Four Department of the Air Force service members were selected as recipients of the Military Service Award during the 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2021. The four individuals were recognized for their accomplishments and mentorship in the STEM career fields during the Stars and Stripes event.
The recipients were Air Force Brig. Gen. Troy Dunn, the director of military force management policy, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Arlington, Virginia; Space Force Brig. Gen. David Miller Jr., the senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force, Arlington, Virginia; Alphonso Thomas, the director of engineering and technical management at the Air Force Sustainment Center, Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; and Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Shanton Russell, the 22nd Civil Engineer Squadron deputy fire chief, McConnell AFB, Kansas.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., provided the keynote address for the ceremony and highlighted the importance of making a difference, even when tested through challenging times.
“I know I can’t fix the world’s problems, even as the Air Force Chief of Staff,” Brown said. “But, I will do what I can to make a difference, where I can. That’s why I keep serving; because just like those before me, there’s somebody behind us saying, ‘I want to be just like you,’ because they see the opportunity. I challenge each of us, including myself, to stand up, step up and make the change.”
Russell described how winning this award was the culmination of Airmen, family and mentors who chose to help him become a great Airman.
“I was encouraged to shoot for it by my squadron’s chief enlisted manager, who was aware of the things I have done and am currently working on,” Russell said. “We had a good discussion about it, and pressed on with the submission. After reading up on the conference and past recipients, I honestly didn’t think I would get this far. I was told that my package competed against 30 others and was selected by a panel of retired three and four-star Generals. I was shocked, honored, and humbled all at the same time.”
He continued to explain when he was younger, he and his friends spent a great deal of time thinking they would have a shot at being famous entertainer rather than a chemist, engineer or something within the STEM fields.
“It’s not terrible to have those dreams, but there needs to be a serious effort to attract young people to STEM fields,” Russell said. “It’s absolutely vital that we continue to educate young people on STEM, and its importance in hopes they’ll decide to be the builders and developers of the future. I wholeheartedly believe our collective growth and livelihoods depend on it.”
The goal of the BEYA conference is to create connections between students, educators and STEM professionals while facilitating partnerships with individuals and their local STEM resources, according to Lt. Col. John Griffiths, the chief of total force diversity and inclusion assigned to the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Office of the SAF, Arlington, Virginia.
The Stars and Stripes award criteria for the Air and Space Force recipients include having served with distinction supporting the DAF’s efforts in mentorship and diversity to the nation and to the Air Force. Another key criteria is being a personal advocate for advances in STEM and STEM education.
“Coordinating the planning of the BEYA conference and awards evening involved many different entities across the Department of Defense, corporate partners, and a group of retired flag officers and senior executives,” Griffiths explained. “Unlike the 15 previous iterations of this event, which concluded with a gala awards night, this years’ events were entirely virtual.”
The three-day conference also included a career fair for Air Force recruiting, multiple panels, corporate seminars and on the final day, the Stars and Stripes Youth Mentoring session and Award Ceremony.
The Youth Mentoring session saw 285 high school students and educators participate in inspirational conversation, guidance and mentorship from 75 DoD senior leaders.