Career PJ takes over as 23d WG command chief

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
Before he even joined the Air Force, the new 23d Wing command chief was told he was going to be a lifer, but not in the Air Force.

Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Wells, a career pararescueman (PJ), was born in Detroit and grew up in Pittsburgh where he was working at a hardware store when a few words from someone changed the course of his life.

"I'll be perfectly honest. I joined the Air Force because I didn't have anything else," said Wells. "I'd been to college, was working at a hardware store, and a guy told me I was going to be a lifer. I joined the Air Force the next day because I wasn't going to be a lifer at a hardware store."

Wells went to basic training in May 1989. The now chief master sergeant is tall, lean and wears so many ribbons and badges they barely fit on his uniform.

"I was a pararescueman the whole time," said Wells. "I joined in '89, and I joined to be a PJ. So I did that until I was the superintendent at the 38th [Rescue Squadron]."

Throughout his nearly 24 years in the Air Force, Wells said he is proud of a lot and has trouble picking his career highlights. In 1994, he was awarded the Cheney Award, an aviation award for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest. In 1996, Wells was named pararescue NCO of the Year for the 1st Fighter Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and then in 2004 he was promoted to master sergeant through the Stripes for Exceptional Performers program.

However, he said some of his proudest moments didn't involve awards or stripes, but the acknowledgement of a job well done. One of these moments came early in his career while training to become a pararescueman.

"I guess it's always nice when the officers or enlisted folks over you see something that you don't necessarily see," he said. "When I got set back in [the Pararescue Indoctrination Course], the commandant asked me why he should set me back and give me another chance. I told him, and at the end he said 'I agree with you, and I think you'll make a pretty good PJ down the road.'

"...I guess it's those moments when somebody tells you what you're doing is good, and they want you to continue doing it," he added.

Another one of those moments came when he was selected to be the superintendent of the 38th Rescue Squadron and later the 347th Rescue Group. While working as the superintendent of the 38th RQS, Wells worked closely with the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Patrick O'Rourke.

"He's very smart, intellectual and very well read," said O'Rourke. "He's very passionate about leadership, developing leaders, and he's very passionate about Airmen and the mission."

Now as the 23d WG command chief, Wells has transitioned from a 400-man rescue group to a 5,000-man wing.

"He's very strategic," said O'Rourke. "He thinks beyond just individual tasks and squadron missions. He's looking at the Air Force mission and how all the Airmen in the 23d WG contribute to that Air Force mission."

However, the career PJ almost didn't stay in past his first enlistment. Wells said it wasn't until the end of his fourth year in the service that he decided to re-enlist.

"I probably waited until the last minute to re-enlist because I was fairly certain I was getting out," he said.

But there was one thing that kept him from leaving the Air Force: missions.

"I was in Iceland, and we were getting missions," Wells said. "We were saving lives and that makes it a whole lot easier. Then you realize that your life inside is not so bad, they compensate you fairly well, and you've got a good job."

As it turned out, Wells stayed in and worked his way up to chief master sergeant in December 2010. Then in February 2013 Wells was chosen to take over as the new command chief.

"I couldn't imagine a better guy to come up through the ranks and be the command chief," said O'Rourke. " ... I'm really proud of him, and I think Colonel Thompson made a great choice by picking him."

Throughout his more than 20 years in the Air Force, Wells said there wasn't a single person or mentor who taught him valuable lessons but rather many.

"I have a long list of folks who dropped incredible bits of knowledge on me that stayed with me," he said. " ... I just tried to learn from everybody around me and everything they did, good or bad. And then a healthy dose of self reflection."

By learning from many different people, Wells has developed his own, unique way of leading. He said he simply does not have an identifiable leadership style.

"I try to be honest, I try to be objective, and I do my best to lead how people need to be led," he said. "But honestly, I don't think about leading. I just try to figure out what people need to be successful. That's what I do on a daily basis."

One way Wells tries to ensure Airmen are successful is through Comprehensive Airman Fitness. Wells said that without balance, Airmen can't focus on being warriors.

Wells is no stranger to balance. He has a wife and three daughters at home. One of his goals is to work on keeping that balance between his work and life at home.

"Well brother, I've got no silver bullet on that one," he said. "Sometimes you give up things you love for things you love more. You have to believe it's worth it. ... My family is worth it, and we work hard to balance."

With a family at home and almost 24 years of service, Wells said he would love to move forward in the Air Force. But for now his priority is helping the wing commander achieve his goals and vision for the base.

Shortly after taking over as the new command chief, much of his time has been spent meeting with base leaders, and getting accustomed to his new job and office. In his new office, the phone rings and as he goes to answer it, someone else answers the phone for him.

"I don't want to get used to having an exec cause that's just weird," he said jokingly.

Although he looks back fondly on his years in the back of helicopters saving lives, he said he's humbled and glad to serve as the 23d WG command chief.

"I love what I used to do, and I wouldn't trade [the experiences] for anything," said Wells. "But I'd rather be doing this than anything I've done before."