Andersen Air Force Base – With 29 years down and less than one month to retirement, the 36th Wing command chief prepares to end a career in uniform he never imagined would land him where he is now.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Chief Master Sgt. Michael McMillan had plans to graduate high school, attend college, and eventually land a job on Wall Street. Although his older brother chose a path to the Air Force, McMillan said he felt his calling was to go to school to pursue his education.
While McMillan was tackling classes and working full time to pay for college, he routinely visited his brother at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, and was enamored with life on base and the camaraderie among military members.
McMillan soon found greater interest in his brother’s career choice and said he made the decision to leave school and join the Air Force himself.
“I really wanted to go to school and get my degree but after seeing how happy my brother was and how good the Air Force was treating him, I did my research and figured ‘Why not join for four years, get the Air Force to pay for my school and get out?’” he recalled. “I saw it as something short term so I made a decision. It wasn’t long before I was on a plane heading to basic training.”
The day he arrived at Lackland AFB, Texas, Sept. 30, 1986, changed his life, he said, and launched him on a trajectory he didn’t anticipate.
After completing basic training, he trained to become a communications specialist and was fortunate enough to get his first choice on his dream sheet, Pope AFB, where he joined his brother.
“I was so excited and motivated about my job, I knew being a (communications) Airman was going to be a great experience,” he said. “And even better was I would get to spend my first years in the Air Force alongside my brother. I already knew the area from visiting him in the past so I was pretty excited.”
During this time, McMillan deployed to Saudi Arabia as an aeromedical evacuation liaison team member in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Here, he enabled communication between various units throughout the combat arena.
“My deployment was one to remember,” he said. “I worked alongside the Army, Navy and reserves. Our mission there was very important and being able to use my knowledge and expertise on my job was very rewarding. Being in a combat zone and being able to take part in Operation Desert Shield/Storm was also rewarding, knowing I was performing my job and protecting my country’s freedom was a memorable experience.”
Soon after returning from his seven-month deployment, McMillan received orders to Andersen AFB, Guam, where he was responsible for setting up tactical communications equipment, to include radios and antennas, as a radio operations specialist assigned to the 4th Combat Communications Group, which midway through his tour changed to the 644th Combat Communications Squadron.
“My first impression of Guam was ‘This place is beautiful,’” he recalled. “There were palm trees everywhere and the air smelled of salt water, I was happy to be here in a new location surrounded by new people. I knew my 15 months would fly by so I set out to make the most of my experience. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be returning one day as the senior enlisted leader.”
Approaching the end of his first-term contract, McMillan decided to reenlist for another four years.
“I was having a good time, the military was treating me right, I was an expert at my job and I was going to school,” he recalled. “Looking back now, I am glad I made the decision to stay.”
After completing his first tour at Andersen AFB and moving on to Falcon AFB, Colorado, McMillan was ready for a new challenge and applied for a special duty position as an Airman Leadership School (ALS) instructor. After excelling as a radio operator, he said he knew he wanted to be in a position where he could teach, lead and inspire full time.
“I have a passion for teaching and speaking to people; I knew I wanted to take a chance and experience something outside of comm so I put in a package for ALS,” he said. “Before I knew it, I was selected for a position at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C. My mission was to impact lives and I knew this was going to be a game changer for my career.”
As an ALS instructor, McMillan was responsible for training hundreds of Airmen slated to become supervisors – an experience he said was one of the best in his career. Each day he was dedicated to Airmen’s lives and careers, whether through PME lessons or simple conversations about life, he said.
“I instructed some of the sharpest Airmen and not a day went by that I didn’t learn something from them,” he said. “I was there to teach but I also learned a lot and was able to apply it to my day-to-day life, which made me a better NCO. I am grateful I had the opportunity to be in that position, it really helped shaped me and prepare me for the rest of my career.”
At Bolling AFB, McMillan also met his wife, Tanya, who was also an ALS instructor assigned to Andrews AFB, Maryland. The couple taught ALS and both were radio operators. With all this in common, the right thing to do was to get married, McMillan said, and the couple married in April 2000.
“I met my beautiful wife while teaching ALS, I was happy she too was an instructor and we were able to relate to similar challenges,” he said. “It was great being able to share the same profession. Till this day, I am still able to feed off of her strength and she keeps me from getting too full of myself.”
