QUANTICO, Va. --
Chief Master Sgt. Christopher J. VanBurger is passionate about the Air Force and it's Office of Special Investigations. On Feb. 15, 2016, the career Airman and Special Agent reaches the pinnacle of both.
That day the Centereach Long Island, New York, native assumes his new position as the 15th OSI Command Chief, putting an exclamation point on a military law enforcement career that was the farthest thing from his mind when he went through Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 1989.
"It's humbling to say the least," VanBurger said during an orientation visit to OSI headquarters here in October 2015. "I never thought I'd do 20 years let alone make Chief or be considered for a position like this."
VanBurger's mother, who was a teacher, urged him to join the Air Force following high school because, by his own admission, he wasn't ready for college.
"I knew I wanted to be in law enforcement but didn't have a plan on how to get there," VanBurger said. "I've always been intrigued with the Air Force. Initially, I planned to join the Reserves, then go back to New York and be a street cop (following in his father's footsteps as a Nassau County policeman)."
VanBurger's mom convinced him to come in on active duty. He planned to do four years but realized the Air Force was much better than he expected.
"Four years led to eight which led to 20," he said. "I met my wife (also now a chief master sergeant) at my first duty assignment and never looked back."
VanBurger reaches 27 years on active duty the day before he assumes his command chief position.
Reflecting on what it means for him to be selected as the 15th command chief in the storied history of OSI, VanBurger says it's a legacy of enlisted stalwarts.
"I see names like Dave Priest, Ray Carter, Lynne Shell (now McCormick), Chris Redmond, John Fine and Hank Cottingham and it's an honor to be included in that group," he said. "These are guys and gals in OSI I grew up with who were mentors to me. To be included in the same sentence with them is something I never expected but I'm very appreciative."
VanBurger credits his eclectic 16-year OSI background for preparing him to take over the command chief duties, which will be his first headquarters assignment.
His field experience has touched a variety of missions in the command. He sports a strong criminal background. He's worked counterintelligence and Research and Technology Protection (now called Research, Development and Acquisitions). He was a former Computer Field Forensics Examiner and was part of OSI Contingency Respond Elements. He's been a Superintendent three times, including his present assignment at Field Investigations Region 6, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and a Special Agent-in-Charge (enlisted commander) twice, including the SAIC of Detachment 501, responsible for the safety and security of Gen. Mark Welsh while he served as U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander.
"I'm an agent's agent," he said. "I love nothing more than being in the interview room, running a lead or doing a case. That's truly where my heart lies.
"There's nothing better than being in this command," VanBurger emphasized. "Now I know why it's the second most requested job out of the Air Force Academy (and career field Air Force wide). What we do is cool and it's fun. Granted, it's extremely important because we protect the integrity of the Air Force. We have E-4's, E-5's, E-6's advising four-stars' who make decisions based on their information. That's a huge responsibility. It's amazing."
What impresses VanBurger most about OSI Special Agents?
"WOW! Our folks' dedication, tenacity and how they approach and attack the mission," he said. "The command had not deployed in quite a while in a traditional wartime environment, but shortly after 9/11 we excelled very quickly with our outside-the-wire missions, our counter-threat operations, to the point we were the go-to organization for the Air Force and DoD. With all the churn in the Air Force, we still excel."
VanBurger says once he dons command chief, time will tell what kind of a difference maker he'll be.
"I'll do what I've done my whole career, lead by example, lead from the front and listen to the troops, he said. "The folks in the field know how to do business. They understand what we're doing. We need to posture ourselves for the future whatever that may be."
The chief does not subscribe to a particular leadership philosophy.
"I'm a very situational leadership kind of guy," he said. "You can't put a cookie-cutter philosophy into a situation. Communication is our key piece, making sure everyone understands each other and what the expectations are."
Besides echoing the commander's OSI vectors of providing timely, sufficient investigations and cases plus elevating the professional stature of the organization, VanBurger is enthusiastic about his three P's: pride, professionalism and protection.
"Any team I've been a part of I've encouraged pride in what you're doing, making sure you do it correct the first time; professionalism in every interaction with every person every time and the protection of our society and our Air Force. We protect the integrity of the Air Force," he said. "That's a huge responsibility."
VanBurger sees an evolving future for AFOSI.
"I see our cyber capability expanding exponentially, everything we touch nowadays has some type of computer or networking involvement, every single case," the chief said. "I can see us taking on a bigger role protecting Air Force systems and resources. I think the future is going to be getting to the fight, not necessarily the fight itself."
AFOSI is one year younger than the Air Force itself, an historical fact the new command chief pointed out.
"They saw a need for us, there's still a need for us and there will be a need in the future for us," VanBurger said. "We're the sheep dogs, we protect the flock and there's always going to be wolves out there trying to do harm."
VanBurger will be soliciting the support of others when he becomes the newest command chief.
"I lean on my wife a lot, she's my rock. But, I also lean on a lot of people in the command," He said. "I'm not afraid to ask for help because I know I don't have all the answers. It's enlightening when you realize you're not the smartest guy in the room, but the smartest people surround you."
In his Aug. 17, 2015 email to the OSI enterprise announcing VanBurger's selection as the 15th AFOSI Command Chief, Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, OSI commander wrote, "Chief VanBurger is the right person at the right time for AFOSI and brings a wealth of experience and leadership to this legendary position in the command."
(Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Winter 2015 Edition of Global Reliance Magazine.)