DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
According to Air Force personnel data, Dyess’ Senior Master Sgt. Erik Kast is the only enlisted Airman in the 2A (maintenance) career field to hold a Doctor of Philosophy degree, more commonly known as a doctoral degree or PhD.
Kast, who currently serves as Dyess’ 7th Equipment Maintenance Squadron lead production superintendent, says his Air Force education journey began when he returned to school to earn his Community College of the Air Force or CCAF degree. He had been advised it was a way for Airmen to distinguish themselves along their career path.
“I took one or two classes when I was stationed at Yokota (Air Base), and then I volunteered to go be an instructor at Pope (Air Force Base),” Kast recalled.
As an instructor, Kast was required to have a CCAF degree. What started as one or two classes quickly evolved into a way of life.
“I took a (General Psychology) class, and I was hooked. That started it all for me, because it answered a lot of questions for me,” said Kast.
While still stationed at Pope AFB and working as an instructor, Kast completed his CCAF degree and then enrolled in a Bachelors of Psychology program.
“I was doing more than full-time school and was also working as an instructor,” said Kast. His days began on base at 5:00 a.m. for physical training and ended at 10:00 p.m. after a full day at work and evening classes.
“Then I’d sleep, repeat. I did that for 18-months, and I completed my Bachelor’s degree in just under two years,” remembered Kast.
Shortly after earning his Bachelor’s degree, Kast received notice that he would be moving to Little Rock AFB, Arkansas.
Kast was approaching 10-years of active-duty service and was beginning to question what the future held for him. He knew that he wanted to help people, and after researching what he may be able to do with his degrees and experience, he knew he wouldn’t be able to help people to the extent that he wanted to with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology.
“I wanted to help people get through their struggles and their issues. It was a personal thing for me, because I struggled a lot and had to overcome a lot,” said Kast.
Ultimately, Kast decided that it would be best for him to continue his journey as an active-duty Airman.
“I said, ‘OK, it’s not good for me to exit,’ but at the same time, I needed to expand my education so I could use it. So I enrolled in my Master’s program for Clinical Psychology,” shared Kast.
Serving in the military full-time while attempting to complete a Master’s program brought new challenges.
“As an instructor, my hours were more fixed, but when I returned to the flight line, that was where I had to find my balance,” said Kast. He juggled rotating shifts and weekend duty, and remembered how much his schedule varied. “Some days I was there nine hours and some days I was there 16-17 hours,” said Kast. Off-duty weekends and evenings when he “wasn’t too exhausted” allowed Kast to find balance between on and off-duty demands.
“And I always carried my book or notepad with me so I could complete my readings. I was always doing something when I wasn’t on the flight line. It was challenging, but I found my rhythm,” he said.
After approximately four years, Kast was nearing the end of his Master’s program. However, right before he was to begin the clinical or internship portion of the degree, he received assignment orders that would prevent him from completing the program’s in-person requirements. After researching and discussing options with program advisors, Kast switched from the Clinical Psychology program to Counseling Psychology.
“At this point, I had to figure out where I was going to go next, how I was going to progress” he said.
According to Kast, the realization that he had completed his set goals left him feeling ready to move onto something new.
“I wanted to have an education, I wanted to make (Master Sergeant) before I retired, and I wanted to start a family,” he said. “So I completed all my goals, and then it got to a point where I started feeling kind of aimless, so I decided to set new goals.”
Those new goals included pursuing a PhD.
Once again, Kast found himself researching what he wanted to study. He learned he wouldn’t be able to pursue his preferred program, Neuropsychology, and still remain active-duty. So he kept researching.
“I thought, ‘The Air Force has put me through all this training for management, how to lead teams, work with people…well Psychology applies to that,” explained Kast. “How can I take this Master’s in Psychology and blend it into something that’s going to benefit the people who work with me and for me?”
In three or four months, Kast had found a way to do just that. In 2015, he began a doctoral course of study in Business Psychology while stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base.
“There were many days when I regretted my decision to pursue a PhD,” he said. “It was rough, very rough. I thought it would be kind of like my Master’s. I was way off.”
And again, he found himself working during the day, and researching and studying in the evenings.
“I got six months into (the PhD program) and around the Christmas/New Year holiday break I just sat back and thought, ‘Wow, is this all going to be like that?’ he shared.
For Kast, encouragement came from home.
“Thankfully, my spouse was there egging me on…’You never quit.’ And I said ‘I know, but I was not expecting that,” Kast remembers with a laugh.
However, he had made a commitment, and he was determined to follow through with it.
“This goal was definitely different than what my original goal looked like ten or twenty years ago, but that’s the thing about goals,” he said. “They change. If your goals don’t change, in my opinion, you’re not going to achieve them because you can’t have a fixed goal without any wiggle room. Your path to get to that goal is going to deviate, modify.”
Kast shared that one of his personal “roadblocks” for education was remaining on active-duty.
“I couldn’t do the PhD I wanted to, but I think I found a good alternative,” said Kast. “It still helped me meet my goal, it just looks a little different.”
According to Kast’s leadership, his achievements have a wide impact.
“Earning a PhD as an aircraft mechanic challenges the paradigm; higher education is attainable by all AFSCs or rank structures,” said Lt. Col. Odi Diambra, 7th Equipment Maintenance Squadron commander. “For 7 EMS, SMSgt Kast’s drive for higher education developed his full potential as a leader, and he’s already paying it forward by mentoring, motivating others, and finding growth opportunities for unit members—Erik is building the bench and we are proud to have him on our Cobra team.”
Today, Kast appears joyful and resolute when he describes his educational journey.
“I can still help people, but it’s not going to be in a clinical setting. It’s going to be more in the workplace setting,” he shared. “It’s going to be helping people grow their careers, grow their aspirations, and motivating them to achieve more. In the end, that’s what I find truly amazing about people. And there is no greater feeling than watching someone achieve their goals knowing that you helped nudge them along.”
There were sacrifices throughout Kast’s journey.
“I had to give up going on vacations, spending time with my spouse…this was an important goal to me and everyone knew that. There were a lot of sacrifices all around,” he said.
However, when sharing his story, Kast always returns to what may be his life’s mantra.
“Education is important and anything we can learn is going to make us better,” said Kast. “There’s always time, you just have to figure out where that time is. To the people who are trying to get this done, don’t give up on it. There is a way, you just have to find it.”