The recent Air Force decision to shorten the tours for airmen serving in four special duty or instructor positions will affect hundreds of airmen. And in a recent interview, two of those airmen said they think the shift will help them better maintain their work-life balance and stay up-to-date in their home career fields.
The Air Force earlier this month announced that airmen serving as military training leaders, military training instructors, Air Education and Training Command technical training instructors with an Air Force specialty code that has a T, J or X prefix and stateside professional military education instructors will from now on serve three-year tours instead of four years, though they can choose to extend their tours. And some airmen already serving in those jobs will have the option of shaving a year off of their current four-year tour.
And in a July 10 interview, a military training leader and a military training instructor, both at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, each said they’re excited for the change and have already decided they want to switch to three years.
Staff Sgt. Allison Mebane, an MTL from the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron and Technical Sgt. Jason Perri, an MTI from Lackland’s 331st Training Squadron, both enjoy the special duty jobs they began a few weeks ago. But they feel the shorter tour will help keep them from burning out on it after four years, and that it will help keep them from falling too far out of touch with their original jobs.
“It gives us a little bit of control back [in] our career, and it’s better about taking care of us and future airmen as well,” Perri said. “I couldn’t be more happy with this change.”
In a July 8 interview, Second Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy, who oversees basic military training, said he started talking to MTIs, MTLs and other airmen after taking command in 2017. A frequent concern he heard was about the length of their tours, especially since MTIs and MTLs are essentially on the job 24-7.
“If something happens to an airman in training, they’re going to call that MTI or MTL and they’re going to respond,” Leahy said. “Everyone in the military, to a degree, is on call, but they’re actually called because they’re the key point of helping those airmen as they’re going through training.”
What’s more, Leahy said, MTIs and MTLs know that the trainees and young airmen they teach are constantly looking to them as a model of how an airman should look and act. And constantly being “on” is a subliminal stressor, he said.
Mebane, originally a materiel management supervisor who came from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, said she was concerned that her home career field — which she loves — might pass her by during her four years away. That could hurt her ability to guide and mentor the younger airmen that will be under her command once she returns, she said.
“Being in a leadership position, I feel like I should know and be able to guide those airmen” under her command, Mebane said. “I don’t want to go back and not know anything, and they’re looking up to me, trying to get answers, trying to learn the process that I don’t even know myself.”
But the pace of working as an MTL or MTI can also be grueling, and keeping up that tempo for four years can be trying for an airman’s family. Perri has a wife and a two-year-old, with another child on the way, and he worries about his ability to keep the balance between his job and his home life for such a long stretch.
“We’re at 110 percent every single day,” Perri said. “Coming home after 10-plus hours being out in the heat, drilling, marching trainees, you need time to refresh [with your family]. ... . [But] we’re human, we have families. I think that a lot of my co-workers will agree, that after three years, the burnout is kind of real.”
Mebane, who is a single parent of a six-year-old son, said that parenting at an MTL’s pace can be challenging as the years go on.
“In this job, you give your all to your airmen,” Mebane said. “It can get really hard. But at four years, you will really become burned out, especially as parents."
But with all that said, Perri is holding open the door to extending his tour once his three years is up.
“A lot can change in three years,” Perri said.
Leahy also said some airmen were worried about missing out on key developmental opportunities over four years, such as deployments, that could put their careers at a disadvantage.
“If you’re not deploying to the combat zone and all your contemporaries are, you start to get a little bit nervous,” Leahy said. “'Hey, I’m not getting the accolades from a combat deployment. What I’m doing is extremely important, but when I come up for that next promotion, I haven’t been on the pointy edge of the spear.'”
Perri thinks that a three-year tour strikes the right balance for MTIs. It takes them up to six months — though sometimes less — to get trained and understand the job. Perri said many MTIs reach their peak effectiveness at about two years in. If MTIs went to even shorter tours of two years, Perri thinks many would leave just as they’re hitting their stride.
But after three years, Leahy said, the Air Force starts to see those airmen start to lose focus and become eager to return to their original job.
Leahy said Second Air Force will keep studying this tour change and its effect on retention and climate survey responses. If it’s not working out, the Air Force could switch back, Leahy said, but he’s confident it’s the right move.
However, Mebane thinks a two-year stint might be right for some MTLs.
“I don’t want to get complacent in my job,” Mebane said.
Perri believes the shorter tours will help make special duties a more attractive assignment, and could convince some to volunteer.
“We may get some amazing MTIs,” Perri said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.