WHEN Andy Gilbert migrated with his family from Trinidad to the US, he was interested in becoming a meteorologist.
But his father insisted he and his brother sign up for the US Air Force. Gilbert reluctantly agreed, and that decision put him on a path to becoming an award-winning airman with the rank of chief master sergeant, a position granted only to the top one per cent of the Air Force.
Gilbert, originally from Montague Avenue, Trincity, moved to the US in 1997 with his brother, Richard, mother, Kelmany, and father, Terrence. Two years later the elder Gilbert instructed his sons to enlist in the Air Force.
"Both objected at first. However, their choice was not an option, and...were both accepted," the family said in a statement.
After he enlisted in February 1999 Gilbert was asked to choose a career. He recalled his teacher at Woodbrook Secondary School, Mrs Hingoo, always told him due to his keen knowledge and love for geography that he should consider choosing meteorology as a career.
"Remembering her advice, he signed up for it. However, he got a heartbreaking phone call explaining that the technical school for that choice of study was filled," the family said.
Gilbert, speaking to Newsday via e-mail from the United Arab Emirates, where he is on deployment for a year, recalled the start of his Air Force career was not easy.
"My first year was rough, as I was already learning how to adjust in the States, and then had to quickly learn how to be de-civilianised and become an airman."
But Gilbert eventually warmed to his new career.
"It was a natural transition for me. I was always an informal leader and the Air Force pushes informal leaders to become formal leaders. The Air Force is great at exploiting one’s talents for the benefit of the team."
His brother, Richard, who remained enlisted for only two years, left with an honorary discharge, and followed his dreams of being in the film industry. He is a broadcast media engineer with the NBC network in Manhattan, where he has been working for the past 16 years.
But Gilbert remained in the Air Force and over his career received several awards including the Lance P Sijan Award in 2013. The award, one of the most prestigious in the Air Force, is given to enlisted leaders who demonstrate the highest qualities of leadership in the performance of their duties and conduct of their lives. Gilbert won for his base and was chosen out of 2,300 suggested candidates.
Gilbert rose through the ranks from airman basic in February 1999, to senior master sergeant on February 1, 2018. On December 1, 2020, he was promoted to chief master sergeant.
A chief master sergeant in the US Air Force is the highest senior non-commissioned officer rank. It is equivalent to the rank of sergeant major in the army, master gunnery sergeant/sergeant major in the Marines, and master chief petty officer in the Navy/Coast Guard (federalplay.org).
And how did Gilbert feel about his promotion?
"It was overwhelming to attain the position in the top one per cent of the enlisted force and humbling at the same time. To think a Trinidadian would make it there was liberating and reiterated the fact that any goal is attainable with the right motivation and drive."
He said his family was surprised and proud.
"My mother was extremely proud for sure. She initially never wanted her boys to be in war or deploy, especially since I am not American-born."
Gilbert is the superintendent of the 56th Civil Engineer Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. He serves as the squadron's senior enlisted leader for more than 375 military and civilian personnel. He advises the commander on matters of readiness, morale, quality of life, professional development and effective utilisation of personnel.
He also leads military and civilian airmen supporting six flights that provide infrastructure repair and sustainment, emergency management, explosive ordinance disposal support, and fire response to 5,500 airmen, 1,043 facilities, and 171 F-16 and F-35 fighter aircraft in support of the Air Force's largest fighter wing.
Additionally, he oversees support of the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field and is the steward of the Barry M Goldwater Range, a military training range spanning more than 1.7 million acres of Sonoran Desert (US Air Force).
Gilbert explained the adjustment to his new role was minimal, as he has had thousands of airmen under his command in previous jobs.
"The current job I have is to manage over 285 people, but in a deployed location. Ideally, I ensure my airmen are taken care of professionally and personally so they can accomplish our mission. People are my business and I love every minute of it."
And who would Gilbert like to recognise for his achievements?
"First off I must thank God, as nothing is possible without him. My mother, of course, for her steadfast love and support. My brother for his support also, and caring personality. My father for forcing me to join, as it ended up being exactly where I was supposed to be in life. Lastly, I MUST thank my wife and kids for their love and support over the years."
Gilbert has been married to his wife Gissell (who is also a US Air Force member) for 13 years and the couple has two children, four-year-old son, Andy Jr, better known as AJ, and two-year-old daughter, Brooklyn.
"I truly love the Air Force and what it represents and all I have achieved," he added.