Meet our 2021 Outstanding Airman of the Year: Reservist shines as an example of Air Force core values

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  • By Tech. Sgt. Courtney Richardson

Staff Sgt. Kristy Riley, the combat plans training supervisor for the 924th Maintenance Squadron’s Munitions Flight, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, didn’t join the Air Force Reserve to win awards. But, the honors sure are piling up.

After being named Air Force Reserve Command’s Airman of the Year for 2021, Riley was recently named one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

Originally from Escondido, California, Riley joined the Reserve in 2016 to help pay for her education as she pursued a degree in nursing.

While she said she entered the munitions career field because the “basic training and technical school dates just lined up perfectly,” she immediately took to her military assignment.

“Munitions is an integral part of the Air Force mission,” she said. “The pilots need their bombs, missiles and gun ammunition to be able to carry out their orders. Those defending the base need their ammo for their firearms, and so on.”

From the moment Riley arrived at the 924th Fighter Group, she hit the ground running, and her leadership immediately took notice.

“She outworks all her peers, and has continuously done so since joining our team five years ago,” said Senior Master Sgt. James Pumarejo, 924th Maintenance Squadron munitions flight chief. “She is ambitious to reach her full potential. However, she is not willing to do it at the expense of another. She wants to see her teammates succeed every bit as much as herself.

“She is about getting stuff done, and finding the most efficient way to get it done. In our TFI (Total Force Integration) environment, I’ve had active-duty section superintendents fighting to have her in their shop. She’s that good.”

Riley’s character traits have not wavered from the first day she put on her uniform.

“Believe it or not, Riley was a candidate for the wing’s annual awards three times in the five years she’s been on our team,” Pumarejo said. “This just goes to show she’s always been consistent with her work ethic and drive. Each year, she would get a little bit larger scope of responsibility, and has always had the whole-Airman area squared away, constantly taking classes, volunteering and taking on responsibility above her grade.”

The running theme in Riley’s award nomination was her ability to streamline processes, train Airmen and support other organizations, all while saving the Air Force millions of dollars. Even while exceeding her leadership’s expectations in the work place, Riley also completed college classes, and earned her cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor and national emergency medical technician certifications.

She used her medical training while temporarily assigned to Nellis AFB in Nevada.

“We went to Lake Mead for a morale event,” Riley said. “There was a disturbance in the water that turned out to be a man drowning. Some others and I were able to bring him and his cousin back to shore safely, where I assisted the paramedic in getting information from the man’s wife and helping with anything the medic needed. The ambulance assigned to the lake was on another call, so it took a little bit of time to get the man on his way to the hospital. It was a case of ‘right place at the right time,’ and I was glad it ended well for him and his family.”

Chief Master Sgt. Henry May, 924th FG superintendent, said Riley is constantly recognized for her performance, attitude and humility.

“Riley gives her all, every day,” he said. “She has a pattern of consistent performance, which is evidenced by several previous award wins, such as the Pitsenbarger Award, three AFRC Outstanding Munitions/Missile Maintenance Awards, Air Combat Command Unit Effectiveness Inspection Superior Performer, and many others.

“She is not only driven in her own right, but pushes others to succeed as well. She has an infectious positive attitude, and constantly encourages her fellow Airmen. She simply lives the Air Force core values, and is genuinely committed to integrity, service and excellence.”

Even though they were proud to nominate Riley for the award, no one expected her – a Reserve ammo troop – to win at the headquarters Air Force level.

“Airman of the Year is one of the most prestigious honors anyone can receive in their lifetime,” May said. “Though I did not expect this to happen for our organization, I am honestly not surprised that it was Staff Sgt. Kristy Riley who was selected. She is simply an amazing Airman and a shining example of what every Airman should model their service after. Once I received the news that she had won, it took a few moments to sink in. Then, I felt an enormous swell of pride.”

Riley is still surprised that she was named one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year, but she has no plans to let the limelight deter her from her ultimate goals.

“I didn’t join the military for recognition, and, honestly, never thought anything like this would happen,” she said. “So, it’s pretty amazing to say the least. To join originally as a way to serve, but also progress in my personal goals, and then to win an award at the Air Force level is almost unbelievable. This recognition as Airman of the Year for the Air Force is a humbling experience, and I am honored to represent the 70,000 Air Force Reservists who strive to defend our great nation. From here, I plan to finish my current enlistment next fall and then pursue becoming a nurse in the military to continue to serve in the area I feel called to.”

Riley is currently a full-time student pursuing her bachelor of science degree in nursing at Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Arizona. #ReserveResilient

(Richardson is assigned to the 944th Fighter Wing’s public affairs office.)