From firing range to chapel, enlisted leader upholds service across careers

  • Published
  • By Matthew Fink
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Master Sergeant Nikki Webb, the religious affairs superintendent for the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, has lived many lives in her 18-year Air Force career. Over six duty stations, three deployments, and one career reassignment, her journey thus far has been defined by hard work, mental toughness and resilience of spirit. Nowhere was this exemplified more than during her deployment to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. 

In 2011, at the midway point of Operation Enduring Freedom, Bagram Airfield was the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan and home to Craig Joint Theater Hospital, the only level III trauma center in the country. Located just outside Kabul, the hospital and its staff were charged with stabilizing grievously wounded American and allied service members, local Afghanis, and enemies before they were airlifted to Germany for long-term care. 

For Webb, then a staff sergeant and the religious affairs non-commissioned officer in charge at Bagram, life at the hospital was a non-stop adrenaline rush. While her official role was tending to the spiritual needs of patients and staff, she was often found wheeling patients to the operating room or stocking shelves with medical supplies.  

“There were some days when I was just a pair of hands,” Webb said. “I had gloves on half the time. Was that part of my job? No, but in deployed environments, that is exactly what religious affairs Airmen are. You are a force multiplier. You have to figure it out.”  

A native of Stanford, Kentucky, Webb grew up in a rural, tightly-knit community, surrounded by the same faces from elementary to high school. She enlisted in 2005 to get a fresh start, like so many young people before her and since.

“I went to college for a year, did the sorority thing and the fun stuff,” Webb said. “I joined the military so I would never have to take a test again. And now I’ve had nothing but tests since I’ve been in!” 

After basic training, Webb attended tech school at the Security Forces Academy at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Long drawn to a career in public service, working as a military policeman seemed like a perfect fit for her.  

I like helping and serving people. That is just where my heart is. I never really looked at policing as an authoritative thing. You do have to play that role sometimes, but you can do it in a kind way.
MSgt. Webb, religious affairs superintendent, 88 ABW at WPAFB

“I like helping and serving people,” said Webb. “That is just where my heart is. I never really looked at policing as an authoritative thing. You do have to play that role sometimes, but you can do it in a kind way.”

Upon passing a series of medical, psychological and background investigations, Webb volunteered for a special assignment guarding nuclear missile silos at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.  Webb said that, despite the high stakes involved, her job was often tedious and uncomfortable. Sometimes she and a partner would spend days in the field, only being relieved once every 24 hours for a shower and a warm meal.   

“People who have never gone to the missile field and lived that life will never understand what it is like,” said Webb. “It is hard to explain how un-fun it is. But I made some great friends that I still have to this day.”    

Two years later, Webb moved to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Now a non-commissioned officer, she began taking on more responsibility by training and evaluating her peers in entry control and working the Battle Defense Operating Center, which is used to coordinate emergency response in a crisis. She got married and began planning a future, not only as an Airman, but also as a wife and mother. Webb loved her job, but eventually she decided to leave the profession for the sake of her future children.

“My husband was also security forces,” said Webb. “It works for some people, but to me, two cops starting a family is not very realistic. We knew one of us had to get out or retrain.”

Webb was accepted for career reassignment and returned to the Great Plains to work as a chaplain’s assistant at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. Webb said that the calm, laid-back environment of a chapel was bizarre at first, especially after five years of emphasis on strict adherence to protocol.

“It was way different in respect to personalities,” said Webb. “I was the lowest ranking person there, and it was also the first time I worked closely with officers. It was a big dynamic change for me.”

The next six years at Grand Forks would prove transformative for Webb in many other ways. Her husband commissioned as an intelligence officer, she became a mother to two children, and she deployed to the hospital in Bagram. The stress from constant exposure to life-or-death encounters during that deployment took a toll on Webb’s psyche, despite her usually upbeat personality.  

“I thought I was doing much better than I was,” said Webb. “When you are over there, you have to compartmentalize. There is no way around it, or else you would be hysterically crying every single day. It was, by far, the best deployment I could have asked for. But it was terrible at the same time.”

The ensuing 12 years have given Webb valuable perspective and the opportunity to heal and pass on hard-won wisdom to the next generation of Airmen. After tours at Travis Air Force Base, California, and Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, as well as a second deployment to Southwest Asia, she began her current assignment at Wright-Patterson in early 2022.

Webb now leads a team of four, almost all of whom are non-commissioned officers from other technical specialties just as she was. With a third deployment with the Ninth Air Force completed in December 2022, it is Webb’s responsibility to make sure her chaplains and Airmen are trained and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“All of us are deployable, and as a senior non-commissioned officer there is an expectation of mentorship,” said Webb. “I got to see the top-down perspective on my last deployment, and now I can help explain that side of things since we get hit with short-notice deployments a lot.”

Webb also guides her team in carrying out their primary, day-to-day mission: promoting the spiritual readiness of Airmen, Guardians, and their families. They accomplish this not only with worship services, but also by hosting retreats and seminars on topics ranging from financial stability to love, marriage and relationships. Sometimes they leave the chapel to commit what she calls “random acts of kindness,” such as bringing a unit donuts or pizza.

While providing meals, breaks from work or even a kind word or two may not seem like much, Webb said that it is often enough to help struggling Airmen open up and share problems that they might not have done otherwise.  

We need to meet them wherever they are because if we can’t, then we are not going to see them.
MSgt. Webb, religious affairs superintendent, 88 ABW at WPAFB

“Spirituality is individually based, and for a lot of people, it is not in organized religion,” said Webb. “We need to meet them wherever they are because if we can’t, then we are not going to see them.”    

Webb also emphasized that religious affairs Airmen, in addition to their training in crisis intervention and counseling, provide the benefit of 100-percent privileged communication in the exact same way that speaking to a chaplain does. This means that anything said in private to Airmen such as Webb can never be repeated to any other person, including law enforcement or a person’s chain of command. 

“A lot of people don’t know that,” said Webb. “Our job is to support, not to judge. Sometimes people just want to talk or vent because they had a bad day. Okay, let’s talk about it!”

From security forces to religious affairs, from the frigid plains of Wyoming to the now-familiar Dayton skyline, Webb’s 18-year career so far has proven almost as diverse as the Air Force itself. Although it has not been without its challenges, Webb said she has persevered through it all by having a positive attitude and keeping herself spiritually grounded.

“In the beginning, I felt like I always had to prove myself,” said Webb. “I spent a lot of years trying to be what I thought everyone wanted me to be. But then I realized, ‘why?’ God made me like this. I made the best of whatever situation I was in. I am still like that.”