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377th ABW commander speaks on the importance of mentors

  • Published
  • By John Cochran
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Mentorship happens when a more-experienced person guides a less-experienced person toward professional and personal growth, achievement, and success. Colonel Jason Vattioni, 377th Air Base Wing commander at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, recently spoke about the influence his first Air Force mentor had, and still has, on him.

Question 1: Who was your first mentor in the Air Force, and why were they an important mentor for you?

Answer 1: In early 1991, as an Airman Basic, I arrived at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. There was a heavy influx of a lot of us Airmen at that time to that base -- my entire tech school class -- all five of us went there.

Staff Sergeant Bob Ogurek was assigned as my Team Chief, as well as my supervisor. He trained us on all of our tasks and led us through certifications, as nuclear weapons technicians. For team members, we had a Senior Airman with experience from overseas, a one-striper just a few months ahead of me, and me, a zero-striper. We trained hard, passing all of our certifications, and became certified technicians. That was the technical thing that brought us together.

At the time, I'm not sure if I knew Sergeant Ogurek was a mentor. He was my supervisor and my Team Chief. It wasn't until some reflection, some time working with him, and when he was subsequently promoted and moved into Quality Assurance. It left a void, an absence in my life, of somebody who was a great leader and a positive influence in my very young career.

I wanted that influence and security -- that level of involvement. I knew that he was a 'safe' person to work with. You knew that he had your best interests at heart and that he was going to take care of you. That doesn't mean simply 'protect' -- he genuinely cared, set high expectations, and taught you. If you made a mistake, he would call you out on that mistake. If you weren't doing the best that he knew you could do, he called you out on that. Those are good things in a person's life -- that honest feedback. It was still kind, never belittling. It was honest; and although the sting hurt immediately, when you had time to reflect, you realized, 'He's right. I need to get my stuff together here.'

Q2: What did your mentor do that influenced you?

A2: Sergeant Ogurek genuinely cared about each of us on the team. At the onset, it didn't seem like caring, because he had high standards and he held us accountable to those standards. He didn't tell us answers -- he taught us how to find the answer. He was very critical of our quality of work -- he demanded the best that we could do. He was always paying attention to those details and then providing you feedback. Additionally, he was, what seemed at the time, invasive in our personal lives. He was always interested in what I was doing on the weekends, in the evening, what food I was eating … those kinds of things -- just to make sure I was taking care of myself and that I wasn't taking unnecessary risks. I don't know if he saw in me the things that weren't so good with me, at the time. I was 18 years old, away from home … although I was physically an adult, I was very immature. I had low self-confidence and I easily succumbed to peer pressure. Looking back, assessing my 18-year-old self, I needed somebody to be invasive in my life, to make sure that I didn't give in to those things.

At the time, it seemed immediately, like, 'Man, this guy is always asking about me and always in my life!' It was a balance -- a perfect balance. It wasn't like a parent -- it was more like an older brother or cousin -- someone you trusted. These things all developed over time. At first, I was very put off by it, and thought, 'OK, hopefully I can just survive Sergeant Ogurek.' Then, once I saw that I was certified in all my tasks before my peers, that I was being put on tasks that were big projects, and we were getting them done, it felt good to be trusted that way. We were a trusted team to get after those things. It wasn't because I was good, or the other team members were good -- I sincerely believe it was because he was really good at what he did and he developed us. He led, he mentored, and he developed us to be good at our craft and to expect that level of quality.

Q3: How was Sergeant Ogurek different from other mentors you may have had?

A3: What was different about his mentorship was that it spanned the spectrum of leadership; from being directive to delegating. He had to take this young man out of technical school, who just had basic tool knowledge and the basics of Air Force professionalism and Core Values, and he had to shape that person, who had a lot of maybe not-so-great influence at the dorms after work hours. He had to take all of that and figure out how to set the standards early, very directive. 'Don't come to work if your boots aren't shined and your uniform isn't ironed and your hair isn't cut. There's no horse playing at work -- we are here to work.' But, by the time we made it through training and we had proven ourselves, it was less directive and more making sure we had what we needed to succeed -- making corrections on the margins, as we needed it. He built in me positive structures, for both my professional and personal life, that I still use today.

I don't want it to sound like, 'I came in the Air Force, and I was just this disheveled, undisciplined, on the edge of not being successful in his life' kind of thing. No, I have fantastic parents. Not knowing my biological father, and growing up for a number of years where it was just me, my mother, and my grandmother -- those were wonderful years -- I have nothing but positive memories of that. Then, enter Fred Vattioni into my life -- he married my mother and adopted me … a fantastic upbringing I had with them and my grandmother, who were always there. They did everything they could to make sure I was prepared to be an adult in this life. Based on some of those unfortunate factors -- the low self-confidence and being easily influenced by peer pressure -- I needed a Bob Ogurek, at that time in my life, to continue what was instilled in me as a young person. That is exactly what Jason Vattioni needed -- that type of genuinely caring mentor that kept me on a positive path.

