MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. --
Airmen serving as faculty at the U.S. Air Force's largest enlisted professional military education center considered their year of accomplishments this week just as the first NCO Academy and Airman Leadership School classes started for 2020.
The Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center in East Tennessee is the Air National Guard's total force PME center and graduates thousands of students annually.
They reported 1,340 NCOA graduates, 772 ALS graduates, and 44 ALS blended-learning-course graduates in the fiscal year 2019. That involved 15 classes.
Those students earned 6,700 Community College of the Air Force credit hours and volunteered 5,909 hours of free time in the Knoxville-area community. Topping that, 424 students supported 10 EPME blood drives to give 513 units of blood, among the region's biggest donors.
"It speaks volumes that – while it's not mandatory to participate in community service – Academy students managed around 500 community service hours per class," said Master Sgt. Anthony Colon, NCOA superintendent.
Airman Leadership School's Superintendent, Master Sgt. Charles Pugh expressed similar sentiments about the ranks of Senior Airmen, who came through the ALS schoolhouse hoping to become NCOs.
"We have always been impressed with how ALS students can push through some of the more challenging aspects of being here and remain positive," said Sergeant Pugh. "They understand how important this step is in their careers."
Of note, the EPME center's live-stream broadcasts allowed more than 40,000 family members, friends, and service members to watch graduations on Facebook, as well as post congratulatory comments.
"The live stream has impacted a great number of students," said Sergeant Pugh. "They are grateful that their family and friends can watch them walk across the stage ... and even comment on how proud they are."
The faculty, staff, and students also welcomed international students attending EPME from Bulgaria, Jordan, Kazakhstan, and Canada, as well as students from the U.S. Coast Guard.
The EPME center is made up of 38 PME faculty, to include 19 enlisted Airmen from the regular Air Force, 18 from the National Guard, and one from the Reserve Command. Three additional support staff manage scheduling and operations. The center is part of the Air National Guard's primary training and education center on McGhee Tyson ANG Base, the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center.
"I think what impressed me most from our Academy instructors this FY is their dedication to their students," said Sergeant Colon. "We faced challenges, including the Tyndall Air Force Base schoolhouse going down from Hurricane Michael – 10 instructors gave up their holiday break for an unscheduled class," Colon said. The efforts helped eliminate backlogged EPME for the U.S. Air Force and ensured graduation for those Airmen who were about to complete the course.
Sergeant Pugh said that ALS surpassed numerous challenges -- the end of the blended learning course program, and the implementation of new curriculum weeks before teaching it was among them.
"They worked with minimal breaks between classes to be ready to instruct the new program on time, and we were the first schoolhouse to start it," said Sergeant Pugh. "The instructors met all the demands with an overly positive attitude ... they all stepped up so much, and it was inspiring to be a part of that."
Faculty and staff supported each other in off-duty activities and hobbies. They cheered for those in regional bodybuilding competitions as well as for those on roller-derby, kickball, and softball teams. They teamed up for the Knoxville Marathon and Nashville "Tough Mudder," and the joined for early morning boot camp workouts as well as for weekly "Freedom Friday" fun runs.
Having such a close-knit and resilient team is good because changes will continue to affect the center, said the Commandant, Chief Master Sgt. Steven Durrance, who joined the faculty last November.
Chief Durrance said that the number of students would increase in the coming year as it anticipates the year-long classroom building renovation, starting next September. The center has temporary classrooms planned during Morrisey Hall's closure. Construction of the new billeting office is already underway, so the commandant hopes to generate the same excitement for EPME from his faculty and students alike.
"[It] has been like no other experience I have had ... the most rewarding by far, and, yes, challenging for sure," said Chief Durrance. "I believe I set a good pace by listening, learning, and then leading."
Several VIPs visited the campus. Two senior leaders were U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander and president of Air University and Air University Command Chief, Chief Master Sgt. Todd M. Simmons, among other top officials. Chief Durrance also hosted at least a dozen Command Chiefs from across the Air Force, who offered students their advice and mentorship as key-note graduation speakers.
But among his favorite duties was to interview award nominees for the commandant and leadership awards.
"I discovered some amazing Airmen who are just waiting for someone to ask them to share their stories ... listening to these young warriors telling their story ... it is this aspect of the job that is so enriching and rewarding," said Chief Durrance.
"What excites me about this coming year is the adventure of hearing and meeting 2,700 great leaders and Airmen who care about their country," said Chief Durrance. "Being able to meet and spend commandant time with these patriots keeps me energized every day. As with the beginning of every class and graduation, I see the hope and potential of this fighting force. I'm also most thankful for the team we have here to keep the machine moving forward."