JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington D.C. –
Becoming a chief master sergeant is rarely easy, and every Airman starts in relatively the same spot – with few to no stripes on their sleeves and often uncertain they’ll rise to reach the top enlisted rank.
Only one percent of the Air Force enlisted force can hold the rank of chief master sergeant at a given time. Most Airmen serve two full decades before achieving the accomplishment. For each it is a journey of learning, achievements, obstacles, leading and following.
For Chief Master Sgt. Christy L. Peterson, the command chief master sergeant for the 11th Wing, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C., the journey started even before she joined the Air Force 24 years ago. As early as her teenage years, Chief Peterson began honing the leadership skills and resiliency she would continue to develop throughout her military career and apply in her current role as the 11th Wing command chief.
Chief Peterson’s upbringing may sound like the story of an American Dream — middle class, two working parents, school, and sports. But as a freshman in high school, Peterson’s life took an unexpected turn due to unforeseen financial hardships for her family.
“I started working when I was 13 years old,” Chief Peterson said. “My parents hit some hard times; both lost their jobs. I started to see my parents struggle a lot. So about age 13, I got my first job.”
As a young high school student, she developed a strong work ethic. But as her job responsibilities grew, Peterson found it more and more difficult to keep up with sports and academics.
“By age 15, I had my second job,” Chief Peterson said. “I was doing well academically. I was on the track team and the drill team. As I started to get money in my pocket and started to see how those funds were benefitting my family, some extracurricular activities went by the wayside. School kind of went by the wayside.”
While her hard work provided a real benefit to her family in a time of need, it was a significant struggle for Chief Peterson in high school. She never gave up, though, and the seeds of resilient leadership firmly took root.
“I would say I grew up fast,” Chief Peterson said. “I started feeling the burden of having to be a provider at an early age. I never turned my back. I was able to contribute to the household, to my family and to my siblings.”
After high school, Chief Peterson decided to attend college. Given the high cost of tuition, she resolved to roll up her sleeves and keep working her way through school.
“Graduating from high school, I was working two jobs — working really hard and feeling like I was getting nowhere… I wanted to go to college, but of course my family couldn’t afford it,” Chief Peterson said. “I was trying to find my way, but working two jobs and trying to do community college was not working out.”
Ultimately, Chief Peterson decided to join the military, envisioning great career and educational opportunities ahead if she enlisted. What she didn’t realize, she recalled, were how many doors of opportunity the Air Force would actually open.
“I decided to come into the military because I thought it would give me some stability and the opportunity to go to school,” Chief Peterson said.
“I’ve taken advantage of every educational opportunity that the Air Force has afforded me,” she added. “Having two (Community College of the Air Force degrees), getting my bachelor’s degree and being able to go through the Enlisted to (Air Force Institute of Technology) Program for my master’s degree – I never would have thought of it.”
As with any journey, no one truly goes it alone. Everyone has a past behind them and a future ahead. All along there are interactions with others that help mold and shape a person. Chief found her teammates and mentors to be very helpful along the way, especially during challenging situations.
Chief recalled going to her first duty station – Great Falls, Montana – and being exposed to an entirely different way of life than her Southern California upbringing. With no driver’s license and being sent directly to the missile field in the rural northern state, she found she could rely on a supportive supervisor and supportive teammates to help her navigate the life adjustment.
Strong relationships, according to Chief Peterson, can help an Airman succeed and stay positive in any assignment.
“I’ve come to learn that every assignment is what you make it,” Chief Peterson said. “And it’s about the people and the relationships that you build. Every single assignment (and) every deployment I’ve had has been the best experience because it’s shaped me to be who I am today.”
One particularly challenging and positive career experience was a high-visibility and fast-paced assignment as the wing staff executive assistant for the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, where then Staff Sergeant Peterson saw firsthand what it meant to be a top enlisted leader.
“I had my first opportunity to meet and work for a command chief,” Chief Peterson said. “I just saw him as a person who got things done, that people respected, that people looked up to. And I think that really influenced me now serving in this position.”
Chief Peterson said she owes much of her success to many of the leaders she’s worked with and who have invested in her development along the way, providing solid mentorship even through the senior enlisted ranks.
“My leadership at my last installation really believed in me,” Chief Peterson said. “They gave me the opportunity to serve as the command chief in the absence of the command chief. They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time.”
Reflecting on her leadership style now, Chief Peterson said she is loyal, finds a way to “yes,” tries to find joy in everything, and loves to take care of people. She also believes in prioritizing and supporting family.
She and her husband, who is also a chief master sergeant in the Air Force, have been married 18 years, have two grown sons, and have risen through the enlisted ranks together, always striving to balance family and career goals.
“My family has been there supporting me the entire time,” Chief Peterson said. “My husband has been serving in the Air Force just as long as I have. We’ve been able to manage life and our careers. We’ve really supported each other to get to where we are today.”
In addition to family support, Chief Peterson is firmly grounded in her faith. She said this has helped her overcome many difficulties in life and stay resilient.
“I’ve had a strong foundation,” Chief Peterson stated.
“I’ve seen so much. I think I’ve been through a lot in life,” she said. “I’ve always been grounded in my faith and have always had my faith to turn to. I love to pray and reflect on things. I think that really has influenced me throughout my entire career.”
Chief Peterson said one big source of inspiration for her is getting to serve alongside great Airmen.
“What keeps me inspired every day is just being around people,” Chief Peterson said. “Seeing their resiliency, their accomplishments, trying to make life better for them, both personally and professionally.”
Today, she goes by “Goose Chief” – the name given to the 11th Wing command chief alluding to the three geese in the wing emblem representing long-range formation flying, endurance and alertness.
She takes her job as command chief seriously, especially with respect to the “care and feeding, morale, and readiness of our Airmen,” Goose Chief stated. “I have high expectations for myself in serving in this position. … I want to be effective. I want to be a leader that distributes action. I want to be able to fulfill my purpose.”
Like many resilient leaders who have faced adversity and overcome challenges, Chief Peterson is grateful for all of her past experiences and for the opportunity to join the Air Force.
“It got me where I am today,” Goose Chief said. “I don’t think I would have a career. I don’t think I would have completed my education. I think I would have been caught up in the grind and working hard just to make ends meet for my family."
Chief Peterson carries that sense of gratitude into this challenging assignment as 11th Wing command chief during the lead-service transfer of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling from the Navy to the Air Force. As the joint base senior enlisted leader, she is entrusted to not only provide support to the Airmen of the 11th Wing, but also to provide the host-unit senior enlisted leader’s perspective on matters of all sorts.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Goose Chief said. “I’m really grateful for the JBAB Family and what we’re getting ready to do to build this installation for the future."