ARLINGTON, Va. - A chief master sergeant from the South Dakota Air National Guard became a part of the Community College of the Air Force's (CCAF) history books in January when he was appointed as its first enlisted vice commandant.
As vice commandant, Chief Master Sgt. Joseph Thornell now works as a senior enlisted manager for the CCAF at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala.; a role previously held by a active-duty lieutenant colonel.
The CCAF is the world's largest two-year degree institution and the only exclusive two-year institution for enlisted personnel.
"This is one of many initiatives by Air University to transform and enrich enlisted education and training," said Command Chief Master Sgt. Mark Luzader, Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, in an e-mailed announcement.
Thornell explained that the CCAF and its parent, Air University, are transforming and dividing up officer and enlisted programs. In the future, the institution's commandant presently a colonel position will also be a chief master sergeant.
"That will align all of the enlisted programs for education, militarily, with a chief master sergeant at the helm," said Thornell. "So this is a progression toward that."
For all of his military and civilian accomplishments, Thornell seems much in line with the CCAF and its 34-year migration of education, service and opportunity for the total force of active, Guard and Reserve.
Thornell enlisted in the active-duty Air Force in 1977 and served in Minuteman missile maintenance until his separation in 1987. His following enlistments in the California and South Dakota Air Guard were a steady climb from part-time aircraft maintenance into higher levels of enlisted leadership, including his service as a state command chief and as a commandant of enlisted education for the Air Guard.
The husband, father and sportsman, with reddish-brown hair and blue eyes, said he treasures family time. His hobbies include backwoods motorcycle riding as well as distance running.
During his civilian career he worked as a technical writer for a major military contractor and was an elementary and middle school teacher. He achieved high school principal and school system chief education officer.
"I guess it's a collision of time," he said about the appointment. He explained that his experience, in both Guard and active duty, and his preparations in the civilian and military sectors, made his career transition a â€œnatural fit." "I'm ready for it," he added.
And as Total Force Integration continues to join active, Guard and Reserve Airmen in their missions, Thornell said his appointment to a strategic-level Air Force position is good for the Guard and Reserve, as well as for the total Air Force.
"Being a Guardmember, it's important to get the recognition ... and break into those senior strategic positions where the Guard and Reserve will shine," he said.
Last year, Thornell visited Guard and active-duty Airmen at 32 different locations to talk with them about their careers. In those visits, he said he was amazed at the high number of Airmen with two-10 years of service - who were anxious to get degrees.
"They were fired up," he said. Airmen with more than 10 years service, he added, are also answering the challenge of higher education. "We have a lot of Airmen who are getting it done," he said. "They have taken a look at it and said, 'professionally, my service is saying I have to do it.'"
Thornell said he also visits every senior NCO academy class and NCO academy class at Maxwell-Gunter AFB.
"It's really fun to do that," he said. "I really think, at this point in my career, it's important to help mentor those that follow."
Speaking about the future, Thornell said the CCAF model is well established as the largest community college in the world. "We need to not do any harm to that program. It's a gateway program for education for our enlisted Airmen, and we want to make sure it's as solid as it can be for the long term."
As the CCAF program has grown since 1972, thousands of Airmen have received CCAF degrees.
Active duty, Guard and Reserve enlisted Airmen automatically enroll in the CCAF when they join, and they build college credits toward a degree from their professional military education (PME).
Thornell said the CCAF's online system, as well as its network of institutions and education managers, makes it easier than ever to build PME credits into two-year degrees.
"I think you will see additional opportunities for bachelor's degrees," said Thornell. "Gen. [Michael] Moseley (Air Force chief of staff) is anxious to offer as many degree opportunities to enlisted Airmen as he can."
In the next five-10 years, Thornell said that there will be no reason an enlisted Airman would not have a bachelor's degree upon retirement, if they want one. "Education is always a continuum, and we have always recognized it well in the Air Force," Thornell said.