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AETC general, Silver Star honoree, reflects on 29 years of service

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

(U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – RANDOLPH, Texas --

In 1988, after earning his commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, then 2nd Lt. John Cherrey earned his pilot’s wings at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

Today Cherrey, after a 29-year distinguished military career, retires in a ceremony here officiated by his former boss, Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

“My original plan going through ROTC was to do four years and get out,” said Brig. Gen. Cherrey, director of Intelligence, Operations and Nuclear Integration at Air Education and Training Command Headquarters. “I had never been in an airplane in college because the Cherrey family went everywhere by station wagon. Until they asked me if I wanted to be a pilot, it was something I never really considered. I had the opportunity to get in a T-37 in field training and I just thought it was amazing. The thrill of being in an airplane was what led me to accept their offer.”

With nearly 4,000 flying hours and a Silver Star Medal awarded by President Bill Clinton for gallantry while flying his A-10 attack fighter aircraft during combat in Serbia, Cherrey, whose directorate’s members develop policies for Air Force technical and flying training programs, has a deep understanding of what life for Air Force pilots entails.

“We [in AETC] run the largest flying hour program in the Air Force, so we have the most pilots in our command,” he explained. “We have to retain our people just as much any other pilot force.

“I realize that every time I ask for another instructor, specifically on the pilot side, I’m taking someone from the operational Air Force where they are needed in the units, where they are desperately needed to fly the missions,” he continued. “It’s a constant balance to consider with the need to produce more pilots.”

Cherrey, who commanded the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, notes that his proudest accomplishment during his final post is the extensive growth of the F-35 program.

“We brought the F-35 program from a very small, one squadron operation down at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to now, AETC has more F-35 aircraft than any other country, any other branch or major command,” Cherrey said. “We operate the most F-35s out there and it has been amazing to watch that enterprise grow.”

In relation to achieving the rank of brigadier general, Cherrey attributes his personal successes to the mentorship received from enlisted members over the years.  

“Certainly no one gets to where they are on their own,” he said. “Plenty of NCOs have mentored me. They have shown me what Airmen should and shouldn’t be doing. They have shown me strong work ethic and habits, regulations and procedures, good order and discipline, and I would say that I’ve learned the most from these NCOs and senior NCOs.”

Throughout his Air Force career, Cherrey has often been asked what has made him continue his service as an Airman.

“Sometimes people ask me why I’ve stayed in as long as I have and I always tell people it’s because of the Airmen,” he said. “You can get a job almost anywhere with the skill set the Air Force provides us and you can make decent money but to go to work each day with great professionals who believe in a sense of purpose like I do, who hold the same core values that I do – I enjoy working with people whose word is their bond, who I trust with my life.

“Over the course of time, one great opportunity after another has opened up for me,” he continued. “Every time I get to a point and think ‘this has been fun but it’s time to go out and do something different,’ another great Air Force opportunity arises. And before you knew it, I was in command of a fighter squadron. Each and every time, it was usually a senior mentor who opened my eyes to new opportunities that I may not have thought of myself.”

Offering a final word of advice to the Airmen he has served for the better part of three decades, Cherrey reminds his wingmen of the importance of doing one’s best at the task at hand.

“Do the absolute best you can with what you are doing today,” he said. “Don’t worry about the next job ahead because the second you start thinking of future positions, you take focus away from the job currently at hand. I am a firm believer that working as hard as you can and doing the best job that you can is all you can do.”

“I grew up as a middle-class kid in New Jersey and the opportunities that the Air Force has opened up for me have been once in a lifetime,” he said.