HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For Darrel Atkin Jr., the Air Force has given him a chance to see the world, but it’s also shown him a different view of home.
Atkin is a staff sergeant at Hill Air Force Base, currently assigned to the 388th Maintenance Group — the outfit tasked with keeping the 388th and 419th fighter wings’ F-35 Lightning IIs in tip-top flying shape, capable of deploying worldwide at a moment’s notice. Atkin is coming up on six years in the Air Force and recently received “Airman of the Month” at Hill for his work maintaining the agency’s most prized piece of machinery.
The staff sergeant said he found a passion for leadership and the military during his teen years at East High School in Salt Lake City, while a member of the school’s Army JROTC program.
“That, paired with my yearning to see and experience the world, initially drove my desire to enlist in the Army at 17, which required both parents’ signatures,” Atkin said.
But Atkin’s Army veteran dad, whom he’s named after, convinced him instead to join the Air Force in order to better utilize his analytical mindset and technical capabilities. Atkin said he’s glad he traded Army boots for Air Force wings.
“I like the complexity of being in the Air Force,” he said. “Everyone comes from diverse backgrounds, and we’re all put together in constantly changing environments, each with their own challenges. Quite simply, there’s a low level of continual chaos — it keeps the work and mission stimulating.”
Atkin is in the right position for stimulation. According to jet manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s website, the F-35 is one of the most complex weapons systems in the history of the military. Because of the aircraft’s computing power, F-35 maintainers must bring a high level of technical expertise to their jobs. Atkin has taken his maintenance expertise overseas twice, deploying to Guam and parts of the Middle East.
Though he’s been stationed elsewhere and deployed thousands of miles from home, the Salt Lake City native now finds himself about a 30-minute drive from where he grew up.
“Being stationed this close is unfortunately bitter sweet,” he said. “I actually had an assignment to South Korea, which I gave up to come here ... but being here allows me to help and support my family [and] it’s also nice to be able to see my friends, and know where everything is. Having more or less found myself by being away from Utah, being back has allowed me to see the state in a different light.”