EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
“[To be a Chief Master Sergeant] means to constantly check yourself on your humility and remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the position that you’ve been entrusted in to make every interaction you have [with your Airmen] valuable. When that person walks away from that interpersonal episode, they should walk away feeling better, smarter and more equipped.”
-Chief Master Sgt. Bridget Bruhn
Growing up in the tropical paradise of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Bridget Bruhn, the 354th Communication Squadron superintendent, joined the Air Force in search of an adventure away from home.
"I just wanted to try something different and get off the island,” said Bruhn. “That was probably the easiest way to get a ticket to a new adventure.”
As the youngest of eight siblings, Bruhn enlisted into the service at the age of 19. After being in service for 23 years, she can still vividly recall the moment she finally became an Airman.
“The day I graduated [basic training] was pretty phenomenal,” said Bruhn. “I couldn't believe I had completed that. At that time I thought that was going to be the hardest thing I would do in my life but I was obviously very wrong."
The Journey to Chief
Bruhn never intended on becoming Chief. Her plan was to ‘get off the island’, do four years and come back home.
What changed her mind was one the most impressive people she’s ever known, her late father, William Bruhn. William grew up during the great depression and served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
"I was very inspired by my father,” Bruhn said. “He's a hard worker, very committed and he always operated under the mantra of doing something to the best of your ability."
When she was a Senior Master Sergeant in her 30’s, Bruhn lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease. An unforeseen crucible that tested Bruhn’s resolve.
“To go through that experience was pretty difficult,” said Bruhn. “But it taught me that if I could get through that, I can get through anything. There can't be a worse feeling than that."
Joining the ranks of many other great Chief Master Sergeants is no easy feat. Bruhn attempted four times and she treated each failure as an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth.
“Almost every Chief you meet will say they have overcome a lot of obstacles and experienced failure to get where they are…and it’s absolutely true,” Bruhn said. “You cannot get to this rank without embracing change and striving to gain a deep and genuine understanding of others. I no longer see obstacles—I see opportunities.”
Bruhn has stressed the importance of knowing and understanding one’s self in order to achieve success with a team of Airmen.
”Try to reach your own personal level of excellence,” said Bruhn. “Everyone’s level of excellence is different and if you’re always judging yourself by others’ standards and not what the Air Force has challenged you to do then you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary failure.”
She added that knowing when to step back and letting other people shine is a way of being kind not only to others but to one’s self as well.
Bruhn’s ideology on mentoring supervisors revolves around the idea of taking into consideration who the Airmen are as an individual before the rank.
“Age has nothing to do with success or failure, it’s dedication and putting yourself in situations that make you bigger, better, faster, and stronger so you can elevate your team,” said Bruhn. “Those situations are not typically comfortable or fun, but leadership is not always comfortable or fun…it’s a deliberate choice to do the right thing for the betterment of the team.”
Supervisors are not just leaders but also followers. Bruhn shared that learning from subordinates and peers is truly valuable.
“You really have to take into consideration what experience and values that person brings into that situation,” she said. “A humble leader is a strong leader, showing vulnerability builds trust, trust is the building block of any high performing team.”
In the End
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Bruhn. “There was a reason it took me so long to make Chief. With each perceived failure, I was learning more about myself [good and bad] and that added depth to the growth process…I realized it was not about me or making a rank but about bolstering others up to reach their level of excellence and embracing that concept made success meaningful beyond words.”
She believes going through her past struggles equipped her with life lessons that would prepare her for a big responsibility coming her way. Being home to hear the news that she’d finally become a Chief made that moment even more special.
”I was in Hawaii with my husband and my mom when I got notified,” Bruhn said. “I was on Oahu and my family was able to come to my ceremony. It was amazing. I felt heavy-hearted that my dad wasn’t there but he was there in spirit. When it happened, it was a humbling experience for me to have that notification at home.”
The journey to the rank of Chief was a long, difficult and challenging process for Bruhn that she was inevitably able to overcome. Faced with a new responsibility as one of the highest enlisted ranking Airmen, she’s well aware of the new level of influence and mentorship that come with the stripes.
”[Being a Chief means] choosing your words and actions wisely, [and] choosing to surround yourself with the right people so that you’re able to better influence the Airmen that you’ve been entrusted to care for and help them reach the best version of themselves,” Bruhn said.