From enlisted to officer: Vice Superintendent advises taking care of Airmen

First Lieutenant Kevin Lamberth, now a colonel serving as vice-superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, began his career in the enlisted corps in 1983. (Courtesy photo)

First Lieutenant Kevin Lamberth, now a colonel serving as vice-superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, began his career in the enlisted corps in 1983. (Courtesy photo)

Airman Basic Kevin Lamberth, now a colonel serving as vice-superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, began his career in the enlisted corps in 1983. (Courtesy photo)

Airman Basic Kevin Lamberth, now a colonel serving as vice-superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, began his career in the enlisted corps in 1983. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- One ordinary day in 1983, Kevin Lamberth sat down with an Air Force recruiter in a small town in Alabama. He wasn't seriously considering joining the Air Force at that moment. In reality, he was tagging along with two of his friends, and only because they were heading to the mall after their meeting. Flash forward 32 years, and Kevin Lamberth is Col. Kevin Lamberth, the vice superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"I'm a colonel now, but I started out as an airman basic," he said. "I started from the very bottom, and realized somewhere along the way that I could control things and make things happen for myself. Out of the three of us who went to the recruiter's office that day in 1983, I'm the only one who went into the Air Force. I don't ever look back."

Lamberth transitioned to Air Force ROTC for two years after his original enlistment to finish his degree.

"When I was in college I talked to other ROTC cadets and asked them what they were going to do after graduation," he said. "They told me they were going to be second lieutenants and fly airplanes. I thought, 'If they can do that - so can I!' As an Airman, I had never imagined flying those planes. But then I started thinking, 'Well maybe I can.'"

Lamberth accepted a commission upon graduation from the University of Texas at Arlington. Throughout his career, he has used that refrain - "If they can do it, I can do it," - as inspiration for both himself and others.

"I never expected to make it this far, but I think that shows the airman first class, the senior airman and the sergeant that they are just as capable of doing what I did," he said. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, I'm not anything special. It's all attitude, and being willing to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work. You've got to grab life and take control of it. You've got to be aggressive and make things happen for yourself. If you approach things that way, good things will come of it."

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson is an Academy graduate, and Lamberth feels his being prior-enlisted helps make them a good team.

"I hope I'm an asset to the Academy because I've come in with an outside view, and I think I can see things from a different lens," he said. "Perhaps not being a graduate from here allows me to see the Academy with a fresh perspective. At times, I can see things that need to be changed, so I think of myself as a change agent, as an extension of the superintendent."

Col. Stacey Hawkins, who relinquished command of the 10th Air Base Wing here May 14, said Lamberth has taken the lessons he's learned about the enlisted corps and applied it to his officer career.

"Because of his unique experience and unique journey, Colonel Lamberth approaches the Air Force as a disciplined, passionate Airman," Hawkins said. "It really comes across in the way he cares about the Air Force and Airmen in particular. The time he spent in the Air Force - both as an enlisted member and a combat pilot - gives him a unique perspective that most of us don't have. That's why he's been successful at so many different jobs."

Part of the fresh perspective Lamberth brings comes in the unique outlook he can offer to cadets.

"Not only have I been fortunate lead from this side - the commissioned side - but I have also led, and been led, from the other side, so I can share some of those experiences with our cadets," Lamberth said. "I can tell them what the enlisted Airmen expect out of their leaders. Most of the time cadets kind of perk up and take note because I'm able to tell them things they may not have heard before."

Lamberth said much of this advice involves ideas and valuable lessons that are familiar to most enlisted Airmen.

"You have to be prepared to earn the respect of the enlisted members," he said. "You have to get to know your enlisted force, because if you don't know them, you can't take care of them. If you can't take care of them, they aren't going to take care of you or the mission. They can see through somebody who doesn't care, and who doesn't want to be the best at their craft... someone that doesn't lead. If that's you as a second lieutenant coming in, you're really going to have an uphill battle. If they know you care, and if they respect you as a leader, they will bend over backwards to help you complete the mission."

Lamberth follows the example of mentors he has encountered throughout his career to earn the respect of subordinate Airmen.  One is the current superintendent, and specifically how she can so eloquently provide direction to her subordinates.  That is a gift and something to strive for as a leader. 

Another is Maj. Gen. Frederick Martin, the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Commander.  "He treats people with compassion and respect," Lamberth said. "No matter how busy he is, he'll write people notes. He was my boss when I was in wing command.  He would take the time to come visit me and see my people, and take his own personal time to write them a handwritten note, thanking them for what they do to support the mission. I think that means a lot.  When I meet people, I try not to make it all about work. I ask them how they are, how they're doing and what I can do to help them. When people win awards and it comes to my attention, I may not always write a handwritten note, but I'll try to type them up a letter and sign it. Then I send it to their commander so that their boss knows their troop has been recognized at headquarters-level. You know, we can pay people more, give them more time off, and those types of things are fine - but just the occasional pat on the back sometimes is what really motivates folks. Just letting people know that you notice and you care is what I strive for."