CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --
Motivation is a complex emotion which can take many different shapes and forms for everyone. However, when it comes to what fuels the drive of Staff Sgt. TeDera Graves II, 27th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron Commander’s Support Staff non-commissioned officer in charge, the philosophy is simple.
“I just want to leave my mark everywhere I go,” he said. “I want to leave a positive memory in everyone I come in contact with.”
By all accounts, Graves lives up to this goal. He has no shortage of praise from those who supervise him or have done so in the past.
“As a person, his character is unmatched,” said 1st Lt. Joey A. Abelon, 27 SOLORS section commander and Graves’ supervisor.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with (during my deployment),” said Tech. Sgt. Nolan Geiser, 18th Wing executive administration non-commissioned officer in charge, who deployed with Graves to an undisclosed location in 2018.
However, the highest compliment Graves has from anyone in his chain of command perhaps comes from its top.
In December of 2018, Graves took to Facebook to post a picture of himself shaking hands with Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. He recalled in the caption how Wright called him out by name from a crowd of Airman during an all call, as Wright had gotten to know him during visits while he was stationed at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey and while he was deployed, as well as through social media.
A year later, Wright, widely admired as the enlisted leader of the entire Air Force, shared Graves’ post and wrote “The day I met a legend…”
The commendations bestowed on Graves by his superiors are lofty, but not at all unjustified. After all, not many Airmen can claim to have changed the way a mission is accomplished by the entire U.S. military, worldwide in one instance and in a region of the world in another, but he can.
It’s an impressive track record Graves has built for himself, but it wasn’t without struggle. It’s hard to see past his crisp, clean-cut appearance and the air of discipline he carries about himself, but the path he took to where he is today is rutted with frustrations and setbacks. It was through his inner desire to always find a better way sparked the resilience to overcome those challenges that make him the ‘legend’ he is today.
Finding a Better Way
Graves is not slow to admit his background is checkered. Originally from Jefferson Davis and Lawrence counties in Mississippi, it was easy for him to start losing his way after high school.
“I tried college but I wasn’t mentally invested in being a full time student so I started working full time,” said Graves. “After a while of no luck, making bad decisions with my friends and seeing my life going down the wrong path, I started looking into the Air Force.”
His ultimate reason to join the Air Force came from his desire to stray from the trail beaten by those in his hometown who had joined the service.
“People in my area always join the Army National Guard and come back to do the same stuff they were doing before they left,” said Graves. “I knew I needed to go active duty to get away or I would be defeating the purpose of joining.”
“No one around me had joined the Air Force because they all said it was the hardest branch to get in to and I accepted the challenge.”
Moving from manual labor in sugar cane fields, plywood plants and engine shops to working behind a desk as an administrative Airman was quite an adjustment for Graves, but perhaps the biggest change of pace was moving from his home in the deep south to Europe, where he was first stationed at Incirlik and then Aviano Air Base, Italy. It was a change he was quick to embrace.
“I was living and loving life,” said Graves. “Partying, traveling, getting coined and recognized for killing it on the job.”
“And then all of a sudden, life seemed to have stopped.”
While bringing a friend home after going out with some friends, Graves was stopped and issued a DUI. While he was able to hold onto his rank, he did receive an Article 15, unfavorable information file, 42 days of extra duty, and had to forfeit his pay for two months. On top of everything, he was told his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon after he received his punishment.
“I was devastated,” said Graves. “I thought my career was over, I wanted to get out, I knew I had let myself and all those around me down.”
“At that point, I did the only thing I had left to try, which was to turn to my faith and gave it all to God.”
Graves believes the restoration of his spirituality was ultimately for the better. Through hard work, dedication to his service and his rejuvenated outlook on life, he was promoted to staff sergeant only two years after receiving his DUI.
“This will probably be the proudest stripe I wear because I know what it took for me to get here,” said Graves. “Some of the same people that counted me out, I now outrank and they didn’t have any setbacks.”
Abelon believes that the resilience and attitude Graves possesses is what saw him through those dark moments and make him the Airman he is today.
“Nine times out of ten, when a person endures a life event such as what he went through, they fall flat on their face,” said Abelon. “Many deem it is an unrecoverable situation, but Graves beat those odds. He has become a stronger leader, follower and Airman because of it.”
However, while the low point in Graves’ career certainly shaped it, the peaks of his time in the Air Force are what defines it.
Open Mind to Innovation
In the summer of 2018, Graves was sent on a postal deployment to an undisclosed location in the Middle East. He had previously had postal experience while at Aviano, which prepared him to immediately identify issues in several of their processes.
“One of the things I didn’t like was having to write the flight numbers on every piece of mail that we processed to be sent out, or else the airline would send the mail back to us,” said Graves. “It was time consuming, and in a post office of 3 people, in a deployed location, we needed all the time we could get.”
“The second issue was that information about the mail needed to be typed into our system, which made no sense to me since the same information was typed into a system that finance uses when they process it.”
The issues were big enough for Graves to take action, which he did by submitting the identified issues and the proposed fixes for them to the Automated Military Postal System (AMPS).
After some investigative efforts and research, it became standard procedure throughout the U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility to print out flight numbers on mail tags instead of having postal workers write them out. The entire military postal system also decided to link the information finance technicians took down about the mail they processed to the system the postal clerks used, all thanks to suggestions of Graves.
“The fact that this was adopted across the entire Department of Defense is significant because it saves an astonishing amount of time at that scale,” said Geiser. “It goes to show that just because you are doing something one way and it has been done like that forever does not mean there is not a better way to do it.”
At the end of the day, whether it was pulling himself up from the lowest point of his career, successfully fixing an issue the entire military was facing, or his future goal of being the best father he can be to his son-who will be arriving in March-Graves chalks it all back up to the simple end goal he has in mind for everything he does: leaving behind a legacy of change for the better.
“I tell anyone who wants to see change to not let anyone stop them from going after something they’re passionate about,” said Graves. “Always be open minded and look for ways to improve things not only for yourself, but for everyone around you.”