Preparing to retire, AETC command chief reflects on family, mentors

  • Published
  • By Dan Hawkins
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- When you’ve had a career that has been as successful and lasted as long as the one Chief Master Sgt. Julie Gudgel has had, it's very likely you met many people who helped guide you along the way.

As she prepares to hand over the job of being the command chief of Air Education and Training Command to Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson Aug. 1 and head into retirement, Gudgel acknowledged it was the support of her family and the mentorship she received that ultimately made her successful on the journey that took her from a no-stripe Airman to the senior enlisted leader of the First Command.

“This journey really went by so quickly and I’ve learned so much over the past 28 years from so many mentors along the way,” Gudgel said. “Every experience, every deployment, every relationship, has brought me to this point where I have learned to both fail, succeed and push forward.”

It might come as a surprise to some now that, growing up in Valparaiso, Indiana, as the middle child of Don and Deanna Davis, and sister to older brother Don and younger sister Stephanie, Gudgel was not into sports or adrenaline-charged activities like sky-diving.

“Was not exactly the athletic type in high school…probably exactly the opposite,” Gudgel laughed when asked about her time in high school. “I worked throughout high school and didn’t have time for sports. Funny to think that running and gym were not in my vocabulary back then, and now I can't get through the day without it.”  

With the influence of her father Don pushing her to the Air Force recruiter’s office, Gudgel enlisted in the Air Force in 1992, entering the service in June of the same year. 

“My dad served in the Army National Guard and my brother was also in the Army,” Gudgel fondly recalled. “I will never forget my Dad sitting me down to ask me what I planned to do and how relieved he looked after I joined the Air Force.”

After basic training and Inventory Management Specialist technical training at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, she learned her craft in places like Greece, Germany and England, eventually leading to positions as the non-commissioned officer in charge of several shops and becoming a technical school instructor along the way.

“Absolutely loved being a “Box Kicker” and I enjoyed seeing the end result of what I was supporting,” she said. “There really is nothing like making sure your maintenance colleagues have the right parts to fix an aircraft and the next day see them take off on real sorties.”

It was at one of those early stops, while stationed at Iraklion Air Station, Greece, regardless of which Gudgel you ask, life changed forever.

“Well, she was pretty smitten the moment she laid eyes on me,” said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Robb Gudgel, recalling the date of Oct. 8, 1992, the day he met his future wife in Crete while both were Airmen.  The Gudgels' married in 1994 when both were stationed at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, and son Robbie would later join the Gudgel team.

Making staff sergeant and finding herself on a mandatory cross-train list was where Gudgel’s career really started to turn to her ultimate calling: mentorship.

“My mentor, Chief Gail Burton, invited me to go to the supply technical training school house, where I was able to help Airmen see the possibilities of their own potential and accomplish their goals,” Gudgel said. “Once again, seeing the end result of talented Airmen going to carry on the Supply mission was very fulfilling and set the stage for all of my future successes.”

Moving into faculty development after two years, Gudgel’s supervisors at the time pushed her to get a master’s degree in education.  Soon thereafter, she found herself as the base career assistance advisor at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

“My command chief at the time, Chief Britton Ellis, explained to me that being a CAA was a great job and would allow me to continue to mentor Airmen,” Gudgel said. “The job really allowed me to dig in and learn to help Airmen, whether they were looking to cross-train, separate, commission, transition to special-duty, whatever. Being a CAA let me be the “go to” person there to help Airmen who needed a sounding board and some logical advice.”

From there, Gudgel moved to the professional military education arena, becoming the Airey NCO Academy commandant at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and learned pretty quickly how passionate her team was after a storm caused significant damage to their facility.

“Maybe two months into the job, we had a crazy rain storm, and our roof filled up like a bath tub and broke through the ceilings,” Gudgel said. “Everyone pitched in and within hours, we had our instructors back up and teaching in various locations around the base.”

Like the CAA job, she credits her time as the NCOA commandant at Tyndall as another job that allowed her to help Airmen grow and succeed.

“We had such a wonderful team of dedicated instructor cadre who worked hard to teach and grow our future leaders,” Gudgel said. “We really were a family and the mentorship side of the job just spoke to me.”

From there, it was only a matter of time until Gudgel was selected for her first wing command chief position at the 59th Medical Wing in November, 2015.

“I had such a great conversation with the commander at the time, Maj. Gen. Bart Iddins, but I was still surprised to get the command chief job,” Gudgel said. “Not being a medic, I figured there was no way he would hire me.”

After a stint as the command chief at Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Gudgel found out she was selected to be the AETC command chief in 2017.

“I was at the San Antonio airport and my phone rings, with Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson on the other end inviting me to join the team,” Gudgel said. “Everyone in the terminal heard my excitement, and my family was pumped since we were still geographically-separated at the time.”

Helping oversee the innovative transformation of AETC into a student-centered, more technology-based, learning enterprise, has truly been a dream job for Gudgel.

“The strides we have made in developing the Airmen we need have been incredible over the last few years,” Gudgel said. “These are exciting times and our Airmen are lucky to have a leader like Chief Thompson coming into the command chief seat.”

As she heads into the next chapter of life, as for many when leaving the military, family is a top priority for Gudgel, and the sacrifices of her husband, and son, are not lost on her.

“My soulmate and husband Robb hit our 26th anniversary this fall, and he sacrificed so much of his career to ensure our joint spouse assignments happened and ultimately, our success,” Gudgel said. “Robbie will heading off to college as a freshman after experiencing six schools and always going with the flow of moving around as a military family.”

With COVID-19 cutting back travel in recent months, the time home really gave Gudgel a glimpse to what she’s been missing while out on the road.  

“My husband, my son, they both took one for the team more than once and it will be so much fun to spend time with them,” Gudgel said. “There is no one in this world I love more, and I owe both of them a lot of time back.”

At the end, the answer is often the same for many when one asks an Airman what they will miss about the Air Force at the end of their careers.

“It’s always the people, isn’t it?” Gudgel responded. “No matter where we went, we were very blessed and lucky to have such a great circle of fellow Airmen, friends and of course, my family.  I leave the Air Force with no regrets and just excitement for the future.”

With a reminder to all to find a mentor to help provide them opportunities for growth, her final message to the Airmen of AETC was simple.

“Don’t change who you are to get the next stripe or next position,” Gudgel said. “At the end of the day, people will remember you for who you are.”