By Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer, 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 23, 2013
May 20, 2013 -- On August 17, 2013, Chief Master Sgt. Stephen James Eakle will retire after 41 years of service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Chief Eakle enlisted in the Illinois Air National Guard in June of 1972. He has served in multiple career fields that include security, training, medical, and logistics.
Four decades of involvement in the military have brought a wide range of experiences for Chief Eakle.
When asked about his best memories in the service, Chief Eakle replied with a description of deployment during the Global War on Terrorism. He deployed as the Command Chief for the 486th Air Expeditionary Wing in 2003 to Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. It was a bare base and civil engineers had not yet arrived to start construction.
The maintenance team that Chief Eakle was living with were working unusually long hours and living out of tents that were not fortified against sandstorms yet. When a sandstorm hit, living in the tent was not much different than living in the sand itself.
One day the maintenance team was out working after a sandstorm when the wing's aircrew, on their rest cycle, gave a special gift to their comrades.
"...These aircrew guys went into people's tents, took everything out, cleaned them all out, and then put everything back in," Eakle said. "So, you walk in and, like, 'The cleaning fairies were here!'...My best days are all related to the accomplishments of our people doing stuff that's not unexpected from us, but it's certainly unexpected from a lot of other people out there," said Eakle.
In those 40 years there were painful times as well.
"Well, importantly, there are two (bad memories)," Eakle said. "There was the day that Maj. Brown and Doc Allen were killed in an A-37 crash. And then there was the day we were notified over in Minhad of the loss of Jake Frazier in Afghanistan. Those two days are that worst memory...and for fairly obvious reasons."
During his broad career, Chief Eakle got to witness the evolution of the Air National Guard.
When he enlisted in the early 1970's, recruits were joining the National Guard in order to avoid deployment to Vietnam. That attitude brought a culture of minimal effort. Once that era of military history ended and draft dodgers left the Guard, what remained was a generation of enlisted personnel who embodied the three Air Force core values before they existed on paper.
He also witnessed the growth of the Air National Guard from the status quo mentality of the Cold War to becoming an intricate part of the national defense posture.
His career culminated in him becoming the highest ranking senior non-commissioned officer at the 182nd Airlift Wing when he accepted a position as the Command Chief Master Sgt. He first took his place as the enlisted advisor to the installation commander from 2000 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2013 - a position he remained in until his retirement.
When asked what he will do when he is fully retired in August, he responded with humor and a chuckle.
"Anything I want to do, that my wife will allow, and you can put that part. Uh, actually, more motorcycling, more sailing. I'm going to do some concealed carry classroom work and tactical firearms instructor work, possibly some motorcycle safety instructor work, but that kind of thing. We have a house in Kentucky...which we live at now, so my weather is much better, my winters are much milder," said Eakle.
He also plans to spend overdue time with his family.
"I owe my family a whole lot more time than I'll ever be able to repay them," Eakle said, "and hopefully, I'll be able to do some concentration on that. Which is why you hear me talk often about while the mission is important, your family is vital. And that's not a lesson I always subscribe to, and so I've got some red ink in my ledger that I need to turn black, and hopefully I'll be able to accomplish that."
Chief Eakle is a highly decorated member of the U.S. Air Force. He was known for his brawny voice and formidable presence. He was never shy about promoting pride in his unit with his saying, "Doing it the Peoria way."
Doing it the Peoria way, with dedication to his service, began early in his career. After his draft number was not selected, Chief Eakle volunteered to join the Illinois Air National Guard and enlisted as law enforcement specialist. In 1977, he also began a career with a civilian police force as a patrolman. He retired as a captain with the Peoria Police Department in 2004.
His next career move in the military was a transfer to the Small Arms Training Unit to teach weapons techniques and tactics, where he eventually became the non-commissioned officer in charge.
In the mid-1980's, Chief Eakle was selected to become a first sergeant for the installation's Combat Support Squadron, and then became an non-commissioned officer administrator in the Tactical Clinic in order to bring field skills to the medical environment.
In 1991, he was asked to return to the Air Police, now Security Forces, to serve as the superintendent of the squadron, was then asked to return back to the medical unit in 1997. In 2000 was appointed the Command Chief Master Sgt. for the wing.
As the wing's Command Chief, he made it his personal mission to represent the wing command to our enlisted corps, and vice-versa, through effective communication. He also spent time evaluating the impact of Air Force and Air National Guard programs on the enlisted corps.
In the course of his career, Chief Eakle gained insight of both good and bad leadership. Of what it takes to be a good leader, he described in one word.
"Number one, over-arching, absolutely, if you had to do one word: integrity...You also have to have passion, and it's important to have those feelings - and, you know, control them - and then do it with integrity...You also have to be humble, and you have to realize there's other ways to do things," said Eakle.
Chief Eakle plans to remain active in the military community in retirement through organizations and events such as the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, the association for retired command chiefs, the 182nd retirement dinners, and the annual TACP Association 24 Hour Run.
"I owe the 182nd Airlift Wing in all of its forms for 40 years - Tactical Air Support Group, etc. - far more than I ever did for this wing," he said. "And I don't know how I could ever repay what this place has done for me over the course of my both civilian and military career, but I'll try."
Author's Note: I first met Chief Eakle when I was in Student Flight, circa 2004. I and another trainee were standing in a hallway awaiting our next training session. Chief Eakle came up to us very cordially and asked, "Hey guys, is it payday?" "No, sir," we answered, "I think we get paid next week." The sky suddenly turned dark and Chief Eakle calmly but effectively told us in that trademark burly voice, "Well, then why don't we take our hands out of our pockets. Thanks."