By Senior Airman Harry Brexel
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
“I was one mistake away from being a civilian,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Debose, 19th Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School instructor. “I had a poor attitude and received paperwork, left and right. Before I even arrived at my first duty station, I was labeled a bad Airman.”
Airmen who have poor outlooks early on in their careers often don’t make it far in the Air Force, especially those with paper trails indicating shortfalls and misconduct.
Few Airmen know this better than Debose, a Kansas City native who began his military service as a public health technician in Minot, North Dakota.
“I wanted to do a combat-oriented job, but I ended up in an administrative hospital job; it was depressing for me,” Debose said.
However, the mismatched job wasn’t Debose’s only concern.
Early in his career, he got into trouble after a friend stole items from a store during their time in technical training together. To some, Debose was guilty by association. After the incident and backlash, he put less emphasis on his Air Force service.
“I was barely skating by,” he said. “I showed up late, had poor customer service and didn’t listen to feedback.”
Knowing that public health was not the right fit, Debose dedicated his time as an augmentee in other Air Force career fields hoping to find direction and an Air Force specialty he could excel in. He volunteered to work physically intensive jobs such as security forces and civil engineering. Slowly, Debose garnered respect from his peers for his hard work.
“I became more pleasant to work with, cleaned up my act and even showed up to work early,” Debose said. “My supervisor was one of the biggest reasons for my transformation. She believed in me and put in the effort to see me change.”
Something clicked with Debose after a discussion with his supervisor.
“She explained how my actions reflected on her and others around me,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t just about me. I saw that she believed in me even though other people didn’t understand why she kept putting in effort to help me and thought it was a waste of time.”
After changing his perspective, things began to change for Debose.
“One of my first milestones was making below-the-zone and being promoted early,” Debose said. “Not long after that, I received orders to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.”
Debose became responsible for the care of thousands of personnel coming into and heading out of the international base.
“It was a high operations tempo, and I had major responsibilities while I was there,” Debose said. “While in Korea, I learned that my first supervisor from Minot passed away. It was rough on me, but I knew I had to become more mission focused and work harder at everything because of how she fought for me.”
Debose went on to win multiple awards for his hard work in South Korea. But his time there eventually came to a close, and his next assignment was to Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas.
Debose worked for two months at his new assignment when he received the news that he was selected to become an Airman Leadership School instructor.
The ALS at Little Rock AFB educates hundreds of Airmen each year on how to be professional war-fighters who can supervise and lead Air Force work teams to support the employment of airpower.
“I laughed when I first found out,” Debose said. “I didn’t think I was the type to be a professional military education instructor or that I would enjoy it at all.”
He soon discovered he was wrong.
“I love my job now,” he said. “Noncommissioned officers are the backbone of the Air Force, and we are the machine that makes NCOs. I am always learning from the students; it’s very humbling.”
Debose offers a unique perspective to his students, and his leadership has taken notice.
“Staff Sgt. Debose is sharp, articulate and has grown tremendously since becoming an instructor,” said Master Sgt. Amber Person, 19th FSS ALS commandant.
Debose says he gives 100 percent to all of his students, in hopes that they will ultimately pay it forward.
“I’ve learned that if you take care of people, then the mission will take care of itself,” he said. “If you rehabilitate just one person, then that has the potential to multiply and impact others exponentially.”
That’s exactly what Debose plans to do during his remaining time instructing future leaders of the Air Force. His resilience has not only ensured his own success but the potential prosperity of countless future leaders.
“I’m willing to be that person who fights for someone, like my supervisor did for me,” Debose said. “I’ve learned that if you invest in your career, you will get the chance to make a difference.”