MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- Thirty years in the Air Force can bring with it a lot of sacrifice, memories, relationships, and lessons learned. What happens when it’s finally time to hang the uniform up?
Master Sgt. Cynthia Wahl, a curriculum developer at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center here, has experienced many different jobs during her time in the Air Force including dental technician, protocol, personnel, Enlisted Professional Military Education instructor, and finally to curriculum development.
It all started on Memorial Day as a third-grader, during a 4-H event walking through a cemetery.
“One of our activities was to put flags on the graves. But not every single grave,” said Wahl. “I was told you must be a veteran who has served in the military to get a flag on your grave… I wanted a flag on my grave too!”
This was just one of many seeds planted early in her life.
“As I’ve gone through, I’ve learned of more and more ancestors who at the time I had no idea. Most of them didn't talk about their service, so it wasn’t until much later on did I find out what they did,” Wahl said, alluding to inspiring examples like learning her uncle was a Russian linguist in World War II.
Wahl’s career has faced adversity with her mother-in-law being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and having to make a decision to move closer to home in Duluth, Minnesota, to take care of her.
“I was able to confide in my boss at the time who had a similar experience with his father,” said Wahl. “Our stories were so similar that it really helped me get through that time in our lives.”
The 1991 enlistee said the culture of mentorship around her was a positive aspect of being a service member, and simply asking for help opened a lot of doors.
“People are always willing to help, and guide you, and I was never hesitant to open up and just ask,” she said. “I wish more people would be willing to do that.”
Wahl attributes the success she’s had with the unsung mentors she’s encountered.
“The response has amazed me over the years that my brothers and sisters in arms would drop what they were doing to give me advice, or coach me through something I truly needed help with,” she said. “That is key to a fulfilling career.”
Before she leaves the service, Wahl reflects on how to make a lasting impact.
“One of the things I realize is who I’ve been a mentor to, or how I’ve lifted others up, throughout my career, and that’s something you will never know,” she said. “You don’t know if just one conversation you have with someone could change the trajectory of their career or their life.”
Wahl said the ability to help others stands out to her.
“It was not about the rank that I achieved, but about helping the people around me rise up,” she said. “That’s what it’s about to me.”
Wahl’s two assignments as an instructor at TEC are an example. She trained hundreds of Airmen in leadership for NCO Academy from 2017 to 2019, including satellite classes broadcast across the nation. After some years away, she returned to teach continuing education courses, like training new instructors to carry the torch in teaching others. She keeps in touch with former students.
The call to service extends beyond just the uniform. Wahl said is also interested in developing her skills post-retirement as a life coach, potentially aimed at service members walking in the same boots she once did.
“To be able to guide someone to their fullest potential is amazing, and I don’t think you have to be in the service to be of service” said Wahl.
When thanked for her service in public, Wahl has modified her usual response.
“Even my response has changed from ‘Thank you, I appreciate it,’ to ‘It has been a lot of fun.’ Because it truly has.”