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“I think we forget sometimes”

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, 47th Communications Squadron NCO in charge of mobile knowledge operations, poses for a photo at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Sparks was selected as Air Education and Training Command’s Airman of the Year for his dedication to the Air Force and outstanding Airmanship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jimmie D. Pike)

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, 47th Communications Squadron NCO in charge of mobile knowledge operations, poses for a photo at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Sparks was selected as Air Education and Training Command’s Airman of the Year for his dedication to the Air Force and outstanding Airmanship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jimmie D. Pike)

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, center, Air Education and Training Command Airman of the Year, poses with Col. Thomas Shank, left, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Teresa Clapper, right, 47th FTW command chief, in front of the Washington Monument April 11, 2016. The trio visited Capitol Hill to inform congressional leadership about Laughlin Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, center, Air Education and Training Command Airman of the Year, poses with Col. Thomas Shank, left, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Teresa Clapper, right, 47th FTW command chief, in front of the Washington Monument April 11, 2016. The trio visited Capitol Hill to inform congressional leadership about Laughlin Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, right, Air Education and Training Command Airman of the Year, poses with Col. Thomas Shank, left, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, in front of the Lincoln Memorial April 11, 2016. During a visit to Capitol Hill to inform congressional leadership about Laughlin Air Force Base, Sparks toured memorials learning about Air Force heritage from his wing commander.

Staff Sgt. Cody Sparks, right, Air Education and Training Command Airman of the Year, poses with Col. Thomas Shank, left, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, in front of the Lincoln Memorial April 11, 2016. During a visit to Capitol Hill to inform congressional leadership about Laughlin Air Force Base, Sparks toured memorials learning about Air Force heritage from his wing commander.

Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas --

Day One

Today is my birthday but also something much more unique. 

I’m in a hotel in San Antonio waiting to catch a flight in the morning. I’m not sure what to expect, and I cannot figure out if I am excited, nervous or a huge combination of both. 

I don’t think many get a chance like this, especially small town kids from Missouri who don’t have the smoothest past. I’ve made mistakes before, and I’m not entirely sure I deserve this opportunity.

But, I’m going on a trip with the wing commander and command chief from my base.  We are going to visit Capitol Hill on a mission to volley support for the base.  Although my leadership has nominated and selected me as the Outstanding Airmen of the Year, I never thought I would ever have this opportunity. 

Day Two

Although today didn’t start out as easy as I’d hoped and thought it would, we all finally made it to Washington D.C. 

Learning experience number one for today: double check, triple check, then quadruple check your Government Travel Card and Defense Travel System stuff.  It will save some embarrassment. 

Even after missing a flight, today was incredible.  Who can say they’ve gotten the chance to learn about Air Force Heritage from their wing commander and command chief at the Air Force Memorial? 

We toured some of the monuments and ventured through Arlington National Cemetery.  It’s always a humbling experience to visit such historic places.  Although I’ve been here before, it feels as though this is my first visit.  Everything seems so fresh. 

Now that I’ve grown since joining the Air Force, I better understand the impact of the hurdles the leaders who went before me overcame.  I’m walking and standing in the very places were our nation began.

Day Three

Today was another incredible day!

We started at the Pentagon - that place is amazing - where our escorts greeted us.  We received a couple briefings, and then it was off to the races.  We met with multiple legislatures where leadership was advocating to gain support for our base. 

The relation between military and political objectives go nearly hand in hand.  It’s amazing what strategic communication and networking can do. 

The representatives we spoke with are our political wingman.  Although they may not wear Air Force uniforms, they are invested in our small base.  They are so eager to assist with our needs at Laughlin. 

What I found most impressive was the selflessness from all the leaders.  The motives were clear: Laughlin Air Force Base needs help, and more specifically, the Airmen at Laughlin need help. 

There was no, “I need help,” or “my base needs this.”  No. Every conversation was directed with the Airmen in mind.  

It didn’t matter if we were talking about the need for aircraft covers, new dorms or the quality of life at Laughlin.  The core of every topic was the most important resource any organization has: people. 

That’s what it’s all about though.  If you take care of the people and Airmen around you, then they will take care of you.  It’s a simple concept, but I think we forget sometimes.

My experience with my representative, from the 8th district of Missouri, was a perfect example of taking care of people. 

He has no military installations within his district, so I didn’t think he would be excited to hear about some Airman working hard in Texas. 

I was wrong. 

He greeted me right after arriving back in town, just off his flight, even though a dozen people were waiting on him for various meetings.  He shook my hand with a strong grip, a welcoming smile and an unmistakable drive to learn more about who I am and why I was there, especially after hearing of my accomplishments. 

We talked for a bit about where I’m from, my high school and the rivalry between his and my football teams.  There I was, with my state representative, just chatting like old friends. What a leader.

But, even after a wonderful day, I am excited to get home tomorrow to see my wife and daughter.

Day Four

Normally, I can fall asleep on my flights, but today I couldn’t. 

My mind swarmed with all the amazing events and meetings I had the three days prior.  I don’t think there could be a better mentoring experience for a person to have.  And to think, from the start, I was nervous. 

More than just an experience

A good leader told me to remember: “All those leaders you meet on this trip, yes, they’re pretty important people, but they still put their pants on the same way.” 

It reminds me of the reaction each representative had when they learned who I am and why I was there.  They all showed a sincere appreciation and sense of amazement at someone others may not have noticed – a product of Laughlin’s team. 

It’s because of our team, our unit, our group and our wing that I was able to have this amazing experience.  All of those wingmen helped me grow. 

When you charge and step forward, that’s when it pays off.  If you fall down, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on going.  Don’t forget about your past, but don’t look back either.  Work hard, and don’t be afraid to be a leader.  Aim high, and if you miss your shot, then aim again.  Those long hours, the tedious work and attention to detail will pay off. 

I’m just a kid from a small town in Missouri.  I’ve tripped up a little and had my share of course corrections. 

If I can do it, anyone can. 

All it takes is determination to keep your drive, courage to take the leap and awareness to know who to follow and how to lead.

Determination, courage, awareness…I think we forget that sometimes.

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