by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau
460th Space Wing Public Affairs
2/7/2013 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Only
one percent of the population serves in the military, and only one
percent of that ever makes the rank of chief master sergeant. So how do
the most successful Airmen achieve this prestigious rank?
Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harper's, 460th Operations Group superintendent,
30-year career lays out the framework for the path from airman basic to
chief master sergeant.
Harper started his Air Force journey March 8, 1983, as a law enforcer
and quickly transitioned into a military working dog handler. Over the
course of his multiple assignments and deployments, Harper progressed
through the ranks. However, it was not until his promotion to staff
sergeant through the Stripes for Exceptional Performers program that he
understood the type of Airman he wanted to become.
"I was STEP promoted from senior airman to staff; that was a pivot point
for my career," Harper recalled. "What it said about my leadership to
me, in my mind, was the type of supervisor I should be -- take care of
your people. (My leadership) gave me a lot of opportunities, they
challenged me, they saw something in me, and I responded."
The next major milestone in Harper's career was one many Airmen may
eventually face; leave the job you love and fill the needs of the Air
"My chief came to me and his words were, 'It's time to grow up Sergeant
Harper; I'm taking you out of canine,'" explained Harper as he
remembered the career-changing move. "'There are bigger things for you
to do; and if you stay in the working dog world, you are going to cap
out at master (sergeant)'. And I knew this was true."
After this epiphany, Harper began taking on more special assignments.
These experiences created additional opportunities for Harper and an
accelerated chance to make rank, as well as molding him into a
total-force Airman. Harper received takings to the Pentagon and the
Joint-Staff, but the most crucial decision he made was on an opportunity
that would change his career path forever.
"I knew what awaited me if I went back to the cop world, but I decided
that I wanted to do something different," said Harper. "The Air Force
was doing some force shaping, and I wanted the challenge; so I went to
(communications) school and I became a 3C. It was good to see that even
at 18 years, the Air Force will be willing to give you an opportunity if
you are willing to take it."
Through this career path, Harper was selected for chief master sergeant
his first time eligible. This may have been the finish line for a young
Harper when he first joined the Air Force, but now it was new starting
line. As a chief, he had one of the largest spheres of influence that an
enlisted member could achieve, and he was ready to use it for what he
knew was right.
"I want to take care of Airman, and I want to protect them from some of
the things that I saw," said Harper. "I wanted to be in a position that
if there was a wrong I wanted to help correct it. That was my motivator
-- to make the rank, make a difference and give those a voice that in
our hierarchy may not have."
Now as Harper enters the twilight of his career, the wisdom and
knowledge he has accumulated over three decades of service becomes a
beacon for the next generation of Airman. The roadmap to becoming a
chief is etched into his career as three distinct ideals -- mentorship,
opportunity and trust.
Having a mentor, according to Harper, is a critical tool in staying relevant and being successful in today's Air Force.
"Why should we have to learn from the same mistakes; why can't we learn
from others?" asked Harper. "I believe it's critical that you have
someone that you can trust and has been successful that you can turn to.
It's not always senior members, but sometimes junior enlisted, as well.
I would not have made it this far without my mentors."
The opportunity the Air Force provides for assignments and career
development can significantly affect an Airman's chances to make rank,
as was shown with Harper's service.
"Don't just sit back and be the person, who says, 'I just want to do my
job. I just want to disappear," explained Harper. "Take on some
challenges that will push you. You need to remain flexible while being
open minded; but once you've decided, have that passion."
The most crucial ideal, according to Harper, is trust -- the trust in
your leadership, the trust in your Air Force family and being entrusted
to make the right decisions.
"It was more important to me to do what was right than to move ahead,"
said Harper. "When you come in, make your decision that you are going to
do your best and live those core values because they are not just
words. If you live them, you will not only be successful professionally,
but personally as well."
However, there is another trait that defines Harper, one the humble chief does not claim for himself.
"His loyalty," Col. DeAnna Burt, 460th OG commander, defined as Harper's
greatest trait. "I never questioned that he had my back and gave me
open, honest and candid feedback. To me that is the key component to a
successful senior NCO. Loyalty provides the foundation for trust between
a commander and their superintendent and fosters a team environment.
Without loyalty, the relationship falls apart."
As the book closes on the service of this life-long Airman, Burt
believes that her group superintendent's legacy will continue on to
those he passes the torch.
"Chief Harper's legacy is his big heart and passion for taking care of
Airman," Burt explained. "He never faltered in taking care of others
before himself and ensuring our Airmen have all the tools they need for
This sentiment is echoed in the most candid vision of the retiring chief
master sergeant: "If we don't succeed together, then we all have