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‘All I wanted was to succeed’: USAFA Prep School NCO reflects on career

Nick Roberts

By Ray Bowden, Dec. 12, 2017

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — When Master Sgt. Nicholas Roberts tells you “Wherever the Air Force needs me, is where I’ll go,” you get the idea he’s serious.

Since enlisting in 2000, he’s bounced around the World like a lottery ball, deploying to Southwest Asia seven times and on contingency operations in other far-flung places.

Nick is a military trainer at the Air Force Academy’s Preparatory School but late next year he reports for flight sergeant duty at the 820th Base Defense Group at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. The 820th BDG provides base defense for expeditionary air forces.

Nick said he always looking for training that would expand his abilities.

He completed Airborne training in 2013 at Fort Benning, Georgia, much to the chagrin of his wife, who he said has supported every other career choice he’s made.

“She was none-too-pleased,” Nick said.

Nick’s father, retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer John Roberts, had a different perspective.

“Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane did not make much sense but my son doing it was just cool,” he said.

The assignment to Moody will represent Nick’s return to security forces, his original Air Force specialty.

“My intent is to go back to a large security forces unit and lead Airmen while doing what I love to do, being a ‘Defender,’” he said.

Last fall, Nick became an honorary “Devil Dog” when he graduated from the Marine Corps Staff Noncommissioned Officers Academy at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

He did well there, beating-out 90 percent of his classmates on the Marines’ physical fitness test.

“All I really wanted was to succeed and represent the Air Force as best I could,” Nick said.

Nick spent two years training cadets before moving to the Prep School to lead cadet-candidates vying for admission to the Academy.

He said the most notable difference between his Academy and Prep School duties is the depth of involvement in the lives of the trainees.

“I don’t have 70 to 75 upper classmen doing half my job for me,” Nick said, referring to the Cadet Wing’s chain of command, which places some leadership responsibilities on upperclassmen. “Being involved in their personal and professional lives is very much a part of the job description.”

Cadets at the Academy tend to be between 18-22 years old. The average cadet candidate at the Prep School is just out of high school.

Whether cadets or cadet candidates, getting these young adults adjusted to military life can be demanding, but Nick hopes more NCOs take on the challenges of AMT duty.

“A lot of people are intimidated by what it means to be an AMT but I say, ‘do this job.’ You’ll be a better NCO for it,” he said. “If you’re not challenging yourself every day to do something different, you’re wasting your life and your career.”

Father and Son

Nick, 35, lists San Diego as his hometown, but John’s career as a Navy aviation machinist kept his family on the move.

“I dragged him from San Diego, to the Bay Area, to Guam, back to San Diego and then to [California’s] Central Valley, all before he graduated high school and he never complained,” John said.

Nick said his father is his “hero.”

“I used to dig into all of his gear and run around the house in his flight suits and flight deck gear,” he said.

John remembers Nick telling him he would not be joining the Navy.

“When we first discussed his joining the service, he immediately said he didn’t want to join the Navy and leave his family all the time like I did,” John said. “It cut me to the quick at first, but then I realized he was his own man and I was so proud of him for telling me his thoughts.”

John thought Nick would be assigned to a “nice, plushy” air force base as a security forces Airman, but admits he underestimated the scope of his son’s responsibilities.

“It didn’t really hit me until the Iraq war started in 2003 and he was going to deploy for the first time in harm’s way,” he said. “He called one evening to discuss his desire to be buried in Arlington [National Cemetery] if the unthinkable happened. I say ‘unthinkable’ because you are not supposed to outlive your children and the entire conversation put me to tears.”

John is proud of his 30 years of military service but he’s more enthusiastic about discussing Nick’s career.

“Even though I look back on a very rewarding career, my greatest contribution to my country is my son,” he said.

Nick’s day-to-day counseling with cadet candidates often extends to his young son and daughter.

“They tend, as do a lot of kids, to choose the easier path rather than challenging themselves to be better because ‘it’s too hard’ or they’re scared,” he said. “That’s no way to live. I do my best to prevent them from thinking that, although at times we’re all guilty.”

Nick said his time at the Academy has been a career highlight.

“There’s plenty I’ll miss but the one thing that will stand out to me are the leaders who trusted me to do my job autonomously and in accordance with standards,” he said. “They allowed me the leeway to be creative in the way I do things as they pertain to my personality and style of leadership. That trust and my desire to mentor my future boss keeps me coming back to work every day.”

Nick Roberts

Master Sgt. Nick Roberts (left), an Academy military trainer at the U.S. Air Force Academy Prep School, chats with a cadet candidate Dec. 12, 2017 in a Prep School dormitory. Roberts is one of several AMTs at the Prep School who prepares cadet candidates for the physical and mental rigors of military life. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ray Bowden)