Enlisted man aims for officer’s bars

Maj. Calvin Speight, left, works with Staff Sgt. Thomas Cook, who has been accepted into officer training school. CNJ photo:Darrell Todd Maurina

By Darrell Todd Maurina

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — A staff sergeant at Cannon has received a rare opportunity to turn in his stripes for an officer’s gold bars, and public affairs staff at Cannon say he’s the first enlisted man from Cannon to receive that opportunity in at least two years.
While enlisting in the military is relatively easy for most people who meet physical and age requirements, being accepted as an officer is a longer and more complicated process.
In the Air Force, future officers most commonly come from the ranks of the ROTC programs at civilian colleges and a smaller number come from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. However, the Air Force also has an “officer training school” program that allows civilians and enlisted personnel to compete for the chance to fill a limited number of officer slots.
The Air Force announced in December that 73 enlisted personnel, mostly staff sergeants and technical sergeants but also a few from higher or lower enlisted ranks, received the opportunity to go to officer training school.
Staff Sgt. Thomas Cook, who has spent eight years in the Air Force since enlisting at the age of 19, decided to apply but met repeated obstacles. As a financial analyst in the 27th Comptroller Squadron, he’s in a specialty that is rarely selected for OTS. Then, due to the buildup for Iraq war, the Air Force stopped taking applications for about a year.
None of that deterred him.
“It’s really something I’ve always wanted to do,” Cook said. “I’ll be staying in the same comptroller career field, but as a second lieutenant, I will be more on the management end.”
While he could earn more money by putting his financial skills to work for a civilian company, Cook said that’s not the point.
“In a civilian company I wouldn’t have these opportunities — everything from helping set up a brand new bare base to supporting existing operations,” Cook said. “It’s a true variety versus having blinders on doing the same thing every day.”
As the veteran of several deployments, Cook said his duties in the Air Force could include everything up to and including starting the financial operations of a newly-deployed unit from scratch in a foreign country, getting supplies, reviewing contracts, and making sure that Air Force spending is being done legally and efficiently to obtain what the Air Force needs.
Cook’s commander at the 27th Comptroller Squadron, Maj. Calvin Speight, said he pushed hard for Cook to get the chance to earn the gold bars of a second lieutenant through OTS — a rare feat for a person who’s not in a technical field.
“We were told he doesn’t have a chance, and we kept saying, ‘You don’t know Thomas Cook,’” Speight said. “I truly enjoy commending troops like Sgt. Cook. He has what it takes and what people want. He will be successful at whatever he does.”
Speight entered the Air Force officer corps through the more traditional route of the Air Force Academy, but said Cook’s experience as an enlisted airman will bring him special advantages as an officer.
“He’s walked in their shoes; it helps him better understand the people he’s leading,” Speight said. “Some of the best officers I have worked for have been prior enlisted.”
While Speight said Cook’s technical skills and proficiency are excellent, what stands out the most about him are his personal characteristics. Speight ticked off a list — integrity, good morale, dedicated, hardworking, and personable.
“And he’s humble, too!” Speight said.
“I hope this shows people that if they know what they want and pursue it, they can achieve it,” Speight said. “He went out, found out what he needed to do, and did it.”
Cook said his next step will be to report to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, where he will receive about 13 weeks of training. After that, he pins on his bars as a commissioned officer, and gets to go wherever the Air Force decides it can use him best.