By Airman 1st Class Luke W. Nowakowski, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 11, 2016
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "What are you doing here Air Force?" yelled an Army Ranger instructor to then Tech. Sgt. Michael Burke. "You don't belong here."
"I'm here to report for Ranger School," Burke explained. "I have a slot."
"Fall in!" the Ranger instructor screamed.
Burke proceeded to hustle back into formation, his blue physical fitness uniform sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the sea of grey black Army pt uniforms.
That was Master Sgt. Michael Burke's, 460th Security Forces Squadron, first introduction to Ranger School, one he will never forget.
Burke was born in Brainerd, Minnesota, and had a typical upbringing as a boy which included hunting and fishing with his brothers and father, as well as playing organized football.
He joined the Air Force at the age of 19, after spending time in college and realizing it wasn't the right fit. His father, who served time in the Army, pushed Burke to consider the Air Force over the other branches, citing a higher quality of life.
His father was a police officer in Minnesota and both of his brothers were on their way to becoming law enforcement officers so it was only natural for Burke to seek out security forces as his career in the Air Force.
Burke served in the Air Force for 10 years before getting a rare opportunity to go the coveted Army Ranger School.
The Army only gives out so many slots to the Air Force for Ranger School. Most of these slots are taken by Airmen in combat related career field such as pararescuemen and combat controllers. Security forces Airmen selected to go to Ranger School aren't as common, said Burke.
He finally got his opportunity while on an assignment in Germany, where his unit frequently worked in tandem with the Army during training operations.
"We were tasked to join the infantry when they were doing airfield seizures," Burke said. "When the Army would push out (of a seized airfield), (security forces) would maintain the airfield to bring in follow-on forces to set up the next wing that was coming. We'd establish the base for the next C-17's to come in."
Because of the coordination between Burke's unit and the Army, the Air Force unit he was with began holding pre-ranger training courses, which were designed to prepare Airmen interested in going to Ranger School.
"If you were in-shape enough or if you thought you wanted to try, you went to pre-ranger school," Burke said. "If you made it through and got the "GO" at the end of the course, they would look for a slot at Ranger School for you."
Burke got his slot in Ranger school in 2008 and was the only Airman in his class of hundreds of Soldiers.
"They jumped on me right away," Burke said. "I stood out amongst the grey and the black pt's. I was the only blue pt out there. It was very intimidating to be at what they tote as the premiere leadership school in the Department of Defense."
As a member of the Air Force, Burke was looked at as an outsider and had to work harder than anyone to gain the respect of the Soldiers he'd be working with for the next couple months.
"You really have to establish a rapport, because they don't trust you," Burke said. "They think that you don't know any of the field tasks. They grow up in the infantry, they know their field tasks left and right, they can memorize their Soldiers manual of common tasks. So I have to go in there really knowledgeable or the Army isn't going to give you any credit."
Ranger School is a 61 day school which is separated in three different phases. The first stage takes place at Fort Benning, Georgia, and covers field operation in squads of 9 to 12 men. Phase two is the mountain phase in Dahlonega, Georgia, and is where the Rangers learn mountaineering techniques and high mountain platoon maneuvers. The last phase is the swamp phase at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. During this phase the Rangers learn how to operate in an aquatic environment.
From getting yelled at for blue name tapes to tremendous sleep deprivation to standing in formation in front of families and friends at the end of the 61 day course, Burke has many memories of his experience at Ranger School.
One of Burke's funnier memories was when he was on fire watch one night.
Burke, sleep deprived and hungry had to stay up an extra half hour during the night to keep watch over the other men while they slept. After covering his shift, he returned to where everyone was sleeping, woke the next man up and went back to sleep.
A little while after, some commotion began close to Burke. Exhausted, he ignored what was going on and remained in his sleeping bag. Little did he know, he wasn't just in his sleeping bag.
"I hear ruckus and commotion going on but I'm so dead to the world tired that I'm not even paying attention to it," Burke said. "I hear this guy yell out 'where is my sleeping bag!' All the sudden I get kicked and I'm mad because sleep is a hot commodity around there. So I'm angry and this guy is yelling at me 'you've got my sleeping bag!' Come to find out, I have my sleeping bag on the right way and then I pulled his sleeping bag over the top of me. He had spent 15 minutes looking for his sleeping bag and that's 15 minutes of sleep he could have had."
The best memory of all for Burke, however, was graduation day.
"You have stands filled with people coming to support their troops, their kids or whoever's out there," Burke said. "I was one of four honor graduates to stand up there in front of nothing but Army. It was awesome. That was the second time the Air Force had won an award at Ranger School since 1954."
Burke has taken his experiences from Ranger School and has applied them to how he leads the Airmen under him, emphasizing small team leadership and finding what motivates each individual to perform their job at a high level.
"The reason the Army totes it as the best leadership school in the DOD, which I believe it is, is because they teach you small unit leadership," Burke said. "You learn a lot about yourself as a leader as far as what works and what doesn't work, what motivates you and what doesn't motivate you, can translate to the people you are trying to lead."
Although Burke's Ranger Tab is point of pride for Burke, he doesn't see it as the end all be all of who he is and what he has accomplished in his career thus far.
"I think (the Ranger Tab) is an external showing of what you're willing to do for the things that are important to you," Burke said. "The dedication, the time you are going to put in. However, it's a one inch by two inch piece of cloth. It's a school I graduated from. There are people across all different types of career fields that have done amazing things. When I look at it compared to what other people have done, it's a good reminder that it's just a school. I try to keep that in mind."