JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – When Master Sgt. Eric Garza from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland entered the Navy Senior Enlisted Academy, or SEA, program in November 2021, he was looking for an opportunity to broaden his education and skills in becoming a better leader and Airman to those he leads and serves.
Garza, 802nd Security Forces Squadron NCO in charge of training, worked hard in taking advantage of the development and leadership opportunities provided by SEA.
The hard work paid off for Garza, who was selected for the Peter Tomich Senior Leadership Award. The award recognizes the top student in the SEA class as voted on by his peers and faculty advisors.
The award is named after a Sailor who earned the Medal of Honor for heroism shown at Pearl Harbor during World War II. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was killed Dec. 7, 1941, after his ship, the “Utah,” had been hit by a Japanese torpedo.
“My goal for this entire course was to one, learn, but also add value to my classmates through meaningful and insightful dialogue while sharing my perspective through my own leadership experience,” Garza said. “At the same time, I wanted to be vulnerable enough to learn from the other branches of service to help strengthen my own skillset. Being recognized was extremely humbling and not taken lightly.”
The Navy SEA is a seven-week leadership development program for active duty and reserve senior enlisted personnel and officers from the Navy, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, National Guard and international service partners. Students in the program learn about management, leadership, national security and physical fitness.
Garza was in the SEA program from Nov. 1 to Dec. 17, 2021, which was the graduation date for the program. He was one of only four Air Force members in a class of 117 and one of only 15 Air Force members who were selected to be in the program for the entire year.
During the course of the year, the Navy allows only a specified amount of service members from other military branches in the SEA program. Navy personnel can enroll in the program, while service members from other branches have to be nominated by their leadership. Garza was nominated for SEA by his leaders from the 802nd SFS and the Air Education and Training Command.
Garza said what he learned from the SEA course was eye-opening and extremely impactful because it exposed him to the higher-level strategic mission capabilities of other branches of service.
“I was able to get a unique and different perspective on leadership,” Garza said. “The pride the Navy takes in regards to history, culture, and more specifically, what they referred to as the chief’s mess, equivalent to our senior NCO tier within the Air Force was very symbolic and something to take note of. For me, it was a life-changing experience because I was able to gain a new level of respect for the U.S. Navy and the role they play in regards to our national defense.”
Garza said he plans to implement the skills and ideas he learned from the SEA course in his role at the 802nd SFS, in which he oversees the planning, execution and instruction aspects of training for over 500 personnel.
Garza, 34, has been in the Air Force for 14 years, which includes more than three years as a Basic Military Training instructor. He mentioned he is extremely thankful for the opportunities he had as a BMT.
instructor coupled with his time as a Security Forces Defender because those experiences shaped his ability to pivot and adjust within an unfamiliar professional military education setting he has never experienced like the Navy SEA.
“I was able to leverage my past leadership experience and add value,” Garza said. “I was able to facilitate various leadership topics and help create an environment where open candid discussions on serious topics could take place professionally.”
Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Thomas, 802nd SFS operations superintendent, is Garza’s supervisor. Thomas said he wasn’t surprised by what Garza was able to accomplish in the SEA course.
“Eric (Garza) is just the kind of guy that always performs in any situation and I knew he was capable of doing it, and he went and did it,” Thomas said. “As a senior NCO, Eric is everything you can ask for. You don’t have to ask him to do stuff, he’s constantly seeking out things to improve on and ways to make the unit, the 502nd Air Base Wing and the Air Force better for everybody. Eric is the kind of guy you wished you had 50 of in every unit.”
Thomas said what makes Garza an effective leader is the way he connects to the people he supervises and serves.
“First, Eric is always professional,” Thomas said. “Any interaction he has with anybody is always in the utmost professional manner that you would expect from any experienced senior NCO. He’s genuine, he’s organized and he communicates well.
“Our new folks that come in, when they go through training, Eric is the first person they interact with,” Thomas added. “We want to set the tone of professionalism in this organization and Eric is the face of that.”