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Servant Leader: a 24-Year Journey to the Diamond

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Hayden Johnson
  • 187th Fighter Wing

Many military members set goals of where they might be at the end of their twenty-plus year careers. Coworkers come and go, careers change, and ranks can advance. However, for the 187th Fighter Wing’s new First Sergeant, Senior Master Sgt. James Zorn, the hope for advancement had all but vanished when he became a staff sergeant.


Zorn enlisted in the Alabama Army National Guard on August 5, 1991. Then an M-1 Tanker, he worked up the ranks until he promoted to staff sergeant in January 1994. He would not promote again until January 2012. 


After almost ten years in the Army, he crossed over to the Air National Guard and joined the 187th Fighter Wing as a flightline avionics technician in the early 2000s. 


“During that time I had lost complete hope in promoting,” Zorn said. “I truly didn’t think anyone noticed me.”


People who enlisted and pipelined to technical training after Zorn were promoting and gaining rank, but Zorn never did.


“I did everything that I was supposed to do,” he said. “Every deployment I was one of the first to raise my hand. After several of my co-workers that were behind me in tech school got promoted before me, I thought ‘This is sign. This just is not for me.’”


Having already invested his time in the military, Zorn decided that even though things weren’t going as planned, he would stay committed to his service. 


“I was invested in the military,” Zorn explained. “I was never going to give up my military career for rank. I wanted to make sure, long term, that I took care of myself and my family.”


After his promotion in 2012, things picked up for Zorn. He volunteered for a deployment to Al Udied in 2014. There, Zorn trained for his long-term goal of becoming a first sergeant. His plan was to return from deployment and apply for positions at the wing, but three weeks before returning home, Zorn injured his knee.


“All I thought was ‘There goes my opportunity to be a first sergeant,’” he said. “It was a hard deployment, and I just don’t have time to do this anymore.”


Zorn had been serving nearly twenty-four years, and felt the clock had run out on his military career, leading him to the decision to retire.


With his foot out the door, ready to put the military behind him, Zorn ran into another member of the unit and had a conversation that would change his trajectory with the Air National Guard. Zorn explained some of the struggles he had faced, his accomplishments, and how the guard had been beneficial to him and his family. 


“I shared with him those things,” continued Zorn. “And I dropped the hint that I had always wanted to be a first sergeant, but I just didn’t have it in me anymore, to rehab my knee, and get in shape, but he asked me to reconsider and to talk with my family about it.”


In talking with his family and giving it thought and prayer, Zorn decided to give his dream one last shot. This ultimately led him to becoming the first sergeant of the 187th Security Forces Squadron, and later the wing first sergeant.


“If he would have told me then that I would be the wing first sergeant in four years, I probably would have laughed, walked out and never come back, because I wouldn't have believed him, but here I am,” he said. “I am completely humbled by the opportunity.”


Looking back and reflecting on his time in service and where it lead him, he remains humble in his achievements.


“I spent so long as an E5 that I look at myself as a servant,” Zorn said. “I don’t see this diamond as a sense of power, I see it as a symbol of servanthood.


“The idea of being a servant is really ingrained in me,” he continued. “It’s really who I am and what you can expect as your wing first shirt.”