30-year ST ‘giant’ dons beret one last time

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joseph Pick
  • 24th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

As a teenager, he grew up like most, listening and learning from his grandfather, an Air Force maintenance officer of 25 years.

The talks shaped him and ultimately decided his future at an early age – he would join the U.S. Air Force.

Thirty years later, at the finishing line of an extensive and rewarding career, Chief Master Sgt. Michael West, a Special Tactics combat controller with the 24th Special Operations Wing, is donning his scarlet beret for the last time during his retirement ceremony at the Special Tactics Training Squadron, here, Oct. 19.

“Within Special Tactics, Mike is a giant,” said Maj. Gabriel Brown, director of operations with the Special Tactics Training Squadron. Brown was a Senior Airman when they met and he found a mentor in West. More than two decades later, he says West is still one of his mentors in many ways.

As a Special Tactics combat controller, West is a part of a highly-trained special operations force who integrates air power into the special operations’ ground scheme of maneuver. Combining the core skills of SOF and tactical integration of airpower, West and his ST brethren solve multi-domain problems across the spectrum of conflict and crisis.

Growing up hunting, fishing and hiking, West knew he wanted an Air Force career that would allow him to combine his love of the outdoors with military service. For the 30-year chief master sergeant, his career began with a simple request.

“Right before I went to the recruiter’s office, a couple buddies of mine took me SCUBA diving and I really liked it,” West said. “When I went to see the recruiter, I told him ‘I want to SCUBA dive in the Air Force.’”

The recruiter laughed and told the young Hot Springs, Arkansas, native that he was in the wrong office, but West knew the Air Force was where he wanted to be … just like his grandfather.

West continued to search and finally he found a small, unknown career field combining his new love for SCUBA diving with other risky business, like freefalling from aircraft and coordinating airpower into the fight on the ground. His love for aircraft was also due to his grandfather, following a visit to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.

“I remember looking at the aircraft from the flight line as a kid and thought ‘Now I have an opportunity to work directly with them in both training and combat,’” West said.

West entered the combat control pipeline in January, 1989, and completed the rigorous 18-month training in July, 1990.

“We have one of the most unbelievable communities. I’m with a bunch of personalities, like me, that want to get the job done and they want to finish the mission,” West said. “They’re willing to learn as much as they can and be good at it, which has really made Special Tactics a credible joint partner.”

For the next 28 years, West would be actively engaged in nearly every operation with a U.S. presence, beginning with Operation DESERT STORM to the more recent Operations FREEDOM SENTINEL and RESOLUTE SUPPORT in Afghanistan. He was tasked with numerous deployments, earning the Bronze Star Medal and Silver Star Medal, while travelling to countless countries along the way.

“One day I was on an airplane and wrote down all the countries that I’ve been to on deployment or [temporary duty assignment], and I wrote down 50 at the top of my head,” West said. “This job has provided me the great opportunity to work and train with some of the best countries, militaries and special operations forces from around the world.”

With over ten assignments, West gained significant experiences as a team member, team element leader, cadre member, operations supervisor, senior enlisted leader; and spent time working in standards and evaluation, and weapons and tactics.

In a community that’s frequently tasked with assignments around the globe, West credits his ability to effectively operate next to his teammates to the flexibility and understanding of his wife and three daughters.

“What made it easier was knowing that when you’re gone, that your family is solid; and then when you get back, it’s priceless when you open the door and there are big smiles,” West said. “It keeps you charged while you are away and allows you to continue doing your job the best you can.”  

Being able to concentrate on the mission at hand has led him to notable achievements including Combat Controller of the Year in 2013 and leading his squadron to the 24th Special Operations Wing’s Squadron of the Year two years in a row.

When the ceremony ends, the cake is cut and West concludes his career, he looks forward to slowing down and catching up with former teammates from when he first entered the Special Tactics community … 30 years ago.

“I get to see some buddies that I went through the initial year and a half training with, they’re all coming in to see me off,” West said. “That means something, the brotherhood, the friends and the people I’ve met, it’s amazing.”