Her vision was strong enough to leave

behind the 19-month start of her enlisted career–that of a mental

health craftsman at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas–last July.

“I’m definitely going to motivate other enlisted members

who want to become commisioned officers with the some optimism and

support that was given to me by my co-workers,”. The 20-year-old

former senior airman said. “The Air Force is what you put in it. No

matter what you do, there’s always someone watching. Always put

your best foot forwards because you never know when all your hard work is

going to pay off.”

The initial journey

So how did these airmen begin their crossover journies from being

enlisted to being selected for a commisioning program? Cynthia Vance,

education specialist at Lackland recommends starting with the virtual

education Web site at https://

“This site offers airmen a one-stop place to see what’s

available for them,”. Vance said. “The different commisioning

programs are always in a state of flux as they’re based on the

needs of the Air Force. Go to the Web site, get familiar with your

options and then come talk to us.”

The counselors are then better able to focus a particular

commisioning program towards the goals and needs of that individual,

Vance said.

One of the most recent commisioning selectees also stressed the

need to plan early.

“you've to plan about a year out by talking to

officers–prior enlisted, if available–and working with your supervisor

and commander to put together a good package for the boards,”. Patch


It doesn’t matter if you've two years of service or 15, two

stripes or seven, if you’ve ever thought about trading in those

stripes on your sleeves for bars on your shoulders, then take that first


“Pursue your goals. If you’re determined, you can do

anything,”. Curtis said. “Keep your sights on the prise, and

don’t let anyone discourage you from your dream to be a

commisioned officer.”