Rising Up: AFRC's new command chief overcomes life's many challenges

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It’s been a long and difficult, but rewarding, journey from poverty-stricken Guatemala to a successful career in the U.S. Air Force for Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly. That journey reached a new high in February when Lt. Gen. James F. Jackson, AFRC commander, selected Kelly to serve as AFRC’s new command chief master sergeant.

Kelly replaced Chief Master Sgt. Cameron B. Kirksey, who retired from AFRC’s top enlisted position in March. She previously served as command chief for the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California.

As the oldest of three children, Kelly came from extremely humble beginnings in Guatemala. The family’s home had no electricity or running water, and she was no stranger to dirt floors and wearing the same clothes for days at a time.

Kelly’s mother desperately wanted to move to the United States where she could make a fresh start, but she couldn’t afford to let anyone else in her family find out or they would try to stop her. So she locked her three children in a room and fled to America.

“I was only 5 at the time,” Kelly said. “She left us some eggs and water. I didn’t know how to cook eggs, but I had seen the adults do it enough times to figure it out.”

Kelly and her two siblings stayed in the room for five days before their grandmother came to check on the family. But she did not find anybody.

Kelly said she yelled, “Grandma, we’re in here,” but her grandmother didn’t hear her. “She left without finding us, and I lost all hope. The reality hit me that we could all die together in that room.”

Another two days passed before the grandmother returned with multiple relatives and discovered the three children.

Kelly lived with her grandmother until she was 12 years old. At that time, a massive earthquake struck the area where they lived, making international news. Kelly’s mother, who had gotten married and had another daughter in America, saw the devastation on television and decided to return to Guatemala to check on her family.

“My mother saw the conditions we were living in and decided she would take us back to America with her,” Kelly said. “Her husband had no idea she even had kids.”

After a stint in Compton, California, they wound up in Las Vegas.

“Life at home was very dysfunctional,” Kelly said. “I had to start working the fields and cleaning hotel rooms at 13 to help out with the family. In 10th grade, I dropped out (of school) to work full time.”

After moving in with a family she met through work, Kelly went back to school, doubling up on night courses so she could graduate on time.

“Thank God for good teachers and friends who didn’t force me to go to school but pointed out to me that there was a better road to take with education,” Kelly said. “I had other options in life.”

The chief said she had a long-time desire to join the military and looked into joining the Marine Corps. However, when it came time to enlist, she realized the Air Force — more specifically, the Air Force Reserve — was right for her.

“I was a weird Airman,” Kelly said. “I was excited to do every detail I was assigned and always gave 100 percent. I always had a great attitude, and that helped my leadership see the potential in me.”

As her military career progressed, first as a ground medic and then in the air evacuation career field, the chief said she always had one goal in mind.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a command chief,” she said.

With her new assignment, Kelly has achieved that goal at the highest level.

“I’m proud to be a Reservist and proud to be in this new role in which I can concentrate on mentoring all and giving our Airmen an understanding of their part in the big mission,” Kelly said. “Sometimes the world is so big that we forget why we are writing stories, taking blood pressures or checking out tools before going to the flight line. We’re doing that all because it matters, and we are uniquely made to be part of the big picture. Without us, the puzzle is incomplete.”

Kelly said her top priority as AFRC command chief is to empower and develop the enlisted force.

“I’m someone who is passionate about enlisted development,” she said. “I’m passionate about giving Airmen the opportunity to make decisions about their own careers, with the understanding that as Citizen Airmen those decisions are not made in a vacuum. They include personal issues, such as health, our civilian careers and our family needs. My job is not to force anyone off balance but to put as many options on the table for the enlisted force to choose from and grow in their military careers.”

Kelly said another priority is to give feedback to the people in the field.

“We push things forward, but sometimes the Airmen in the field don’t get feedback, whether it be good, bad or ugly,” the chief said. “At the field level, we need feedback in order to improve our processes. I want to be a command chief who communicates, clarifies and questions. I want to give feedback on why decisions were made. I want the field to fully understand each step of those significant processes. I want all of us to be working as a team from the same concept.

“I like to build relationships, not through technology but by talking to human beings face to face,” Kelly said. “I want to do a lot of wing visits and get to know people. I’ll talk less and listen more. And I want people to know that I’m going to work extremely hard for them. My goal is to be accessible and to be able to be that individual who will continue to bring our command toward the future. As I learn, I will then be able to be a better representative of our command to the other MAJCOMs, the whole Air Force and other branches (of the service).”

(Information for this story was taken from a series of articles written by Staff Sgt. Patrick Harrower of the 60th AMW at Travis AFB. Also, Senior Master Sgt. Rachel Martinez of the 349th AMW public affairs office at Travis contributed to this story.)