JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. - Staff Sgt. Wilson B. Gardner was selected as the Air National Guard's 2018 Outstanding Airman of the Year, and one of the Air Force's 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.
Gardner, an airfield systems craftsman with the 202nd Engineering Installation Squadron, Georgia Air National Guard, was selected from tens of thousands of enlisted ANG Airmen for the award. His passion for the personal and professional development of himself and his team, exceptional technical aptitude and acute decision-making under pressure has set him apart among his peers.
"To be honest, being chosen actually caught me off guard," Gardner said. "Day to day I never really thought I was going above and beyond. I really always saw myself as just doing my job and what was expected of me. It's a real honor to be recognized for this."
Just doing his job is somewhat of an understatement when noting his long list of accomplishments. A two-time quarterly award winner, Gardner was a three-time volunteer for United States Strategic Command deployments, created an in-house soldering course for his Airmen that boosted reliability by 40 percent, saved his unit over one million dollars by ensuring warranties on 100,000 installed cables, and graduated from Airman Leadership School as Distinguished Graduate among other accomplishments.
Gardner also displayed his ability to act quickly during a crisis, not long after taking an first aid course, when he reacted to a civilian choking at a restaurant. He performed the Heimlich maneuver and engaged local EMS, saving the person's life.
"I had just gone through Self Aid Buddy Care training about two weeks prior," Gardner recalled. "I didn't even think about it, I just jumped into action."
Gardner enlisted into the ANG in 2013 at the 202nd. Airfield systems is his first and only career field to date and has allotted him several opportunities to expand his technical knowledge and to travel.
"Ever since I joined the unit I've been going TDY doing jobs like radio installs and lightning protection on towers," Gardner said. "I was at USSTRATCOM. We did the network infrastructure for that entire building. It has been a very fruitful career so far."
Gardner has known since he was in high school that he wanted to serve in the armed forces, participating in the Junior ROTC program at his school.
"Back in high school, I did JROTC so I kind of knew I wanted to go into the military," said Gardner. "When I finished high school I was looking for more of a way to fund college and I wanted to do a little traveling as well. I spoke to recruiting and retention and they guided me towards the 202nd because engineering installations is a career where you can go TDY to a lot of different bases."
Now that he has served for a few years, Gardner's sights are set on more than just funding for college, although graduating with a bachelor's degree in network infrastructure and engineering is one of his goals.
"When I first enlisted it was more like can I just do the 20 years and out," Gardner said. "Now that I've been in I'm kind of seeing that I may want to go longer than 20, see how high up I can go and what kind of impact I can have on the Guard."
Named Squadron Top Performer, Gardner takes that mindset a step further when asked what he would like to accomplish this next year as the OAY winner. A leader in the truest form, his first thought went right back to his fellow wingmen.
"One thing I'm looking to get from being the OAY winner is a better view point of the overall Guard," Gardner said. "Get a view of what other careers and other Guard members are going through on a day-to-day basis on their jobs, as well as try to be the voice for Airmen and bring the issues they have, the viewpoints and perspectives they have up to senior leadership to see what kind of changes and what kind of growth we can bring out of this."
Gardner has a heart for his fellow wingmen and offers the same advice to both the newly or recently enlisted Airmen and those who are currently serving.
"Their career is what they make of it," Gardner professed. "They're going to come across some challenges, things may change or be a little unexpected, but they should be flexible and be ready for any opportunity that might come their way."
Gardner has one dog named Miami, and several siblings, seven to be exact, who provide a support system for him.
Gardner said all of his siblings have followed his career and been very supportive of his service from the beginning. He in turn encourages them to consider what opportunities the service may have in store for them.
"Miami is about 10 years old; he loves to go hiking with me and I take him down the walking trails," Gardner said of his best friend. "I'm also trying to get one of my sisters to commission. She just got her four-year degree last year and I feel she would make a good officer with her attitude that she has in life."
Family ties are very important to Gardner. His parents followed his journey to being selected for the OAY honor from the beginning, and were the first people he contacted when he was notified of the great news.
"After I found out, I went ahead and called my mom because I knew her and my dad were both following to see what was going to come from it," Gardner recalled.
Family life, along with balancing civilian careers and service, are just some of the intricacies of being a Citizen-Airman. Although the fact that juggling civilian life and service can be difficult at times isn't lost on Gardner, he also recognizes the reward in serving in the Air National Guard.
"One of the biggest rewards of being an Airman is that when you enlist, you're given the opportunity to gain a skillset you may not otherwise have gotten." Gardner said. "You have to live a double life. It's not always easy to have a second job or balance going TDY or additional duties. But at the same time being in the Guard gives you that benefit to pursue further education, low cost health care for your family, and many benefits you can use in your day-to-day life.
Gardner is taking those opportunities and running with them. He embodies the Air Force core values and displays a wisdom that reaches beyond his rank. With his sights set on reaching the top, he has a bright future ahead of him.