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July 22, 2011 at 10:16am

Air Force recruiters work tirelessly to mold careers

Staff Sgt. Kevin Krzemieniecki, 361st RCS, measures Cory Stites at the Air Force Recruiting Office Tuesday in Tacoma. (Photo by Ingrid Barrentine)

Six Airmen and a lieutenant might have been shocked when Tech. Sgt. Rey Ornelas walked by them in the commissary or at the gym at McChord Field. They might have thought they had seen a ghost.

It was just their recruiter.

As a former recruiter for three years at the Tacoma Mall recruiting station, Ornelas has helped enlist 125 Airmen and commission four officers.

He met all of his enlistees as civilians looking for a career, unsure of whether the Air Force was right for them. Through a dialogue about what the Air Force offered, they joined and he became their biggest fan, helping them through the mountains of paperwork, transporting them for multiple visits to the Military Entrance Processing Center in Seattle and improving their physical training and military customs and courtesies. But after they left to basic training and technical schools, Ornelas didn't expect to see his recruits again.

His story is typical of the other recruiters with the 361st Recruiting Squadron, which has the mission to provide information and career guidance to those considering joining the U.S. Air Force.

The 361st Sqdn. has nearly 90 recruiters throughout Washington, Oregon and Alaska, across 733,000 square miles.

The headquarters element is in Building 100 at McChord Field.

The squadron is responsible for the largest territory in Air Force Recruiting Services Command, yet has consistently averaged as one of the top units in bringing people into the Air Force, said Master Sgt. Joseph Shelton, the 361st Sqdn. first sergeant. The unit enlists or commissions about 1,000 people a year.

Shelton is tasked with providing the logistic and personnel support for the recruiters working throughout the three states. It's not easy, as some recruiting stations in remote areas have only one recruiter.

Through flight chiefs, the first sergeant stays in contact with his Airmen and gets them what they need, no matter the location.

"It's no different than if they were deployed," Shelton said. "My job is to be the liaison so the recruiters can focus on the mission at hand."

The recruiting squadron is organized differently than most Air Force units.

Squadrons typically have a "triangle of leadership" - a commander, an enlisted superintendent and a first sergeant.

The 361st has a fourth - the production superintendent. This senior master sergeant is the direct-line supervisor for the field-based flight chiefs, and assists the commander with day-to-day operations, keeping track of each recruiter's numbers. Day in, day out, at all hours, the recruiter meets potential recruits at high schools, mall food courts, local concerts or at their houses.

Stress can reach high levels. That's why Shelton tells the flight chiefs to check in often on every recruiter.

"I want them to get close to their guys, know their Families and function as one big Family," the first sergeant said.

Along with the traditional methods for finding potential Airmen, social networking has become a routine part of the process. More leads are coming from Facebook and similar networking sites.

No lead is a bad lead, but not every person is Air Force material, Ornelas said.

"We determine if it's the right decision for the person right now," he said. "If it is and they join, then it's our job to provide them (the tools) to be ready for basic training and prepared for a career in the Air Force.

Motives have changed during Ornelas' six years in the unit. Before the economy took a downturn, recruits joined to help fight nation's wars. Now, it's more about finding a recession-proof career.

"Jobs are sparse and people are looking for opportunities," Ornelas said. "Ideally, economy good, economy bad, we are still finding the same high-caliber people and giving them every opportunity to make the Air Force an awesome career."

Recruiters are not immune from being deployed. It's rare, Ornelas said, but because Air Force recruiters retain their Air Force Specialty Codes (equivalent to the Army's Military Occupational Specialty) for at least three years to be a recruiter, deployment orders are a possibility.

The application process to become recruiters is straightforward. Airmen interested in offering career options to young prospects need to send applications and submit to psychological evaluations and interviews, to be accepted to the seven-week recruiter school at Lackland Air Force Base at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas,. Mall food, late hours and an intense travel schedule are likely parts of a recruiter's life.

Upon graduation, the new recruiter receives a year of on-the-job training to become fully qualified.

Western Washington recruiters have the advantage of proximity to McChord Field, where they often bring prospects to see Airmen working in fields in which they're interested. The 361st also brings local educators by to showcase the community of McChord Field and JBLM.

"Living on (base) is like a little town, with a movie theater, bowling alley, golf course, a gym," Ornelas said.

Successful recruiters get their job satisfaction from knowing the personal contribution they have made to improving another individuals' life, Ornelas said.

"It's a job like no other in the Air Force," he said. "As a weapons loader or aircraft mechanic, you'll know your jet or bomb went on this mission, but you may not see how much impact you had. As a recruiter, when that young man or woman goes to basic training and two years later is an Airman first class or senior Airman, you can see what contribution you made to that individual and the Air Force."

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