Airman receives 'golden opportunity' following act of kindness

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

For one Airman, an act of kindness led to a unique recruiting opportunity right out to the pages of a Roald Dahl story.

Reminiscent to the story of Willy Wonka, Senior Airman Emily Conaughty was awarded a "golden ticket" by Office of Special Investigations leadership Feb. 13, after she was spotted helping a man near the military gates in Hawaii.

The golden ticket program, managed by OSI headquarters, is a recruiting initiative designed to identify and fast-track individuals who demonstrate exceptional character and skills for service within the OSI.

“The numbered tickets are given to OSI detachments to give individuals who demonstrate excellent work ethic and character traits,” said Rose Jourdan, OSI Recruiting and Applicant Processing Division chief. “It is like an express pass to the enlisted retraining program. It doesn’t guarantee selection, but it does accelerate our processing of your application.”

From there, OSI detachments, at their discretion, can pass golden tickets along to local base leadership, command chiefs, first sergeants or other contacts to help identify high performers.

Everyday heroism

In Oct. 2023, just outside the gates of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Conaughty's act of kindness stood out amid the daily flow of traffic. During a time when others looked the other way, the West Virginia native helped when it was needed most.

“The reason I stopped was because I had seen him at a different location on the island,” Conaughty said. “I had given him money before, but when I saw him standing on the exit ramp, something made me want to help again. I called my husband and said we should make a care package for him.”

So, the couple met at a nearby grocery store and put a care package together. They drove back to the area where the man was asking for help, and she gave him a bag of supplies, which included hygiene items, water and snacks.

“When I gave him the bag, I asked if there was anything he specifically needed, and he said he needed a new pair of shoes,” she said. “His shoes were completely worn out from walking.”

Motivated by his request, the couple set off again; this time to various stores in search of shoes that would fit —a challenging task for someone who wore a size 14, she said.

"Every afternoon, around 10,000 cars pass that corner as they leave the base, yet it was Senior Airman Conaughty who stopped to help,” Special Agent Sean Peterson, OSI Det. 601’s senior enlisted leader. “Her actions not only demonstrate leadership but also the kind of relationship-building that is crucial to OSI.”

Her compassion did not go unnoticed. An OSI Special Agent, who happened to be nearby, observed the moment and snapped a photo of Conaughty as she helped an individual.

In the photo, Conaughty is kneeling on the pavement between the corner of a sidewalk and the shade of a nearby overpass. Although grainy, she is identifiable by her Air Force uniform and a visible unit patch. In it, she is offering supplies to a man facing away from the cell phone’s lens.

The agent forwarded the photo to nearby OSI Det. 601, where Peterson got to work. The detachment’s senior enlisted leader tapped into the joint base’s network of first sergeants for help, hoping one of his peers would recognize Conaughty, or the unit from the patch's obscure details—a circular emblem bisected by a symbol.

The image, much like the starting point of many investigations, was all the team had to go off. Within minutes, Peterson had a senior noncommissioned officer identify the unit, but not the Airman. After some digging, they identified her, but she had recently changed assignments to the 19th Fighter Squadron.

Unsuspected recognition

Identifying Conaughty was only the first step; next came vetting by OSI, a standard procedure for all OSI applicants.

Her senior leadership, the only ones consulted during the process, were not surprised at Conaughty's act of kindness, said Special Agent Rhoshonda McGruder, OSI Det. 601 commander.

Conaughty, on the other hand, would be very surprised.

“Everybody we talked to had nothing but praise for Conaughty,” McGruder said. “We consistently were told she’s the sharpest person in her section; she’s already acting like a staff sergeant or higher rank – all the stuff you want to hear about taking leadership roles, new challenges, that sort of thing.”

Last month, after ensuring she had all the makings of a Special Agent, the OSI team planned a visit to her unit. McGruder and Peterson, with Conaughty’s golden ticket in hand, stepped into the squadron, their presence immediately stirred a buzz of anticipation. After all, it’s not every day OSI shows up, McGruder said, and when they do; it isn’t always met with positive reactions.

McGruder addressed the gathered Airmen. She talked about the values OSI looks for when recruiting. How OSI wants people who reflect the Air Force values, embodying character, integrity and kindness, she said.

With each word, anticipation built until McGruder finally called Conaughty by name, revealing the true reason for the gathering. She was presented with the OSI's golden ticket, a recognition few receive.

“When we called her name; she was flush,” McGruder said. “She was shocked and did a double take, looked around like, ‘who, me?’ I called her up and before we talked about her random act of kindness.”

Conaughty, taken by surprise, accepted the golden ticket. This was not just a piece of metal; it was a symbol of her actions' impact, a testament to the idea that doing good can lead to unexpected and life-changing rewards, McGruder said.

“She said she had been considering OSI, but didn’t know where to start,” McGruder said.

The next chapter

Although Conaughty holds a golden ticket, she stands at a crossroads, McGruder said. The unique challenges that come with joining the agency is not one to take lightly.

“The ticket doesn’t expire, she can take her time,” McGruder said. “We want her to think about it, talk it over with her husband and in a few months, we’ll see how she is doing.”

In the future, Conaughty will be given a tour of the local detachment, and like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, it’s an insider look few see. “We don’t typically do shadowing programs for active-duty members,” McGruder said. “But we can sanitize the detachment, especially for a golden ticket holder, who can talk to the Special Agents and see what it feels like to work there.”

The opportunity isn’t lost on Conaughty, she said.

“It's still something I'm considering and want to discuss further,” she said. “It's an amazing opportunity, and I'm truly grateful to be offered it.”

Whether she steps into the world of OSI or continues her current path in the Air Force, the golden ticket represents more than just an opportunity; it's a recognition of her character, McGruder said.

“[Conaughty] acted when nobody was looking, driven by her own initiative, not by orders or recognition—she didn't seek attention for her actions,” Peterson said. “This reflects OSI: we work in the background often without thanks, focusing on what's right, not who's watching.”

For Conaughty, who said she doesn’t believe her actions needed attention, the most important thing is to help others.

“Take a moment to ask someone in need what you can do to help them can impact their day,” she said. “Something as simple as providing a gallon of water can be incredibly meaningful—you might not know how long it's been since they last had access to clean water.

“Engage with people,” she added, “show genuine interest in their needs, and asking how you can help makes a real difference.”