EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Amongst the hustle and bustle of pre-graduation jitters, SATs and ACTs, final exams and meeting graduation requirements, high school seniors have major life decisions to make.
Most decide between starting their career and going to college; but some make the decision to join the United States military.
Senior Master Sgt. Joey Meininger, now the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron deputy fire chief, then a 17-year-old boy straight out of high school, decided academics weren’t going to be in his future. He decided, after growing up with his dad in the military, the Air Force would be a good place to start.
While most people are nervous to speak with a recruiter, Meininger had no fears. His dad was his recruiter and lined him up with a job as a radar technician for a satellite aircraft. He didn’t know anything about the job, but his ASVAB score made him qualified for it.
While his dad was away one day, the other recruiters started putting a bug in Meininger’s ear about firefighting.
“I didn’t want to be a firefighter,” said Meininger. “But they [recruiters] were telling me about it, and it sounded cool and they got me hooked. I left with a four year contract and a guaranteed job as a firefighter.”
Four years later, when the time came for Meininger to decide if he was going to re-enlist, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
“I was looking into transitioning into the civilian world,” said Meininger. “It had nothing to do with the military, it was that in fire service, we partner with civilians a lot. I loved being a firefighter and I thought I wanted to go that route.”
Meininger teetered back and forth between staying in the military and getting out.
“To be honest, it sounds horrible, but they offered me a bonus to stay,” Meininger said laughing. “I was on the fence, but a little bit of money and a carrot got me in the right direction.”
While Meininger didn’t face too many challenges before he became a staff sergeant, he did confess he probably wasn’t the best Airman, even though he was a good firefighter.
“I didn’t understand the Airmanship of firefighting and what we do,” said Meininger. “It wasn’t until a chief pulled me aside when I became a staff sergeant and said to me, ‘you understand that you’re an Airman first, a civil engineer next and a firefighter third.’ When he put that in perspective, I saw the bigger picture.”
Meininger admitted he was pretty narrow-minded in what he did day-to-day and he didn’t really understand how he fit into the bigger picture.
“[That chief] was a great mentor,” said Meininger. “He was able to take my passion for the fire job and put it back into the Air Force. That was my turning point.”
Once he changed his passion from fire to Airmanship, Meininger said the sky was the limit.
While reminiscing a little on his career from airman basic to chief master sergeant select, Meininger recalled the first time in his career he really saw his actions as a firefighter profoundly impact someone’s life.
“In Florida we had a big wildland fire and it was encroaching on someone’s home,” said Meininger. “I was a senior airman at the time and had fought a few fires before, but I had never walked away thinking I saved something or did something big.”
During this situation, Meininger said his team wound up making a fire line between the woman’s house and the fire and they stopped the fire just short of her home.
“I remember that lady coming up to me and giving me a drink and saying ‘thank you for saving my home,’” said Meininger with a smile on his face. “Typically we don’t see it; but being there this time and getting to see her face … this particular time we got it. It doesn’t always work out that way but this time it did.”
Behind every chief select is normally a really strong support system. For Meininger, his wife, Audrey Meininger, has been his biggest support.
“We’ve been married for 13 years now,” Joey Meininger said with a big grin. “She was an active-duty firefighter as well. That’s actually where our biggest challenge came from.”
When the couple decided they wanted to start a family, being dual military became a little difficult.
“She’s driven like me,” said Joey Meininger. “For both of us to really focus on our careers and at the same time try to balance life to raise our son, was hard. We made a family decision that one of us needed to get out.”
This was a difficult decision for the Meininger’s to make. Audrey Meininger explained they didn’t want to raise a family while working opposite 24-hour shifts, deploying or having temporary duty assignments.
“I was at a point in my career where I was going to have to leave my son for a deployment, or separate,” said Audrey. “I knew I couldn’t do that and it made my decision to separate and the transition into civilian life easier.”
Seventeen years after first joining the Air Force, Joey Meininger learned he made it to the highest enlisted rank of chief master sergeant. After the initial shock and awe wore off, he said he was able to think about how he got to where he is and about advice he would give to others.
“Take an honest look in the mirror,” he said. “Many times throughout my career, Airmen have come into my office and are frustrated with something or they don’t like something, but they won’t take responsibility for their actions. It’s a tough conversation to have with folks; it’s conflict and it’s not always nice.”
Nobody is perfect, and a quote hanging in Meininger’s office reads “Perfection is not obtainable. But if we chase perfection we’ll catch excellence.” – Vince Lombardi.
“If you have to blame everyone else for your imperfections or find faults in people who find faults in you, you’re never going to get better,” Meininger explained. “We have to take that hard look in the mirror; that’s what it’s going to take for you to succeed.”