How an Airman Overcame the Odds and Surpassed Barriers

Story by Staff Sgt. Alan Ricker

“Growing up we always heard — ‘hey, if you’re coming from here, you’re not gonna make it out of the neighborhood, you’re going to jail or you’re gonna die from gang violence,’” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. James Sills IV, 15th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons section chief.

James was told throughout his childhood that 21 was the average life expectancy for someone living within his neighborhood.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, James recalled losing Eugene, a high school friend, who was killed due to a gang-related shooting days before graduation.

“I knew the guy very well and it impacted me a lot,” said James. “It’s another fuel to the fire. I gotta do something different and I gotta change my part of it. My part impacts the whole.”

James went on to graduate high school as valedictorian of his class and attended college for two years before joining the Air Force soon afterward. In the Air Force, he continued to pursue his goal of not being a statistic, and to instead be an example for those around him, and eventually his children.

“I had my first kid two years into the military, and ever since then, it’s just been my kids,” said James. “It’s just to be the example for my kids and show them they can do whatever they want and still be themselves.”

Both James and his wife, Master Sgt. Akirra Sills, 15th Operations Support Squadron first sergeant, believe that there are no barriers you can’t overcome.

“That’s totally because of the way I grew up,” James said . “I’ve already experienced some hardships and stuff as a child. So as an adult, it takes a lot to bother me and being in the military gives me an opportunity to give [my children] more options.”

He uses that mentality to encourage and influence other airmen and firmly believes that no matter what the background, everyone has something to bring to the team.

“My biggest accomplishment is being able to help lead these guys into where the military needs them, but also where they want to be,” said James.

He continued to explain that the recent changes to Air Force regulations not only allow airmen to embrace their diversity, but also allow airmen to focus more on what needs to be done to accomplish their mission instead of fitting into a mold.

“I don’t think that’s just a specific culture group,” said James “I think overall, us as airmen getting a chance to represent ourselves personally is a good thing.”

James continues to showcase his perseverance and utilizes his life experience through his leadership after 19 years of service in the Air Force.

“Just me being alive, and then for me to be successful in the military, proves we’re not a victim of our circumstances, and you can accomplish something no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from.”

This story was originally published on It has been edited for

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