12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year recognized at AFA

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nicolas Z. Erwin
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

The 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2021 were recognized over the course of five days during the annual Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference held at the National Harbor, Sept. 18-22.

Selection was based upon superior leadership, job performance and personal achievements. Each Airman embodied the spirit of Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s message, “One Team, One Fight.”

The 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2021 (listed alphabetically, by command of assignment when selected):

• Senior Master Sgt. Marcus D. Banks, Pacific Air Forces
• Tech. Sgt. Christopher M. Bennett, Air Education and Training Command
• Tech. Sgt. Justin D. Bennett, U.S. Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa
• Tech. Sgt. Kelli A. Floyd, Air Combat Command
• Staff Sgt. Valerie M. Graw, Air Force Materiel Command
• Staff Sgt. Colleen F. Mitchell, Air Force District of Washington
• Senior Airman Giovanni Pacheco, Airman Support United States Space Force
• Staff Sgt. Kristy L. Riley, Air Force Reserve Command
• Staff Sgt. Alex M. Sandmann, Air Force Global Strike Command
• Senior Master Sgt. Mark R. Schneider II, Air National Guard
• Senior Airman Jamonica M. Smith, Air Mobility Command
• Master Sgt. Hannah E. Walters, Air Force Special Operations Command

“You represent more than just yourself now,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass. “You are ambassadors for our Airmen, and you are in a position to directly help shape the Air Force of 2030.”

Bass continued to highlight the importance of each honorees’ impact when it comes to influencing and accelerating change in their spheres of influence. As ambassadors of the Air Force, each of the twelve Airmen represent the epitome of what Airmen should strive to become. Most importantly, she urged the Airmen to remember where they came from.

“It still hasn’t completely sunk in,” said Staff Sgt. Valerie M. Graw, an 88th Communications Squadron cyber operations controller at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “Here we are (at the Air Force Association convention), meeting generals and command chiefs as the 12 Outstanding Airmen. I’m completely humbled by this experience and the fact that Chief Bass and other Air Force senior leaders trust me to represent our force. I can’t put it into words, but I am grateful.”

Throughout the span of the conference, the Airmen toured Washington, D.C., by land, during a bus tour across Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., and by air, during an immersion tour of the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The group also met Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force senior leaders. Their stay culminated with a celebration for all the achievements of outstanding Airmen.

Even though the Airmen are subject matter experts in their respective career fields, some had never had the opportunity to see and experience the history of the nation’s capital. Tour locations included the White House, the Air Force Memorial and the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The opportunity to tour the national capital region also gave some Airmen the ability to connect with each other based on heritage and goals.

The convention also offered the Airmen a greater insight into different Department of the Air Force senior leaders’ areas of focus, intent and how it all integrates to further attract, train and maintain the highest caliber of Airmen and Guardians.

The 12 Outstanding Airmen’s first official job will take place at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to help mentor and guide future officers of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. During a sit-down discussion with the honorees, Bass conveyed her expectations and answered questions relating to their year-long journey.

“If there is one thing you should take away from this … one thing at all … it's that you have the ability to change things,” Bass said. "Right now, we need innovative ways to continue developing the Air Force. In your position, you have the attention of your wing and major command and can help influence the Total Force."

During a concluding ceremony, many honorees took a moment to acknowledge the contributions of their families, leaders and teams that help set them up for success.

“This wasn’t possible without my family by my side,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Bennett, 48th Fighter Wing antiterrorism program manager at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom. “More than that, this convention and ceremony gave me the chance to see my family. I’ve been overseas for the past three years, and this event gave us the opportunity to see each other again. More than that, my state-side family never stopped supporting me, and being there for me, my wife and my daughter. I wouldn’t be here without any of the support they have given me."