RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom --
The nearly transparent fishing line disappeared into the peaceful, flowing water of the Ohio River, as mayflies skimmed the surface with their song of melodic dissonance.
A young boy sat along the muddy bank, holding the rod – waiting patiently, but expectantly. A shock of dark, brown hair bordered a pair of glasses almost too big for his face.
“I grew up fishing in rivers in Ohio,” Chief Master Sgt. Robert Sealey said, reflecting on the halcyon days of his youth. “Some of my greatest childhood memories are on a fishing bank.”
Nearly four decades later, the young boy on the river bank has been replaced by the 501st Combat Support Wing command chief – nearing the end of a 30 year career and looking back on the lifetime of memories and experiences he accumulated.
“I came into the Air Force in 1986,” he said, nostalgically looking out the window of his office at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom – his final duty station. “But, the Air Force came into me in 1990.”
When Sealey first raised his right hand and swore an oath to defend his country, the United States was still gripped tightly in a Cold War with the Soviet Union – even as President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev raced frantically to find peace through nuclear disarmament.
“Back in that time the only thing we had going on was the Cold War,” Sealey said, as a grin appeared on his face. “I’ll be honest with you, the reason I came into the United States Air Force is I wanted to eat. I didn’t have a job – so my motivation was a little bit different.”
Four years would pass before Sealey would experience an epiphany that would redefine the motivation behind his service.
“I was actually stationed at Alconbury in 1990,” he said. “That was when the first Desert Shield, Desert Storm, took off – and I started seeing what it is we really do in the Air Force.”
When Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, RAF Alconbury, which at the time was home to the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing, rapidly transformed into a hub for one of the largest military buildups in history.
“With basically no lead time, the base found itself supporting a huge strategic and airlift fleet buildup,” said former 10th TFW commander, Col. James Evans. “That just gave us a taste of what was to follow for the next 10 months.”
The base came alive as C-5 Galaxy aircraft landed, refueled, loaded up with pallets and took off – all as one 10th Security Police Squadron Defender stood guard and let the magnitude of escalating situation impact him.
“I saw the commitment,” Sealey said. “People just dropping whatever they had to go out and answer the call that our Air Force asked us to do – that our country asked us to do. It was eye-watering.”
That feeling of overwhelming pride stayed with Sealey as the years passed. With every rank and reenlistment, those feelings gave way to a deep sense of honor and patriotism.
“When I sat and thought about it, every single time I went to reenlist, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than what I was doing,” he said. “I felt that I was serving my country – my family. I’d come to appreciate the privileges. I’d come to appreciate the things that we take for granted every single day: freedom, liberty, the right to free speech, the right to believe in whatever religion I want to believe.”
He paused, as if replaying every time he raised his right hand and recited the Oath of Enlistment.
“I took that oath very, very seriously,” Sealey said. “I wanted to defend all that I was willing to accept.”
As a career Defender within the Security Forces career field, Sealey said the instinct to protect those rights stayed with him throughout the years. He found a passion for helping Security Forces Airmen at the functional level, and never saw a future as a command chief master sergeant.
“I was happy doing the functional thing – I was good at it, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I remember my wing commander at the time called me into his office and said, ‘Chief, there’s something missing on this piece of paper.’”
Sealey said he looked down at the paper on his commander’s desk and saw it was an agreement to compete in the command chief selection process. The block which would annotate Sealey’s desire to take that next step was intentionally left blank.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘no, Sir, there’s not,’” Sealey said, with a chuckle. “We talked it over and he reminded me that I just wasn’t a Security Forces chief, I was an Air Force chief. He knew that I loved being out with the Airmen – that I loved doing that. He just talked to me about the bigger impact that I could make on all enlisted personnel, by going out and doing things outside that functional community.”
Jokingly, Sealey said his commander, who is now Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, must have done a good job at convincing him – because his tenure at the 501st CSW marks his fifth time as a command chief.
“Chief Sealey performed remarkably his entire career and was destined to serve as a command chief,” said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein. “He’s not just devoted to the mission, but to the Airmen he leads. It was an honor to have him by my side while downrange and we’re all thankful for his nearly three decades of service to our nation.”