I hope there are other first-line supervisors out there who take that term and that responsibility as seriously as he did.

Q4: Have you "paid it forward" and mentored others the way Sergeant Ogurek mentored you?

A4: Throughout my career, I've been able to use his example and pay it forward. Growing up myself in the Air Force, as an older Airman or as a young officer, I'm still finding my way, I think, as most adults do -- at least, that's how this adult did it.

It wasn't until I became a commander that I had to think about whatever influence I may or may not have on NCOs, the first-line supervisors, in our unit -- what examples am I going to have for them? I always go back to Sergeant Ogurek, when I think of NCOs. There are some basic principles that Bob Ogurek instilled in us that apply to not just the enlisted corps, but the officer corps, as well. As a commander, was the time in my career when I started to use the examples from my time with him. These stories mean something to me and maybe they'll mean something to those I share them with. Fast forward to now, as a wing commander, I have the opportunity to talk to all the different courses we offer Airmen and Guardians -- first-term enlisted center, leadership school, NCO and SNCO professional education courses -- sessions where we put our enlisted leaders together. I share these stories with them about Sergeant Ogurek and I tell the brand new Airmen and Guardians, "Seek your own Sergeant Ogurek. Look for that NCO, whose job performance is something you want to emulate, their leadership is something you seek -- you want to be led that way. Their professionalism, the way that they conduct themselves -- seek that person -- and, latch onto them." I was fortunate to have had that person assigned to me, as my first supervisor. To those Airmen who are getting ready to be supervisors, in Airman Leadership School, I tell them, "Be the Bob Ogurek." And, for the NCOs and SNCOs, I share these stories with them to remind them how much their care and mentorship matters. I'm here, more than 31 years later, and I'm still talking about Bob Ogurek.

I also encourage young officers and squadron and group commanders now, 'If it seems there's a new, unique challenge every day, I think that's normal, because I felt that almost every day. I just did my best with what the Air Force -- and key mentors, like Bob Ogurek -- had taught me. I tried to emulate positive influences in my life, when I was working through difficult situations.'

Q5: Are there any lessons others can derive from the way Sergeant Ogurek mentored you?

A5: The number one thing I would take away is, 'Never underestimate your impact on other people.' However small or big -- caring, being kind, being inclusive, and seeking to deliberately develop others, as well as yourself. Bob Ogurek was always modest. He always gave us credit, even though I knew we were as good as we were and successful at the things we were doing, only because of the structures that he built for us. He was never concerned about what was next for himself. He was always focused on the task at hand, while keeping an eye to the future. I always felt like it was more about our future than his. Stepping back, years later, I can see that he was able to strike a balance, a proportionality, that served him, his family, and all of us well. He exemplified why you need to eat well, get your rest -- you need all of those things in your life that are important to you, whatever they may be -- physical, mental, spiritual -- all of those things need to be serviced.

I never really knew what his dreams were -- I only knew that he cared about my concerns. At least, that's how he made me feel. He made me want to be better.

Q6: Do you stay in contact with your first mentor?

A6: Mr. Ogurek and I usually exchange an email a couple of times a year. Sometimes I'll have a really great session, where I'm talking with officers or the enlisted corps, giving them examples, and I'll feel really good about it, and I'll pop him a note: 'Hey, Bob -- talked about you again today -- used you as an example. I can't thank you enough for what you have done for me.' That is usually the sentiment of the email, every single time. His reply is normally just pride -- never acknowledging that he had any influence -- just proud of what I am doing in the Air Force and making sure I have what I need.

We had an interesting reunion after the 2007 Minot-Barksdale incident. He was working as a government civilian at Minot AFB. I was reassigned there, post-incident. As part of some of the changes that we made both locally and across the Air Force with the nuclear enterprise, he found himself working with us as a Technical Advisor. I was told, 'We hired a tech advisor -- here's his name.' When I saw the name -- Robert Ogurek -- I had to do a double take. I then assured everyone, 'We are in good hands. Everything is going to be fine, from this point forward. If Mr. Ogurek is the Technical Advisor for our technicians, Team Chiefs, and Bay Chiefs, there is nothing we can't do.'

Ogurek went on to retire from the Air Force in 2005 as a senior master sergeant and entered civil service, where he now serves as the 5th Bomb Wing director of inspections at Minot AFB, North Dakota. He said this about his approach to mentoring:

“I have a simple philosophy: 'Do things the Air Force way -- by the book. Treat everyone fairly. Do the best you can.’”

Of his time with then-Airman Jason Vattioni, he said:

“As a young Airman, he had an outgoing personality that made him fun to work with. I could tell he would do good things. He's been successful as a commander because he's lived it, and understands what it's like to be a technician. It's humbling that he thinks so highly of me.”