Benevolence or bullets?

(U.S. Air Force graphic/2nd Lt. Shelley Gregory)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/2nd Lt. Shelley Gregory)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- While in Air Force ROTC, particularly during the final year, we had many discussions regarding what made a successful leader and Airman. We were taught how to write performance reports and award packages, we acted out scenarios between supervisors and subordinates, and we went over the things we should do to enhance our careers. One of the tasks on the "should do list" was volunteering.

Even then I found it ironic we were being told to volunteer. After all, the definition of the term itself includes the words "freely" and "offer." It wasn't until I entered Active Duty that I truly understood the gravity of volunteerism in the military. For an enlisted Airman, a few extra volunteer hours could mean being promoted "below the zone" and an early salary jump.

Volunteer hours can greatly bolster a performance report, either by filling the "Whole Airman Concept" block or by racking up quarterly and annual awards. But, they can also have an opposite effect. How many Airmen have been excluded from awards simply because they couldn't provide two volunteer bullets? I've seen it firsthand. 

I'm certainly not discounting the importance of volunteering - I'm a huge proponent. I race out of work every Wednesday so I can walk alongside a horse while a disabled child has the reins. It's the highlight of my week. Yet, when I was crafting a bullet to include that information I couldn't help but feel slightly guilty. The whole point of volunteering, in my mind, is to serve others without reward other than personal satisfaction in knowing I've done something for someone else.

With that said, is it wrong of us as Airmen to seek out volunteer opportunities knowing our career will benefit from it?

I think the answer lies in the motive.

When I moved to my first duty station, I made an effort to make my new community feel more like home. I grew up around horses and volunteered at an equestrian therapy center during my summers home from college, so I set out to find something similar. I jumped on the opportunity to help at a center comparable to the one at home. I'll admit I knew I could use the hours spent there to craft a bullet, but the joy of watching children with varying disabilities progress from fearing horses to trotting confidently outweighed that completely. I realized I would have sought out the opportunity and continued volunteering my time even if I couldn't use it for a performance report.

Good things are being done by Airmen on and off base all the time regardless of the volunteers' underlying motives, and I think that's ultimately a good thing. However, with the way volunteerism is so integral to recognition and promotion in the Air Force, I urge Airmen to ask themselves, when making the decision to volunteer, is the motivation benevolence or bullets?