VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
Retired Chief Master Sergeant, Roy Lapioli, 30th Force Support Squadron base civilian training manager, joined the Air Force in 1983 as a heavy equipment operator. Lapioli came into the Air Force with a determination to succeed, and also a deeply rooted stuttering problem.
“I had been to speech therapy all my life,” said Lapioli. “The specialists told me, ‘You don’t think before you speak’. They said it was a confidence and anxiety issue, but this was life for me. I thought I was in full control of what I was thinking and speaking.”
It took years for Lapioli to gain full control over his stuttering, but regardless he still got the job done.
“Thankfully the Air Force let me in,” said Lapioli. “I was stationed in Colorado, pushing snow. We had a guy in snow control that stuttered as well. Every time I would finish an assignment I would call into snow control so they could give me a new assignment for the day. It took us about five minutes to complete a simple transaction on the radio.”
Little did Lapioli know, the wing commander was listening to their radio conversations.
“The wing commander had a scanner in his residence and wanted to know who was goofing off on his radios,” said Lapioli. “He wanted to see us the very next day; as soon as he started asking us questions we both started stuttering. He quickly realized that we weren’t screwing around.”
This was a one-time occurrence with the wing commander, but for his friends it was an everyday occurrence.
“I do remember Roy, he couldn’t put a sentence together, so everybody laughed about it with him,” said Ray Walker, Civil Engineering horizontal construction section chief, and a coworker of Lapioli’s during their first enlistments. “It took him awhile to put his thoughts together. But, he is the epitome of, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. Most people think that if a guy stutters that he doesn’t know anything. That was definitely not Roy.”
Lapioli’s career proficiency opened up NCO leadership school for him, where he was given an opportunity he desperately needed. For graduation he was submitted as a competitor for the final speech competition.
“My flight said, ‘we want Roy to be our speech competitor,’” said Lapioli. “I responded with ‘N-n-n-no, please don’t do that’, but they did. So, I waited until my flight left to beg one of my instructors to relieve me of this requirement. He said, ‘Let me give you your first lesson on the Dereliction of Duty’. Basically telling me that once you are selected, you must do; you have got to step up.”
After hours of practice, guidance and unquantifiable anxiety; Lapioli successfully gave his speech.
Reflecting on the moment, Lapioli said with excitement, “I did do it, and I did it quite well! There were about 700 people in the audience and I received a standing ovation. My flight members ran up after I was done, ‘Roy you didn’t stutter once, you didn’t stutter once!’”
He received awards for his speech, but more importantly the Western Space and Missile Center Command Chief, Robert Herrington was about to make a life changing investment.
“Chief came up to my table afterward and said, ‘Hey Roy, I have heard a lot about you,’” said Lapioli. “’I want you to be at this building (as he referenced the current Airman Leadership School facility) at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, you have an appointment’. He looked around at my chain of command and said ‘You are going to honor this appointment.’”
At 7:50 a.m. the following Tuesday, Lapioli sat confused as he watched people from both the military and civilian sector enter the building.
“So, I am there waiting and sure enough, Chief rolls in,” said Lapioli. “He puts his arm around me and says, ‘Come on Roy, are you ready?’. I still do not know what is going on, and as I walk in, I see a Toastmasters banner. I had never heard of Toastmasters.”
Toastmasters is an international leadership and speaking club that was about to give Lapioli even more of an opportunity to improve his speaking abilities.
“So, we walk in and Chief introduces me, ‘This is Roy, he has a standing appointment every meeting,’” says Lapioli. “He then slammed down about seventy bucks, and says, ‘everybody as my witness, I just paid for you to be here, you are going to be here, right?’”
Responding as any NCO would to the highest ranking Chief Master Sgt. on the base, Lapioli nodded. Having experienced the standing ovation the previous year, and making the most of his Chiefs’ investment; Lapioli sought out further opportunities to improve.
“I went to Toastmasters for about a year until I applied to be an NCO academy instructor,” said Lapioli. “I still stuttered, just not as bad.”
Lapioli not only got hired as an NCO academy instructor, he kept the ball rolling in his development. After years of teaching, Lapioli went on to travel Africa and Europe while explaining to ministries of defense how the U.S. Air Force develops its enlisted core.
“I went from not being able to communicate a sentence to teaching in the Air Force, then to teaching at my current job, and also teaching at the local college. I have never looked back,” said Lapioli.
After years of being apart, both Lapioli and Walker share the same base again.
“Such a long period had gone by that I almost forgot that he used to stutter,” said Walker. “Until we were talking about something, and he kind of stuttered a bit, but he caught himself. Then it dawned on me; this guy used to have a stuttering problem!”
After Walker reminisced on all the memories that he and Lapioli had together, he said, “It is pretty impressive that he had come so far with the stuttering issue. We were all super impressed that he made the rank of Chief in the Air Force, then to become an educator, here, was so awesome.”