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102nd Air Operations Center remains on target

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- The rhythm of an Air Operations Center (AOC) has been compared to that of an orchestra. Each member performing their respective task, playing individual notes while simultaneously working in concert with one another. After two years of growth and development, while earning accolades from the parent unit at Barksdale AFB, La., the 102nd AOC is beginning to play harmonious music. 

Master Sgt. Keith Johnson is an integral member of the AOC at the 102nd and wears many hats. Chief among them is his responsibility as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of the C15 section within the unit. His calm demeanor and attention to detail honed during a career on the flight line, make him perfectly suited for the job. 

Sergeant Johnson's Air Force career has spanned over 20 years and several continents. Unit patches and emblems displayed in his office offer a glimpse of a career that has taken him from the Cold War intrigue of Bitburg AB Germany to the hostile, arid climate of the Middle East. 

Sergeant Johnson embodies the spirit of the unit and provides an ideal example of a successful transition to the intelligence field from a more traditional Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). Faced with the reality of the mission shift, he took the lessons learned from a career in maintenance and inspection and applied them with vigor to the new mission with the AOC. 

He believes the main obstacle for airmen considering a career in this field is the fear of the unknown. 

"The last tech school that I went to was in 1989. Not having been to a tech school for so long, it was intimidating at first but once you start getting into the material it gets easier," said Sergeant Johnson. 

He recently returned from AOC School at Hurlburt Field, Fla. 

"It is a different mind set from the aircraft maintenance career field. Knowing how the air battle works is most important. The course is fast paced but the instructors are very helpful," he said. 

The course was comprised of 130 officer and enlisted personnel that are attached to different sections which include offensive operations, combat plans, combat operations, intelligence and communications. Students are separated in groups and are taught in a classroom environment. Classes begin at 6 a.m. and conclude at 3 p.m. 

"There are three tests and three practical evaluations that are divided into blocks similar to tech school," he said. 

"None of the material is overwhelming and the instructors do everything they can to assist you. As long as you take the time to study the material, you will have no problems," said Johnson. 

The subject matter expert (SME) of the unit is Staff Sgt. Tony Santiago. He bristles at the designation of SME but the scope and breadth of his real world experience invariably make him the point man in matters pertaining to the C15 career field. Having served in Iraq as an active duty member gives Sergeant Santiago a perspective that few can match. 

"Nothing is better than experience. You can train all day in the classroom but I believe that you learn as much doing the job," he earnestly noted. 

"We just had a few guys come back and they are looking forward to starting the mission. I tell them to take all the information that you learned and keep it in your hip pocket. It is important to keep an open mind, be flexible and adapt to changing conditions," advised Sergeant Santiago. 

The camaraderie in the unit is akin to a forward deployed component and despite distinct backgrounds, members work well together. 

"Going from active duty to Guard can be tough but Sergeant Johnson has been awesome," said the highly decorated Santiago. "He is very motivated and takes his job seriously, he wants us to do well," he added. "We all have a vision and are ready to go." 

A recent graduate of the C15 course at Keesler AFB, Miss., Senior Airman Dave Cox conquered the fear of the unknown and is glad that he joined the unit. A postman in civilian life, Cox took a leap of faith by enlisting after a 17-year break in service and was motivated by a desire to serve once again. 

"I had been out for a while and felt anxious about going to school. One of my chief concerns was being able to keep up with the technical and computer aspects of the course," he recalled. 

"Also, I knew that my customs and courtesies were a little rusty and that I would be older than my classmates -- they were all factors," he said. "It wasn't bad at all, the classes were small and I didn't mind studying the material. If you commit to studying every night, you will be fine," said Airman Cox. 

Being a more mature student was advantageous in some respects. "The pipeline students' attention was pulled in several directions, they were worried about room inspections and flight duties and I was free to focus on the course work," said Cox. 

Although he lamented missing the first two rounds of the National Hockey League playoffs, Cox was gratified to successfully complete the course. 

"After going to school you gain a better understanding of the importance of the mission," he observed. "An air traffic controller is responsible for the taking off and landing, we are responsible for the operations in between -- I am looking forward to getting started." 

Airmen considering a switch to the Air Operations Center should not hesitate to contact Master Sgt. Keith Johnson or Col. Frank Aflague. 

Sergeant Johnson's advice to prospective candidates: "Keep an open mind and don't let the unknown intimidate you; everyone is willing to help. I didn't realize it at first coming out of aircraft maintenance but this is a great career field."