By Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer, 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 03, 2015
PEORIA, Ill. -- Senior Airman Christopher Kurtz made a decision seven years ago, a choice that changed the very direction of his life in ways he never expected. Instead of being held back, the 18-year-old from Orland Park decided to quit school. It may have been the best decision he had ever made.
Kurtz, now a cyber-systems operations specialist with the 264th Combat Communications Squadron, was presented the unit's Outstanding Airman of the Year award during a wing commander's call Feb. 7.
How did an unmotivated high school dropout become the superstar Airman of his unit? It all started with Lincoln's ChalleNGe Academy.
"I was going to end up being a fifth-year senior," Kurtz said, "and one of my friends previously had just went through the program. He said he enjoyed it. He said it was a challenge, obviously."
Kurtz, originally from Chicago's south suburbs, started researching into the Rantoul, Ill., military school that could help earn him a GED diploma.
He learned that the National Guard-run youth intervention program spent 5 ½ months teaching life abilities and employment skills to at-risk youth by using military learning methods. Considered an investment in communities, the program substituted traditional education with the structure and discipline of the U.S. military since 1993.
Although plagued with self-diagnosed laziness, Kurtz knew becoming a cadet would be the kick in the pants he needed to move forward in life.
"So I decided why not go, graduate with my peers on time and continue with whatever I was going to do," he said.
As soon as the cadets arrived, the Lincoln's ChalleNGe cadre wanted to see who was determined enough to the stay the course and change their own lives.
"Pretty much the first two weeks is kind of like a weeding-out process," said Kurtz. "They want to weed you out, see who really wants to be there and who doesn't want to be there."
After proving himself and surviving the initial phase, Kurtz found himself falling into good routines. He outgrew his procrastination habit as he and his peers attended 200 hours of classroom instruction, regular physical fitness training and drill.
"It was definitely something new. I mean, going from regular, everyday public high school to someone drilling you and telling you detail-oriented how it's going to go for the next six months was kind of a shocker," Kurtz said.
Before long, the cadets were forming bonds and teamwork that would carry them through the evolution, and Kurtz graduated Lincoln's ChalleNGe Academy with his GED diploma in 2008. However, he had never considered a career in the military until then.
"I thought I'd just keep going to school. It wasn't until I got out of Lincoln's ChalleNGe that I saw the benefits to it," Kurtz said.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in December 2008, and was stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., as an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief.
"Originally, I knew going in active duty that it was a four-year job, do what I had to do, and then go out and go to school," said Kurtz. "So as soon as I was done in Phoenix, I looked up the Guard here in Peoria, saw the job listings, saw cyber-ops as an opportunity, wanted to go into some type of tech field, decided to do that and now I'm here."
Kurtz has worked as a traditional Guardsman in the 264th CBCS, an Air Force Space Command unit, after leaving active duty. Their on-going mission is "to provide the highest quality communications and emergency response for any customer, anytime, anywhere."
"My job is pretty much server-oriented, getting connectivity to end-devices and end-users," he said. "It's a pretty cool interest. New things pop up every day. That's why I kind of like it."
Kurtz is currently working on an associate's degree in network security at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He plans to transfer to a four-year university in order to one day work cyber-security in the civilian sector as well. In the meantime, his job performance in the Air National Guard turned heads in his unit.
"The squadron motto for the 264th is 'Whatever it takes.' Senior Airman Kurtz could be the poster child for the squadron motto," said Lt. Col. Ronald Crouch, commander of the 264th CBCS. "He just has a really positive attitude as a member of the unit and will do whatever needs done with an aggressive vigor and tenacious work ethic. He'll work as long and hard as the mission dictates and usually has a smile on his face while doing it."
The commander selected Kurtz as the unit's Outstanding Airman of the Year for his leadership, job performance, personal self-improvement and community involvement.
"Senior Airman Kurtz is someone I'll be able to point to as an example of the difference a can-do attitude can make...Airman Kurtz won't be stopped and I look forward to what he will achieve," said Crouch.
Kurtz was also recognized for his exceptional performance during the unit's annual training at Operation Northern Strike in August. Tech. Sgt. Candace Pummill, also a cyber-systems operations specialist with the 264th CBCS, was one of his supervisors present at Northern Strike.
"Over the last AT we had, he went above and beyond, was able to go out there and perform our duties and troubleshoot network problems and situations that were going on with little to no supervision," she said. "He had no problem asking questions when he wanted to, he retained the information, and we were able to delegate jobs out to him with no supervision as well."
Kurtz attributed the award to putting his nose in all aspects of the career field and for branching out into different jobs.
"It shows that what I've been doing, I've stood out among my peers," said Kurtz. "I'm not all about single awards - I do most prefer more unit-oriented awards - but it's good to be recognized by your superiors that you are contributing, you are leading and you are doing your job."
He also gave credit to his supervisory staff at the 264th in helping create a positive working environment.
"From the moment you get here, get shown around, anything you need they provide you. And not just feeling accepted, but the knowledge that they bring to the table, as well," he said.
Will Kurtz become one of those supervisors in the future?
He said he does not like to predict anything when it comes to his career, but rather would like just be along for the ride and make the best of it. He already has the next objective in mind.
"Sewing on staff (sergeant). That's going to be my next goal. So, taking it one step at a time," he said.
In a mere seven years, Kurtz went from high school dropout to recognition as a model Airman. The turning point was Lincoln's ChalleNGe Academy, and learning from his mentors pushed him forward.
"Whether it was at Lincoln's ChalleNGe, whether it was through basic (military training), at Luke being a crew chief or here, you're obviously going to have mentors at each stage that help you along the way," Kurtz said.
For those considering entering the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Program as a tool to change their lives as he did, Kurtz said, "Keep an open mind. Don't give up."