JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii – For many Airmen, the transition from a junior-enlisted service member to a noncommissioned officer is one of the most pivotal milestones in their career. While pinning on the rank of staff sergeant is usually achieved by enrolling in Airman Leadership School, one class of Hawaii Air National Guard Airmen persevered through COVID-19 and went through the curriculum twice this year.
The 13 Airmen began their first phase of professional military education in February at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Tennessee. Like so many wingmen who graduated before them, the students were immersed in a degree path focused on team management skills, mentoring, military heritage, public speaking, communication techniques and other Air Force values.
"It was an interesting experience for us because everybody came from different walks of life," said Senior Airman Josh Leonard, a student from the 154th Civil Engineer Squadron. "The big thing for me was the development of communication skills. I think the course is good at preparing you to network with others and see things from their point of view. That seems to come to me a lot easier now."
As they approached the final week out of six in late March, classes were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and students were sent home to their units.
"Initially I was kinda' bummed that we never got credit for ALS, even though we were so close to finishing, and I can imagine everyone else had a little irritation in them as well," said Senior Airman Devin Pagdilao, a student from the 169th Air Defense Squadron. "The process for us was a little longer than expected, but I truly believed that everything would work out. I had to keep reminding myself that everything happens for a reason and things will soon come around."
Among the 13 Hawaii Air National Guard Airmen who were sent home, Leonard and another classmate, Senior Airman Jorge Asuncion, volunteered to serve their communities in the COVID-19 response activation. The two served with other Airmen and Soldiers in the islands of Hawaii and Oahu at food distribution sites, airport monitoring stations, security details, and elsewhere to aid first responders.
Other returning students found themselves challenged by job furloughs in the civilian sector, social distancing, and the need to provide for family members. Each Airman was also dealing with the lost opportunity to promote in the HIANG.
But the change of plans didn't entirely stop the Airmen from applying their new leadership skills.
"When they came back, I did see them grow in the form of looking out for each other and also for those around them," said Chief Master Sgt. Leilani Moniz. "And that's a quality that everyone would want from a leader - for them to look out for their people. Initially, it must have felt like a punch in the stomach for some of them. But I do see how it taught them persistence when it comes to getting things done and reaching their goals."
After three months of waiting for an update, the Airmen were notified that a new, virtual curriculum was in development, and they were selected to attend the course again in a virtual in-residence, distant learning environment. This time, all HIANG students were grouped into the same student flight, Fight C, banding the Airmen even closer together.
As a team that had nearly completed the course, the Hawaii Airmen were ideal candidates to critique the new program's daily lessons, shaping an improved learning experience for future classes.
Pagdilao said the remote learning environment came with new challenges, with course discussions online.
Nearly six months after their initial enrollment, Flight C's graduation ceremony was held online Aug. 14 for friends and family to see.
"The whole ordeal was definitely hard on them," said Moniz. But in the end, it was nice to see them come together and grow as a group because that's what the HIANG is all about – family. They stuck together through it all like family, and it's these kinds of experiences that shape NCOs for the rest of their career."