By Darrell Todd Maurina
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Job shadowing is gaining popularity as more companies give college students the chance to accompany executives or other professional staff for a few weeks during summer vacations to learn by observation what they do each day.
That’s a little harder to do in the military.
The Air Force can’t pack prospective recruits into the back of a plane dropping bombs on Iraq to help them learn what it’s like to be a pilot, but it has developed special programs to put cadets from the Air Force Academy and ROTC cadets attending civilian universities on Air Force bases to give them a taste of the Air Force life.
One of those programs, “Operation Air Force,” came to Cannon Air Force Base this summer.
Cannon is one of a number of bases hosting students for a three-week program designed, as the official Air Force ROTC Web site puts it, to “educate cadets on the workings of operational units and to acquaint them with the everyday tasks, activities, and perceptions of Air Force personnel.”
While most programs don’t require it, certain specializations even require secret security clearance.
Four of those cadets listened attentively in Tuesday afternoon’s summer heat as 1st Lt. Doug Charters, himself a recent Air Force Academy graduate now serving as a pilot with the 523rd Fighter Wing, described his experiences shadowing the 522nd Fighter Wing a few years ago at Cannon.
While Charters got the chance to have three flights in F-16 Block 50 planes — the most modern at Cannon — he cautioned that not everything about Air Force life is fun and excitement.
“Don’t be unhappy if someone’s doing paperwork,” Charters said. “We don’t just get to fly planes, we also have to do paperwork.”
Learning to push a pencil is fine with Academy Cadet Chris Peterson, as long as it helps him learn to be a better officer. Peterson said he grew up in an Air Force family, saw the Air Force take care of his family, and wants to give back to the country and the service.
Peterson said being an Air Force pilot carries special attractions over serving in other military branches because Air Force officers are in the thick of the action.
“The biggest difference is the Air Force sends its officers out,” Peterson said. “In the Air Force, you’ve got pilots reporting to majors and lieutenant colonels, and they’re all out there fighting while the enlisted stay back as support troops.”
Not everyone in the Air Force wants to be a pilot, and the program takes cadets through other career options.
The cadets said that before coming to the flightline, they met earlier in the day with firefighters, civil engineers, JAG officers, and chaplains.
“We’re getting to see every facet of what goes on at the base,” Peterson said.
Spencer Bowen, an ROTC cadet from the University of Washington whose family doesn’t have a military background, said he appreciated the Air Force’s efforts to expose him to many different options.
“This is so we can choose a career field,” Bowen said. “A lot of people go in not knowing a lot about how the military works.”
All the cadets said they understand there is one major difference between the jobs for which they are shadowing and what some of their fellow students are doing this summer — their jobs ask them to be willing to die for their country.
However, all said they don’t view themselves as particularly heroic for choosing to enter the military during a time of war. That just comes with the territory, said Steven Anslow, an ROTC cadet from the University of Florida.
“It’s the nature of the military to be at war,” Anslow said.