The Man behind the Stripe: A Chief's Story

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Marjorie Bowlden, 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT AIR RESERVE STATION, Pa. – There is a saying that says that opportunity knocks but once. Some people ignore the knocking. Some people hesitate before opening the door. To others, it’s a no-brainer to seize opportunity as soon as it arises.


“Be ready to look for those opportunities,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher D. Neitzel, command chief of the 911th Airlift Wing. “You never know where it will take you or where your career could go.”


When Neitzel first joined the Air Force, he had no way to predict where his career would take him. Now, he is the highest ranking enlisted member of the 911th AW. His career has been built upon opportunities to challenge himself and to go further.


But as with every path or career, it all started with the first step.


Like many teenagers facing high school graduation, 17-year-old Neitzel was not certain of his direction in life. He did not know what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted to do something. Then one day, while on the way to a get-together with friends, he saw a recruiter’s office and asked his friends to stop.


Thirty minutes later, the recruiter drove Neitzel to his parents’ house to have them sign documents granting their permission for their son to join.


“It was completely on a whim,” he said with a laugh.


It was as much of an unexpected surprise to his loved ones as it was to him. He had never talked about it or considered the possibility before. His parents were shocked by the sudden revelation that he wanted to join the military, but they signed the documents anyway.


A few months later, Neitzel was on his way to basic training and the Gateway to the Air Force.


“Little did I know that it would be the smartest thing I’d ever done,” said Neitzel.


Upon graduation from basic training and tech school, Neitzel said that a bit of the youth and immaturity of high school was able to cling to him. He still felt lost and scared when facing his career, and he had no idea what to expect.


As an airman first class, he was able to find a bit more certainty in his direction after a disciplinary encounter with his first sergeant over his faddish haircut.


“He grabbed me by the ear one day and we had a ‘Come to Jesus’ talk,” he said. “That was the first time that I really had someone I could relate to and could respect what he was telling me. At that point, I said to myself that I would love to be a first sergeant one day.”


This was one of the first career goals he set for himself. And though he had some doubts about whether or not he would make it to that level, he decided that he would do his best and try anyway.


Eventually, he did just that- not once, but twice.


“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I was always ready for the next opportunity.”


He has learned several strong and sometimes painful lessons throughout the course of his career. One such instance occurred while deployed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Neitzel, a first sergeant at the time, received a Red Cross notification that a young man had died, and that this man’s father and brother were currently deployed there. The responsibility of notifying them fell to him.


Neitzel said that he would never forget the surreal atmosphere of that night. The father, a flight engineer, was currently on a plane bound for Afghanistan. Neitzel called the tower to have them turn around, and watched as the plane approached the flightline through the foggy dark. And after the notification, Neitzel watched as the father nearly collapsed to his knees.


Getting them home became his personal mission, he said. He was able to give the Airmen the support they needed, and even helped to pack their rooms. Within 22 hours, they were home with their families.


“It still affects me when I think about it,” he said. “I realized then that none of this is about me. It’s about taking care of our people.”


Now, after nearly 23 years of service, Neitzel has brought his wealth of personal experience to the position of command chief here. He plans to continue to develop Airmen in their careers as he has throughout his career. With the base facing a prospective switch from the C-130 Hercules to C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and mission change from tactical airlift to strategic airlift, he also hopes to keep the wing on its feet during the changes ahead.


“We’ve got a lot on our plate, and it’s going to be challenging for everyone,” he said. “I hope that in my role, I’m able to help guide us through those changes and make sure our people have the tools they need to get the job done, keep the mission going, and still enjoy being here.