Retiring PA Chief emphasizes power of story

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Sitting in a small Mexican restaurant in Centennial, Colorado, during the waning hours of the final day of an Air Force career that touched five decades, Chief Master Sgt. Tom Kimball exercises a craft he has spent his entire life perfecting - storytelling.

Kimball, who told the Air Force’s story as a public affairs Airman during his 22-year military career, retired as the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the Air Force Space Command public affairs chief enlisted manager, Jan. 26.

Reflecting on his early career over corn chips and salsa, Kimball talked about how the Air Force he joined in the late-1970s was much different than the one he leaves in 2017.

Growing up in the farmlands of northeastern Maryland, Kimball said he was drawn to the self-sufficient lifestyle of a warrior. At the same time, a part of him marveled at the beauty and spirit behind life; he found that art reflected this in an amazing and respectful way. The warrior part of him felt the need to defend the artist’s voice. This led him to the Air Force.

His life as an Airman began in the late 1970s as an ROTC cadet with a pilot slot.  However, he soon discovered he wasn’t much like the pilots he met and the thought of one day joining their ranks put his warrior and artistic sides at odds. He left ROTC after two years and it would take the storytelling he found in the public affairs career field to rectify his two halves.

In 1979 he returned to the Air Force as an enlisted man. He was initially slotted to learn Russian at the Defense Language Institute. However, thanks to an administrative error that had him starting his studies six weeks behind his classmates, he convinced his leadership to send him to the Defense Information School, then located at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, to learn the craft of public affairs instead. After graduating technical training, a mix-up in his orders landed him at RAF Lakenheath, where the personnel-strapped PA office fought to keep him. He would spend the remainder of his enlistment there, learning the ins and outs of storytelling as an Air Force journalist.

Storytelling is much more to Kimball than his Air Force career, however. It’s a skill he holds in near-mystical regard, much akin to the force in the Star Wars film saga. Stories, he said, are what connect us as humans.

Born into a family of storytellers, Kimball said his parents and grandparents passed the skill down to him during his childhood. Stories, for them, were a way of teaching, entertaining and connecting, especially around the dinner table. In an era without glowing screens to distract, his parents also put an emphasis on shared experiences, which created even more stories.

“Stories, for me, are the only thing you can take from one place to the next,” he said. “You can lose your house but you can’t lose your stories.”

In 1983, Kimball left the Air Force. During a protracted break in service, he pursued a wide variety of professional artistic endeavors and education. He spent 17 years as an art director in theater, produced television, commercials and corporate communication videos, worked in casting for shows like Perry Mason and the Father Dowling Mysteries, and writing scripts. He built his reputation on the script writing, which eventually led him to freelance producing.

“Without the writing I’m sure I would not have done well,” he said of the craft that he cut his teeth on as a first-term Airman.

After nearly two decades of honing and studying his craft in the civilian world, Kimball found himself considering a return to service. It was 1999 and his son, Ben, had just graduated high school and wanted to enlist. As they worked through the process, Kimball began speaking with an Air Force Reserve recruiter who told him about a public affairs position near his home in Colorado. In 2000, he returned to the Air Force as a traditional reservist, bringing with him a lifetime of talent and storytelling experience.

“I was probably the most senior, senior airman ever,” joked Kimball, who was 44 at the time of his re-enlistment.

After a year and a half as a traditional reservist at the 302nd Airlift Wing, he found a job as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee at the 460th Space Wing public affairs office. His experience, skills and hard work quickly earned him rank and he made master sergeant before the end of his first six-year enlistment. Two enlistments later, he was a senior master sergeant serving as an IMA at the Air Reserve Personnel Center public affairs office. In 2013 he was invited to apply for what would be his final Air Force position as a chief at Air Force Space Command.

Throughout his years as a reservist, he continued with his civilian endeavors and, in 2006 started Kimball Productions with Ben. The boutique production company primarily focuses on business-to-business communications, such as videos, websites and other communication collateral. Ten years on, they serve a global clientele and the business supports the two Kimball families, as well as the families of two other colleagues—a fact he takes pride in.

That pride hints at the fact that people matter to Kimball. Approachable and optimistic with an easy smile, he said he has always had a “chief’s mindset” of mentorship and views people with a perspective he said is best summarized by a C.S. Lewis quote he shared at his retirement ceremony on Feb. 17:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind… which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

It is from this vantage he draws his inspiration for storytelling. He encourages others, especially those telling the Air Force narrative, to do the same. By looking for the extraordinary angles that draw people into a story you can inspire them by making a personal connection, by “driving them to a place of decision,” as he puts it.

“The value of telling the Air Force story is that it humanizes a very serious business and brings it to a place that is depoliticized, creating a sense of belonging and putting a relatable face on the uniform for the U.S. taxpayer,” he added.

Kimball emphasized that it is simply not important to cram every detail into a story, or worry about reaching the whole world. Finding one or two strong nuggets, sticking to them and then focusing on connecting people within your circle of influence is more than sufficient, he said.

As the final dinner plates are bussed away, Kimball says there are things he’ll miss about the Air Force but he’s looking forward to turning his focus to other endeavors. He hopes to spend more time with his family, including his three grandchildren, and also has plans to pursue new artistic endeavors with his son. Between Kimball Productions, several documentary-reality style television series and an independent film or two in the pipeline, Kimball isn’t pushing back from the table any time soon.

“I don’t really think of this as retirement,” he said. “It’s more like refocusing, retargeting and retooling. And frankly, that sounds like a lot more fun to me than retiring!”