Driven by a need to make a larger impact across the Air Force, Sealey said he wasn’t truly able to qualify that motivation, until he saw it in the eyes of his son.
“My son went to basic training in June of 2009,” he began. “I had the opportunity to go visit his flight before the graduation – got to address them. And I got to see the graduation, and see my son raise his right hand.”
Smiling broadly, Sealey briefly became lost in the memory of the day his son became an Airman.
“It has nothing to do with me – because I was his father,” Sealey continued. “It’s because he wanted to be that patriot. There was something in him that said he wanted to serve his country. That day that I went out and saw his flight, I went up to my son – he was one of the squad leaders. What I saw that day was an anxiousness to matter.”
Sealey’s son, Robert, now a staff sergeant stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, echoed his father’s sentiment.
“He was right, I wanted to do something that actually mattered. I wanted to make an impact,” Robert said. “I was lucky to have a father who was such a great role model for how to succeed in the Air Force.”
According to Sealey, an “anxiousness to matter” is a realization that becomes a way of life. Throughout his career, he has seen that look on the faces of countless Airmen.
“They realized they were becoming part of something greater than themselves,” he said. “That transformation is absolutely amazing. You want to matter, you realize what our institution is – the United States Air Force, and what we provide our nation. You just want to be a part of that, with everything in you.”
Nearly three years later, Sealey saw that realization again, when, while serving as the command chief of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, he traveled to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, and met the three explosive ordnance disposal Airmen of Team 5 Trip Wire.
“We spent New Year’s together,” he began. “I remember sitting around joking, showing some pictures of family, you know, just getting to know them and seeing what was on their minds. Talking about hopes, dreams, you know that type of thing – the future.”
Sealey spent the holiday with those Airmen, laughing and talking well into the start of 2012 – before he had to return to his base in Southwest Asia. It was Jan. 5, 2012, when Sealey heard the news about Trip Wire.
“My exec came into my office and she said, ‘hey, Chief, just want to let you know that there was an IED [improvised explosive device] explosion up there in the Helmand Province, not too far from Bastion,’” Sealey said. “They [Team 5 Trip Wire] were all tragically killed in that IED explosion.”
Tears began to well up in Sealey’s eyes as he paused, recalling the faces of Tech. Sgt. Matthew Schwartz, Senior Airman Bryan Bell and Airman 1st Class Matthew Seidler.
“It took the breath out of me,” Sealey said. “To this day, I remember their laughs – they had a lot of joy in them. They loved what they did – they loved being EOD. I just remember the smiles on their face as we talked about their plans for the future, and Team Trip Wire may not be with us here today, but their actions definitely allow every single one of us to continue to have our futures.”
He smiled slightly, as if willing the sadness away.
“I will always be grateful to those individuals, as I’m grateful to any Service member,” he said. “But, Team Trip Wire will always have a special place in my heart.”
As much as success has defined his career, Sealey said tragedy has played an equally-important role in shaping what he hopes will become his legacy.
“Character matters,” he said, definitively. “In every action that we take, everything you do every single day – character matters.”
From the Airman on the flightline, turning a wrench, to the pilot in the skies above, to the Defender at the gate, Sealey said character is not defined as a single moment in life.
“Character is integrity displayed over time,” Sealey said. “I want my legacy to be that I was a person of character.”
For Sealey, the concept of character was instilled in him at a very young age, along the banks of the Ohio River with his grandmother.
“The things that she instilled in me, from very young, impacted that character,” he said. “She was a wonderful woman. Some of my fondest memories are just sitting next to her on a fishing bank.”
He smiled broadly again, looking ahead past his retirement, May 26, 2016.
“I want to take a small break,” Sealey said. “I would love to do some fishing. I plan on doing ministry work when I retire. I love to serve, and I can’t think any better way to spend this next half of my life than serving others through that role.”
Wherever the road takes him, Sealey said he is confident that the Air Force will continue to achieve new heights and venture fearlessly into uncharted territory.
“The future is bright,” he said. “It’s bittersweet to leave, but there’s no sadness. If anything, it’s joy knowing that I made a difference. And our Air Force is in good hands, so what would there be to fear about that.”