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Joint partner spotlight: Fire training through the eyes of Master Gunnery Sgt. Terrail Dickerson

  • Published
  • By Cpl. Jessica Roeder
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs

Goodfellow Air Force Base is a joint center of excellence that hosts both the signals intelligence schoolhouse as well as the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy, training every branch of the United States Armed Forces.

The Fire Academy hosts a wealth of history, showcasing gear and photos from various branch-specific fire academies from before the 1995 conversion into a joint training operation on Goodfellow. It also houses exhibits of more recent career field developments that have occurred since its establishment.

Not all of this history is in the equipment, it is also in the people. There are few individuals in the DoD who recall what firefighting training was like before joint training began at Goodfellow, but one individual who does is Master Gunnery Sgt. Terrail Dickerson, the senior enlisted advisor for Marine Corps Detachment Goodfellow Air Force Base Fire Company.

Dickerson grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, and those around him knew that the way he held himself and acted was different from his peers. He had an underlying drive but no clear direction. At a young age, his uncle’s stories of being an enlisted Marine piqued his interest in the Marine Corps as well as helped to shape the vision he had for his life.

When he entered the ninth grade, Dickerson found direction in the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. The MCJROTC program solidified a sense of discipline in him as the instructors saw his drive and pushed him to grow.

When it came time for him to decide what to do after graduation, his MCJROTC instructors pushed him to attend college and commission through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. However, Dickerson decided against commissioning and instead, chose to enlist, following in his uncle’s footsteps.

After graduating from boot camp in 1994, Dickerson attended firefighter training aboard Naval Air Station Millington in Memphis, Tennessee, to become a 7051 Crash Fire Rescue Marine. 

Firefighter training for the branches was divided at this time, with only the Navy and Marine Corps attending the month-long course that covered the basics of firefighting and aircraft fires aboard NAS Millington. It was innovative for the time, and Dickerson recalled that it was tough but exciting, stating, “At the time, it felt like we were receiving the best firefighting training in the world. It was amazing.”

When Dickerson arrived at his first duty station, he faced opposition in gaining acceptance into the firefighting community. He was the only African American in his section at the time, and he faced the struggle to prove himself to be just as capable as his peers. He had to prove that he was more than just his skin color, and with the determination not to be dismissed or stopped, he overcame this struggle.

While overcoming prejudice, Dickerson continued to learn and grow as he adapted to the changes in the Marine Corps. He has continued to hit milestones in his career, whether they be challenges, high points or a combination of both.

Dickerson encountered this combination of highs and lows during his deployments. He deployed twice between 2009 and 2012 to Afghanistan. During his deployments, Dickerson faced adversity in the form of losing friends and fellow Marines. Despite facing such hardships, Dickerson continued to serve honorably, working daily with a strong sense of purpose as he helped lay the groundwork for future operations and infrastructure.

With a career spanning 30 years and assignments across the globe, the individuals Dickerson encountered have challenged him to learn how to inspire and communicate with multiple generations of service members.

Getting through to his Marines has not been as simple as doing and saying to them what was done and said to him. Dickerson has learned that the best way to reach his Marines has been to get to know them and learn what drives each individual. This growth along with the ever-mobile movements of a career in the military have enabled him to interact with numerous individuals in a way that has a lasting impact, one that he typically has not realized until he has left a unit.

Being able to make a difference in individuals’ lives throughout his career has been an important factor for Dickerson over the years. “I truly love to inspire people to be their better selves,” Dickerson explained.

Not only has Dickerson seen the growth of countless individuals throughout his career, but he has also seen major changes in training and the 7051 career field as a whole. These major changes have included changes in the location and scope of training, the shift from Crash Fire Rescue to Aircraft Rescue Firefighting and newly innovative equipment designed for firefighter safety and efficiency.

NAS Millington closed its doors in 1995, and CFR students began attending training at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy on Goodfellow. It was a major transition for the career field as the branches came together and service members received more in-depth training.

In 1996, Dickerson recognized the scope of increase in training as Marines started to arrive at his unit with a wealth of knowledge straight out of the academy. Marines arriving from Goodfellow had more certifications and knowledge on topics than he had coming straight out of his training at NAS Millington. It was an impressive development for the career field that Dickerson watched in real-time.

One of the biggest innovations of ARFF was the equipment for not only the military but the civilian sector as well. The 9/11 attacks highlighted the need to better equip firefighters for protection and efficiency. This resulted in a rapid expansion of the firefighting community to catch up and keep up with changing needs on a functional level.

The equipment that Dickerson used when he first joined the field was bulky and harder to move in than today’s equipment. Versions of this old equipment sit in display cases at the academy, showcasing the developments and history of the community. “...the equipment that I had when I first came into the Marine Corps is sitting in a glass case like it's in a museum, but I'm not in a museum. I'm still here.” Dickerson emphasized.

Dickerson has come full circle in his career, despite the change in the location and scope of the training, he started his career in the training environment as a student and is ending it in the same environment as a leader. He highlighted the importance of remembering the history of where you come from as he reflected on his coming retirement. He does not want the Marines of today’s ARFF to forget the past but rather, learn from it.

The history and traditions of the occupational field are important. Dickerson is the last individual in the Department of the Navy who attended training at NAS Millington, and as he leaves the Marine Corps, an important chapter of history for firefighting in the Department of the Navy is closing.

Dickerson showed appreciation for all he has seen and done. He reflected on the fact that his era is coming to an end as a new one begins and his shoes are filled by those who have followed in his footsteps, stating, “To put that in perspective, it can put me in an emotional state when I think about it. Like, I'm the last one… It's a humbling feeling to think about all the stuff that I've done and what I've been through to get to this point.”

Dickerson’s story and impact is one to be remembered for the individuals he has directly and indirectly influenced, the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting career field and the Marine Corps as a whole. In a final piece of advice, he stressed his leadership philosophy, stating, “Regardless of what your rank is, people are looking at you, and your actions matter to everyone that you come in contact with throughout your career… Be intentional in what you do, and you're going to be successful.”