TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Master Sgt. Shawn Cleophas with the 552nd Maintenance Group is the Superintendent of Continuous Improvement and works to improve the group and its subordinate units on a daily basis.
“Our office is the commander’s arm for process improvement, innovation and special interest projects that help boost the morale of the people in the group,” Cleophas said. “We’re never trying to step so far into tradition that we forget that the Air Force has been evolving since 1947 and even before then. We’re the tip of the spear when it comes to improvement and innovation.”
Cleophas initially decided to enlist in the military after high school with two years of college under his belt.
“I was definitely motivated in the educational sense but the problem was, I got bored,” he said. “Those kids that get bored with too much book learning go out and do things that they’re not supposed to do, and before I did that I thought I probably need a little bit of discipline.”
One summer day, Cleophas decided to head to the combined recruitment office for the Army, Navy and Marines in Glendale, Arizona, but it didn’t go how he thought it would.
“I went in there and imagine a guy who’s wearing all the cool gangster clothes, dreads down to here (motioning down to his shoulders) with a big backpack and jacket on, looking very awkward, walking into a recruiter’s office,” he said.
He walked into the office and greeted the people inside, but they just looked at him in silence. The silence lasted for two minutes until Cleophas decided to walk out. However, 45 minutes later a trip to Walmart changed the course of his military path.
“The Flight Chief for the region happened to be at the Walmart as well,and he came over to me and said ‘you’re wearing a jacket and a backpack in the
summertime, what’s going on?’ and sure enough we hit it off very well and I told him my situation and he said ‘I’ve got just the right job for you’ and ever
since then the Air Force has been it.”
Cleophas started his Air Force career in aircraft maintenance with a specialization in avionics, but ran into personal obstacles. “When I was at Sheppard Air Force Base as an instructor I became a single father,” he said. “I gained custody of my child and…support-wise…yes you have your co-workers and you have all the locations (services) they provide you. The reality is: there are very few single fathers in the military. I was handling most of the business, most of the monetary affairs, childcare--and my
son was three at the time. It was all an immediate (and incredible) challenge.”
Cleophas says the divorce and subsequently becoming a single father did affect his career, but not in a negative way.
“The situation kind of gave me the wakeup call of ‘I have to manage this,’” he said. “I would say for the first two years, it was probably the most difficult time in my life to be able to manage. To keep smiling, make sure my son had everything he needed, go to work and make sure they have what they needed and come back and still find time to do what I needed to do.”
Throughout this time, Cleophas says he received a lot of external support from the Airman and Family Readiness Center.
“While they didn’t necessarily understand the situation, fortunately I got paired with a supervisor who also went through a very similar experience and I think having somebody that went through a similar experience made it easier for me to understand how to get through it.”
Cleophas credits the support of friends and family for helping him make it through one of the most difficult times of his life, but at the end of the day, it came down to his own perseverance and the decision to keep moving forward.
“It was a conscious decision every day to keep going. Sometimes it would be every 15 minutes, sometimes it would be every minute,” Cleophas said. “I think True Grit implies that perseverance is not something that you’re forced to do, it’s something that you choose to do. It’s something that you have to decide, and at points where you feel as if you’re wiped out and you don’t have anything left, you have to decide to keep going. Those decisions don’t come at nice points in time.”
One thing Cleophas also appreciates about the obstacles he’s had to overcome is the ability to have a template to help others going through similar circumstances.
“For people that are currently going through this, there are multiple ways to seek support, but the first thing you have to do, even before then, is make the conscious decision that this will not take you down. This will not end your story. You will get through it. You have to see yourself out of the situation, even if it’s a small glimmer of hope to do so. Then take steps to go to what you see and go towards your vision,” he said. “Seek support, don’t just sit there and wallow, that’s what my supervisor told me, don’t just sit there and wallow, you don’t have time for that and neither does your son.”
Cleophas has since remarried and his family has enjoyed their time at Tinker and in Oklahoma.
“Perseverance is simply a choice, a conscious choice, and until it becomes unconscious you consciously have to make it every single time. Every time you meet a new obstacle or you find a tough situation that you’re facing, be consciously willing to accept reality for what it is, then make a move towards what you want.”