Gunning for gold: Aerial gunner strives for squadron success

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Service before self is a phrase familiar to Air Commandos at the 27th Special Operations Wing. More than a collection of words, it denotes both a challenge and a charge — an expectation for all those who wear the uniform and answer to the designation of Airman.

Hailing from Union, Missouri, Airman 1st Class Heather Thompson, a 551st Special Operations Squadron aerial gunner student, is doing her part to give life to the second core value after joining the Air Force in April 2014.

“I attended the University of Missouri for one semester and a community college for one semester,” Thompson said. “During that year, I changed my mind about what I wanted to study, but I didn’t know what else I might like to do. I decided I didn’t want to waste time and money on schooling that may or may not be applicable to what I ended up doing with my life.”

Thompson decided to look into joining the U.S. Air Force as an alternative.

“Had I known more about the Air Force before I went to college, I probably would have enlisted straight away,” she said. “First, I considered the medical field because of its easy transference to the civilian workforce, but in the end I decided I wanted to be a flyer.”

After careful consideration, Thompson set her sights on becoming an aerial gunner.

“Once I made up my mind, it was flying or nothing,” she said. “I had to wait a little while for a slot to come open but eventually it did, and I’m very happy with my decision.”

Though every Air Force career is important to the mission, some career fields have an impact where the correlation between action and results is virtually immediate and unmistakable. That’s how Thompson sees the role of aerial gunner.

“Because I’m still in the training phase, I talk to people to stay motivated,” Thompson said. “Everyone involved with our mission is so proud of what they do and that really pushes me to succeed. The idea of taking the fight to those who try to do our nation harm is something I really look forward to.”

Even as Thompson navigates various phases of training in her effort to become an AC-130W Stinger II gunner, she carves out time to be a top-notch wingman. In addition to leading squadron physical training several times each week, Thompson teaches suicide prevention classes and continually volunteers throughout the unit. Her efforts are paying off for everyone as she maximized training effectiveness and enabled the 551st SOS to meet all suicide prevention training mandates.

Thompson is focusing on other areas as well, having been accepted into a resiliency trainer assistance course normally reserved for members in the rank of senior airman and above. She has also participated in special operations training as part of the Opposing Forces program here. In a matter of months, Thompson has carved out her niche as a key member of the 551st SOS team.

When asked what it takes to succeed as a new Airman, her advice is straightforward: “Be optimistic and be better than you thought you could be,” she said. “Always try to do more and be more. Strive to be someone that others want to emulate in your work, in your personal life and in the way you help others. Being someone others can count on; that’s what motivates me.”