Taking care of cadets: Military trainer speaks out on USAFA experience

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series highlighting academy military trainers at the Air Force Academy. 

Tech. Sgt. John Sinner is an Air Force Academy military trainer. He knows what it's like to be under fire.

"There were multiple things coming at us from three sides of the base from at least 50 attackers: an improvised explosive device at the gate and bullets," Sinner said, recalling an attack he survived in November 2010 while deployed to Afghanistan. "There was so much gunfire just over our heads, coming at us from over the barriers."

But more on this later, except to say Sinner knows what it's like to wrestle with an intense situation whether in a foreign country or on his home turf at the academy.

Sinner is one of nearly 60 military trainers at the academy who guide and instruct cadets from the moment they arrive for basic cadet training until they graduate with diploma in hand.

The AMTs are often specifically asked by these newly-minted officers to give them their first official salute at the commissioning ceremony before the academy's graduation ceremony at Falcon Stadium.

"Nothing is better than being asked to give a first salute to a new Air Force second lieutenant," Sinner said. "That's the moment you know you've done something right."

'Top priority'
Sinner is the AMT for Cadet Squadron 24. He often spends 60 hours a week with cadets.

"They have to be your top priority," he said. "You will not succeed as an AMT if they are not."

Sinner is from West Jordon, Utah. He enlisted in the Air Force in 2002 and became a civil engineer paving and heavy equipment operator. Before becoming an AMT in 2013, he supervised Airmen as a CE foreman.

"My last year in CE helped me lead larger groups," he said. "Before 2013, I would have found it more difficult to balance everything this job can throw at you. My experience benefits cadets. When it comes to my civil engineering cadets, they eat up all the information I have."

Sinner was in the sixth grade when he made up his mind to join the military. He came close to enlisting in the Army after high school but an Air Force recruiter put a stop to that.

"He changed my mind," Sinner said.  

Cadets 1st Class Zachariah Jacques and Elizabeth Ramsey say Sinner made the right decision to join the Air Force.

"He's had a very positive effect on my cadet career, especially in my leadership opportunities," said Ramsey, the squadron commander for CS-24. "He helped me with tough decisions, not by making them for me, but by helping me think through them. He helped me grow as a leader and as a person, taught me to think through difficult choices and not to judge. I've learned countless lessons from him and I am very grateful."

Jacques is the support officer for CS-24.

"Sergeant Sinner has without a doubt made the greatest impact from an enlisted Airman in my cadet career," he said. "He's shown me how to take the good with the bad, and more importantly how to make good out of the bad. I wouldn't be as prepared to be an officer if it wasn't for him. Sergeant Sinner represents the best of the Air Force enlisted corps. He is always there to help others, constantly putting others before himself." 

Sinner said AMTs must put cadets first if they want to be successful.

"Don't come to the academy if you're not ready to serve cadets," he said.

If Sinner seems passionate, he said it's because he recognizes cadets could never graduate or become officers if not for the influence and guidance of AMTs.

"Our AMTs here are all true professionals," he said. "They set a high standard our new officers can base a technical or master sergeant's performance on. AMTs are as fundamental to the cadets' learning curve as are their academic professors."

Cadets also influence Sinner.

"They inspire me to be a better NCO and a better AMT," he said. "It's amazing to think my fingerprint here could be on a cadet who eventually becomes the chief of staff of the Air Force."

Cadets have inspired Sinner to pursue higher education; he's now planning to finish his bachelor's degree.

"I thought my Community College of the Air Force Construction Technology degree was good enough, but seeing everything cadets have to balance while pursuing a degree, I have a new view of higher education," he said. "I had no ambitions toward a bachelor's degree until I became an AMT."

Lt. Col. Gerald Cook, the air officer commanding for CS-24, said cadets are lucky to have Sinner as their AMT. 

"I'd be hard pressed to find a better role model of our enlisted professionals," he said. "Our cadets and I are truly fortunate to have John as our squadron's AMT. His performance is amazing and vital to CS-24's operations and to our cadets' development."

Under fire
Sinner deployed to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan in 2010. He was leading a CE water well drilling team at a military combat outpost near Senjaray, in the Kandahr Province's Zhari District, when bullets began to fly on November 1. An improvised explosive devise carried along on a motorcycle detonated near the outpost's only gate, and an estimated enemy force of 50 insurgents began attacking the compound from seven fighting positions with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades, according to Army award citation documents. Two soldiers were killed in the explosion and four others severely wounded.

Sinner's team quickly found themselves on security detail, armed with M4 carbine rifles during the hours-long attack.

"I felt more imminent danger that I ever had on the 100 convoys in Iraq I'd been on, but my team followed me to the letter," he said.

The battle began in the early afternoon and ended just before dark, thanks to close air support from a score of coalition aircraft and the Army's 101st Airborne Division, according to Sinner and the DOD documents.

Since then, Sinner has gathered information and worked to have his team recognized for helping protect the combat outpost during the attack.

"I know in my heart and soul we were a part of something significant and the fact that my team followed my direction without hesitation, even though some were very scared, is worth recognition."

Sinner regularly discusses the attack event with his cadets. He tells them that coming under enemy fire is a situation they could all one day face as officers, and how following the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do, can help them cope with an uncertain situation -- like the heat of battle.    

"Once you are really able to embody those values, that's all you need to direct your actions and your life in an honorable way," he said. "Nothing changes when the bullets start flying."

Having faith in the core values will make cadets betters officers whether they lead at the squadron level or under fire, Sinner said.

"The most important thing is that when they're in a position of stress or facing something they've never dealt with before, they need to embrace the core values like my team did," he said. "As officers, they're never allowed to be scared or hungry, as retired Army Gen. Colin Powell [former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] once said. Once an officer shows weakness, it's going to reverberate through their subordinates."

An indelible imprint
Sinner knows he'll eventually leave the academy for another Air Force assignment. 

"I'll miss the cadets and working so closely with commanders," he said. "It's an amazing feeling when a lieutenant colonel or major asks for your opinion and they roll with what you have to say."

Jaques said Sinner has left an indelible imprint on his life.

"Sergeant Sinner has shown me that Air Force NCOs are talented, hardworking and dedicated individuals who lead by example," he said. "With the academy being the first encounter I've had with the enlisted corps, he's provided more of a positive first impression than anything else. He's proven everything I've ever heard about how hard working the enlisted corps is. I wouldn't be the cadet, man or future officer I am today without Sergeant Sinner's mentorship."

Sinner is married to Master Sgt. Tiffany Sinner, the first sergeant of the 187th Aero Medical Evacuation Squadron, 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard. The Sinners are the parents of Olivia, 3, and Ryker, 1.  

"My family is my foundation," Sinner said. "Tiffany takes care of our kids when I'm taking care of my cadets at the academy. Just like my own children, I love cadets when they're having a good day and I love them when they're having a bad day,"

Jaques and Ramsey are scheduled to graduate June 2.