Following the completion of her tour as instructor, Tanya returned to the 789th Communications Squadron and her husband joined her in the same squadron one year later. Returning to his communications roots as the NCO in charge of radio operations provided the opportunity to put his new skill-sets to the test. He excelled in this position, however, this new gig was short-lived.
During his time at Andrews AFB, the Air Force reduced master sergeant positions in the communications career field. Undeterred, he used the opportunity for another career shift and applied to the elite U.S. Air Force Honor Guard.
“The reduction took me by surprise. While I loved comm, I was excited to take a position with the Air Force Honor Guard,” he said. “I was already familiar with Bolling AFB and the majority of students I taught in ALS were from the honor guard. To be a part of that sharp team promised to be a great experience.”
McMillan was accepted and served a total of three years in the Honor Guard as the NCO of ceremonial flight, culminating his term as the superintendent for the resources and training flight.
“One event I’ll always remember was being the NCO in charge of the Guard of Honor Team standing watch for former President Ronald Regan as he lay in State at the Capitol,” he recalled. ”It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am glad I was selected to lead the team. Working with such sharp individuals from all services, who have outstanding dedication and commitment to excellence, was rewarding to say the least. Witnessing the hard work and the attention to detail of the Honor Guard truly inspired me to be the best senior NCO I could be, not only for them but for myself as well.”
McMillan completed his tour with the Honor Guard after winning a variety of awards for excellence, to include senior NCO of the year two years in a row, and returned to nearby Andrews AFB for another tour as the section chief of radio operations and superintendent of the operations flight with the 89th CS.
“I had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest Airmen and I am truly happy to have been recognized for the work I’ve done,” he said. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without the great leaders that mentored me along the way.”
After 13 years in the National Capitol Region between Bolling AFB and Andrews AFB, McMillan said he was fortunate to receive an assignment to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, where he accomplished what only 1 percent of the enlisted corps is able to achieve: promotion to chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force. The promotion also made him eligible for an assignment as command chief, a selective yet prestigious duty that brought him back to Andersen AFB.
Since 2014, McMillan served as the senior enlisted leader to commanders at the squadron, group and currently the wing level on all matters concerning the enlisted force. Using more than two decades of experience, he cared for all enlisted Airmen and promoted his three priorities: pride, enthusiasm and passion, or PEP. He said he believes every Airman should have PEP in every aspect of their lives by striving to be outstanding and putting forth their best effort in all that they do.
“I never would have imagined I’d be here right now,” he said. “Although I may be hanging up my uniform, I will have a sense of pride, enthusiasm and passion for the rest of my life. The Air Force has been good to me and my family, and it will be hard to let go of a lifestyle and more importantly, camaraderie that I’ve grown accustomed to.
While he never imagined being stationed back here as a command chief, he said he was excited and grateful for the opportunity to spend his last few years in the Air Force on Guam.
“The experience the first time around was awesome, and this second time around has been even greater,” he said. “Being able to be in a position where I have impacted hundreds of Airmen’s lives … has truly been the highlight of my career.”
June will mark the final month wearing the uniform as an active-duty member and it will truly hit home for McMillan on 1 Oct., which is his effective retirement date. This will conclude 30 years of service and a career that experienced many changes, ranging from the first Gulf War to a post-9/11 transition of the Air Force in the global war on terror. The one constant, for McMillan, was a dedication to service and Airmen.
“From the first time I met Michael, I knew he was going to be a chief,” said Tanya, McMillan’s wife and a retired Air Force master sergeant. “He has a passion for the Air Force like no one I’ve ever met. He truly believes in what these men and women do. With all the changes the Air Force has been through, Michael has never once lost faith; he has always remained true to his core and even though he is about to retire, I believe he will always carry the Air Force with him for the rest of his life.”
But hanging up his Air Force uniform hardly means saying goodbye to the military for McMillan who has accepted a position as a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Lucy Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, North Carolina. The couple also plans to become motivational speakers to encourage audiences to pursue their dreams and work hard to achieve their goals.
“It’s been an honor serving the members of Team Andersen. It will be hard to say goodbye when the day comes,” he said. “This has been a fantastic final assignment and I wish Team Andersen the best!”