RAF MILDENHALL, England --
(This feature is the fourth and final part of the four-part “Diamonds shine bright” series on www.mildenhall.af.mil. These stories focus on different first sergeants, highlighting their Air Force story)
Walking down a lonely road, unsure of what’s to come on this day or in the future, a young woman who one day would become a mentor to those around, her tries to put a life together and find her path.
Walking down the ‘road to nowhere,’ she conjured the thoughts of having nowhere else to go, no family, money or job, until she came across another young woman who wore this tightly-pressed black and gold attire with polished, golden buttons and radiating with confidence.
This was how Senior Master Sgt. Arwa Cavender, 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant, first glimpsed at what being a part of the military family could look like.
“A former family member of mine had been in the Army,” Cavender explained. “I saw how she carried herself with confidence and independence. I wanted to emulate her because I believed she had everything figured out.”
Cavender first looked at joining the U.S. Army, but after further discussions with family, decided to the join U.S. Air Force medical administration career field 24 years ago at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and never looked back.
“I was very disciplined as a young Airman because I was afraid of being fired,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose the only good thing I had left in life.”
The discipline and mission orientation with which Cavender has shown throughout her career are two of the many values she tried to instill during her first sergeant career.
“I’ve always looked at being a first sergeant as being a first line helper,” Cavender expressed. “Being there for a member through the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m also a commander’s advisor, but I want Airmen to know we’re their advisors too. I can tell you my story and help you make the right decisions.”
Candidly though, Cavender admitted her ‘shirt’ career started out inauspiciously because she thought she didn’t have the right skills to get the job done, but would learn those over time.
“I didn’t have what you would call the best people skills at the time,” Cavender said laughingly. “I’ve always been mission-oriented, I would just say to people ‘follow the rules, follow the standards, it’s not that hard.
As I went from squadron to squadron, I finally realized how different people are from one another; some need things interpreted in different ways for everyone to be successful.”
First, her journey as a first sergeant would begin almost six years ago at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, with the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, where she also worked with the 16th Training Squadron and the 49th Materiel Maintenance Squadron.
After her time there, Cavender joined the Team Mildenhall ‘shirt’ family, first with the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and now in the same position with the 100th LRS, and wanted to be a different type of first sergeant.
“I never really had much interaction with first sergeants until late in my career,” she said. “Once I gained leadership positions, I had troops under me who needed their help and this was my opportunity to see the impact they and knew I’d want the chance to help commander’s make sound decisions and protect Airmen.”
Cavender described many situations where she helped Airmen deal with marital, financial and other situations, and desired to be there for them at any time – both good and bad.
“The most challenging part is seeing things go wrong with a person you’ve tried to help so many times, yet they still refuse help or continue doing things their own way,” Cavender stated. “But there is a sense of accomplishment when some are able to overcome challenges and I realize ‘I finally got to that person!’”
With her daily professional accomplishments as a ‘shirt,’ Cavender is able take the same skills she uses at work and apply them to her personal life. She enjoys running competitively, traveling the world and finding things she and her husband can both take pleasure in.
“This position has made me appreciate my relationship with him even more after seeing the things other people go through,” Cavender said. “It made me realize how insignificant the quarrels we have are.
“I’ve also learned to not take things so seriously. Throughout much of my life I was very standard-driven, seeing only black and white, but now I see hints of gray.”
As the most senior first sergeant at RAF Mildenhall, Cavender is now on the verge of turning in her diamond.
“These past six years have been some of the best of my career, but my time has come to return the career I love,” Cavender expressed. “But I want people all across the Air Force to know that first sergeants are a helping agency and always have been.
“People may be afraid of us when they shouldn’t be. Yes, there are times for discipline, but we’re also mentors, advisors and our job will always be to build relationships and be everybody’s first sergeant.”