JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. —
Driving home for the summer after freshman year of college, a young man of 19 noticed a towering billboard on the side of the road. In bold camouflage colors, the words ‘U.S. Armed Forces’ stretched from one end to the other.
It was in this moment the Flora, Illinois native made the decision to step into the recruiting office and see the possibilities the Air Force had to offer.
“I had never flown in a plane before so I wanted to travel and see the world,” said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James E. Fitch, 87th Air Base Wing command chief. “My recruiter had me watch a video of an in-air refueling. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know that existed.’ I turned to him and asked, ‘You’ll let me do that?’ He said yes, and next thing I know, he signed me up for a guaranteed job as a boom operator.”
Fitch officially joined the Air Force Nov. 1, 1995.
After completing basic military training and technical training, Fitch was assigned to Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota where he served his first six years.
A service member’s first duty station can define how the rest of their career will be, said Fitch, and explained he was lucky to have Tech. Sgt. Jeff Potter as his first supervisor. Fitch said the atmosphere of a work environment and bearing of wingmen can mean the difference between someone serving one enlistment and someone making the military a career.
“I believe that first supervisor can set the tone, and it’s so important,” said Fitch. “My first supervisor, Jeff, was a brilliant and super sharp NCO. More than that, he was a great human being. He really developed an attitude in me to be good at my job, passionate about the people I work with and work for and to have fun no matter what. He never led through fear or intimidation and always had a relationship-based leadership style. I want to have that connection with the people. I want them to know that when I ask them to do something, I’m asking them for a legitimate reason and not out of positional power.”
Fitch reached the supervisory rank of E-5 in July of 2000, giving him the chance to promote that positive and friendly environment on to his own Airmen just as Potter did to him. Fitch earned the respect of his troops by building professional relationships with them and giving them the respect and trust he was given.
Through time, he promoted to higher ranks carrying the extra weight and responsibilities that come with each new stripe. Fitch moved on to be the 351st Air Refueling Squadron operations superintendent and first sergeant at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, United Kingdom.
As a first sergeant, taking care of Airmen was Fitch’s primary mission. He was the eyes and ears of his unit and served as the bridge between his commander and the enlisted troops.
When he assumed a command chief position for the first time in 2016, Fitch said being in this position helped him learn that communication is key in order to become in tune to what people are going through.
“My priorities for [Joint Base MDL] are the people, the mission and partnerships,” said Fitch. “At the core, everybody wants to do an amazing job. Everyone wants to go home proud of the work they did each and every day. That is my focus. I will do everything I can to help people through their personal and professional lives anytime, day or night, and trust that they will do a great job with the mission.”
In his role, Fitch is charged with epitomizing excellence, professionalism, pride, and competence, serving as a role model for all Airmen to emulate through teachable moments, said Fitch.
“I love to teach,” said Fitch. “I get a lot of fulfillment from being able to develop young people. I like to catch them early before they become salty and bitter with life and inspire them. There is no greater satisfaction for me than to get a young person motivated with whatever it is they are doing.”
Fitch’s love for teaching and determination to motivate and inspire his troops caught the eye of Air Force Col. Neil R. Richardson, commander of Joint Base MDL and 87th ABW.
Before leaving Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Fitch said he was open to anything for his next assignment. When he finally spoke to Richardson, he explained he had no intentions of climbing the professional ladder. Fitch said he would be happy with anything that happened.
“I wanted to continue to serve,” said Fitch. “I don’t have an agenda. I have far exceeded anything in my career that I thought I would achieve. If I hang my hat up tomorrow, I will leave with pride and fulfillment that I served and served well. I told [Richardson], ‘Sir, if you hire me I’m always going to give you the God’s honest truth, but I’m not looking for anything as a stepping stone. I want to work hard and take care of my Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen to the best of my ability. If that’s what you want in a chief, then I’m your guy.’”