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On the way out: Chief shares legacy, advice for future chiefs

Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harper’s, 460th Operations Group superintendent, 30-year career lays out the framework for the path from airman basic to chief master sergeant. Harper started his Air Force journey March 8, 1983, as a law enforcer and quickly transitioned into a military working dog handler. Over the course of his multiple assignments and deployments, Harper progressed through the ranks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/Released)

Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harper’s, 460th Operations Group superintendent, 30-year career lays out the framework for the path from airman basic to chief master sergeant. Harper started his Air Force journey March 8, 1983, as a law enforcer and quickly transitioned into a military working dog handler. Over the course of his multiple assignments and deployments, Harper progressed through the ranks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/Released)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Only one percent of the population serves in the military, and only one percent of that ever makes the rank of chief master sergeant. So how do the most successful Airmen achieve this prestigious rank?

Chief Master Sgt. Mark Harper's, 460th Operations Group superintendent, 30-year career lays out the framework for the path from airman basic to chief master sergeant.

Harper started his Air Force journey March 8, 1983, as a law enforcer and quickly transitioned into a military working dog handler. Over the course of his multiple assignments and deployments, Harper progressed through the ranks. However, it was not until his promotion to staff sergeant through the Stripes for Exceptional Performers program that he understood the type of Airman he wanted to become.

"I was STEP promoted from senior airman to staff; that was a pivot point for my career," Harper recalled. "What it said about my leadership to me, in my mind, was the type of supervisor I should be -- take care of your people. (My leadership) gave me a lot of opportunities, they challenged me, they saw something in me, and I responded."

The next major milestone in Harper's career was one many Airmen may eventually face; leave the job you love and fill the needs of the Air Force.

"My chief came to me and his words were, 'It's time to grow up Sergeant Harper; I'm taking you out of canine,'" explained Harper as he remembered the career-changing move. "'There are bigger things for you to do; and if you stay in the working dog world, you are going to cap out at master (sergeant)'. And I knew this was true."

After this epiphany, Harper began taking on more special assignments. These experiences created additional opportunities for Harper and an accelerated chance to make rank, as well as molding him into a total-force Airman. Harper received takings to the Pentagon and the Joint-Staff, but the most crucial decision he made was on an opportunity that would change his career path forever.

"I knew what awaited me if I went back to the cop world, but I decided that I wanted to do something different," said Harper. "The Air Force was doing some force shaping, and I wanted the challenge; so I went to (communications) school and I became a 3C. It was good to see that even at 18 years, the Air Force will be willing to give you an opportunity if you are willing to take it."

Through this career path, Harper was selected for chief master sergeant his first time eligible. This may have been the finish line for a young Harper when he first joined the Air Force, but now it was new starting line. As a chief, he had one of the largest spheres of influence that an enlisted member could achieve, and he was ready to use it for what he knew was right.

"I want to take care of Airman, and I want to protect them from some of the things that I saw," said Harper. "I wanted to be in a position that if there was a wrong I wanted to help correct it. That was my motivator -- to make the rank, make a difference and give those a voice that in our hierarchy may not have."

Now as Harper enters the twilight of his career, the wisdom and knowledge he has accumulated over three decades of service becomes a beacon for the next generation of Airman. The roadmap to becoming a chief is etched into his career as three distinct ideals -- mentorship, opportunity and trust.

Having a mentor, according to Harper, is a critical tool in staying relevant and being successful in today's Air Force.

"Why should we have to learn from the same mistakes; why can't we learn from others?" asked Harper. "I believe it's critical that you have someone that you can trust and has been successful that you can turn to. It's not always senior members, but sometimes junior enlisted, as well. I would not have made it this far without my mentors."

The opportunity the Air Force provides for assignments and career development can significantly affect an Airman's chances to make rank, as was shown with Harper's service.

"Don't just sit back and be the person, who says, 'I just want to do my job. I just want to disappear," explained Harper. "Take on some challenges that will push you. You need to remain flexible while being open minded; but once you've decided, have that passion."
The most crucial ideal, according to Harper, is trust -- the trust in your leadership, the trust in your Air Force family and being entrusted to make the right decisions.

"It was more important to me to do what was right than to move ahead," said Harper. "When you come in, make your decision that you are going to do your best and live those core values because they are not just words. If you live them, you will not only be successful professionally, but personally as well."

However, there is another trait that defines Harper, one the humble chief does not claim for himself.

"His loyalty," Col. DeAnna Burt, 460th OG commander, defined as Harper's greatest trait. "I never questioned that he had my back and gave me open, honest and candid feedback. To me that is the key component to a successful senior NCO. Loyalty provides the foundation for trust between a commander and their superintendent and fosters a team environment. Without loyalty, the relationship falls apart."

As the book closes on the service of this life-long Airman, Burt believes that her group superintendent's legacy will continue on to those he passes the torch.

"Chief Harper's legacy is his big heart and passion for taking care of Airman," Burt explained. "He never faltered in taking care of others before himself and ensuring our Airmen have all the tools they need for success."

This sentiment is echoed in the most candid vision of the retiring chief master sergeant: "If we don't succeed together, then we all have failed."
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