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Air Force’s new top enlisted medic shares importance of learning, mentorship and facing challenges

  • Published
  • By Lindsay Mahon
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Stepping into a new role in the midst of a global pandemic is no easy feat. This is especially true when that role involves being responsible for the welfare, readiness, morale and utilization of the 34,000 Total Force medical enlisted community.

Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Kolczynski has done just that, as she stepped in to join the leadership of the Air Force Medical Service as Chief, Medical Enlisted Force. It is clear she knows what she is up against, and does not take the responsibility of serving as the enlisted voice lightly.

Kolczynski spoke with Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs to give Airmen an idea of how she plans to take on this new role.

What motivated you to join Air Force, and more specifically, the medical field?

I didn’t join the military until I was almost 25. I didn’t come from a military family, so this career was not something I had planned on initially. When I was in college, I found myself looking for something that made me feel like I had a greater purpose. On a whim, I pulled into the recruiter’s office, and about a month later, I left for basic training without a guaranteed job or any idea of what would be the best fit for me.

I didn’t choose medical initially, but once I understood that I would get the chance to make a difference in the lives of so many people on the medical side, I was hooked.

I didn’t know, even at that time, that the Air Force would be the career it has been for me. But here we are, 25 years later, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I made that decision.

Can you tell me how some of your previous roles have shaped the way you will serve in your role as CMEF?

Because I joined a little bit later in life, in search of a bigger purpose, I was a sponge for information. Very early on, I found great mentors that I could rely on for years. In this job, I think it’s important that I rely on that sponge-like curiosity, and know how to lean on other teams to grow partnerships throughout the Air Force and other services.

What I’ve learned throughout my career, and especially my time at NATO, is that it’s all about building relationships, partnerships, and fostering collaboration. It’s important to remember that while we each have our purpose, we need to understand and value working together. We depend on each other, and we’re all trying to reach a better understanding of our missions so we can best support them.

We owe it to our Airmen to help them see the big picture. It is more than understanding what it means to be a medic, but also how we fit into the Air Force mission.

What areas of health care policy are you personally passionate about?

I truly believe in the importance of preventative medicine. It’s more than just preventative medicine, but a prevention mindset. If we can be proactive and get out in front of potential issues through promoting health and wellness, that will take us a long way.

I am also a big proponent of making sure that we’re always keeping our focus on readiness. We talk often about “ready medics” and many people think that means ready to go to war. I think it’s much more than that. We also need to be ready to face whatever we’re up against as well. This has been made even clearer by the response to the pandemic.

What do you perceive to be the greatest challenge you’ll face in this role over the next year?

I am an optimist through and through, so while I know we will most certainly face challenges, I also know that we have an incredible team ready to tackle everything that comes our way. We’re already currently experiencing one of the biggest fears of the medical community, this being a global pandemic. While this pandemic has certainly made things more difficult, and will continue to do so, I believe uncertainty breeds innovation. This pandemic has provided opportunities for our Airmen to show their problem-solving strengths in tough times.

Have there been challenging moments in your career that stay with you? What did you learn in those moments?

I see my challenges and successes as one and the same. I think many of us struggle with figuring out how to balance work and life. I think it’s unrealistic to think we ever really find balance, and if we do at some point, it’s not a lasting thing.

As an Air Force family, we have moved around a lot and it can be a great deal of stress on your family. It’s important to make sure that I’m there for my family, as well as where I need to be to support whatever my Air Force mission is. Over the years, what I’ve realized is that I’m not always going to be able to find balance, but what I can do is make sure to always be intentionally present. Wherever I am, I need to be there fully. This isn’t always balanced, but sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself about where you need to be most at the moment, and then be okay with that.

Is there an AFMS story that has stuck with you, or that you’ve found particularly impactful?

Throughout the years I’ve heard so many touching stories about our medics and their dedication. One that stands out to me is the action that our medical Airmen took when they found themselves in the middle of the Las Vegas shooting incident. When panic set in, they used their skills to jump into action and save lives. This is truly what a “ready medic” means. These Airmen weren’t ready in the sense that they packed their bags and deployed, but when complete chaos kicked in, so did their training. Their readiness and skill served more than just national security, it served the greater good.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is about people. It is about building relationships, and fostering an environment where people feel valued. This means being approachable and truly caring for your people. Not just the, “How are you doing?” kind of caring, but genuinely being there for them.

It’s also about taking responsibility for your team and their actions. This means making sure that you’re informed and you know what’s going on, and knowing where and when to share that information. It also comes down to speaking up when things aren’t right, and knowing when you need to have a better understanding on something, and how to ask the right questions.

What advice do you have for enlisted medical Airmen?

Surround yourself early on with your village of supporters. Find and reach out to mentors. When you see someone you admire, don’t think twice about reaching out, and introducing yourself. Let them know you look up to them, and find ways to connect with them, and then stay connected. Surround yourself with people that will help push you out of your comfort zone and help you grow.

Be intentional and purposeful in your actions. Don’t allow yourself to get into a routine or a rut, where you only talk to the same people each day and do the same things each day. This will help you grow as a person and to be a more well-rounded Airman.

Also, no matter what your job or your task is, make sure to carry a sense of pride in what you’re doing. We’re all dependent on each other to protect and provide the best care for our Airmen, and in doing that we’re protecting the mission and this country.