An Air Force noncommissioned officer's path to reach his goal of one day pinning on his service's highest enlisted rank just got shorter.

Tech. Sgt. Cory Branham, Fort Leonard Wood's Air Force 364th Training Squadron, Detachment 1, received an on-the-spot promotion from staff sergeant by way of the Stripes for Exceptional Performers Program, or STEP, shortly before Christmas.

The STEP program provides slots to Air Force major commands for immediate promotion to E-5, E-6 or E-7.

MAJCOMs then disseminate those slots to their numbered Air Forces, which was the 2nd Air Force, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, the parent command of the detachment headquarters, the 82nd Training Wing, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

In Branham's case, he was chosen from nearly 300 eligible NCOs for the one on-the-spot-promotion slot given to the 2nd Air Force.

"This promotion has the potential to allow me to reach my career goals years ahead of what I otherwise would have," said Branham, assistant flight chief of military training, Military Training Flight.

His office is responsible for all non-academic training and discipline for nearly 1,400 Airmen who train annually on Fort Leonard Wood.

"Tech. Sgt. Branham has a maturity, intelligence and work ethic that clearly places him above his peers," said Air Force Master Sgt. Jared Keller, flight chief of military training, who submitted the awards package.

"He is one of the youngest NCOs in my shop; however, his performance and work quality is on par with some of my most seasoned NCOs," Keller added.

Branham, a Plymouth, Ohio, native, said he has never been shy about his career goals.

"I want to be a first sergeant and a command chief master sergeant or higher one day," Branham said. "Those jobs are rank specific to E-7s and E-9s. Getting E-6 now should propel me into a first-sergeant duty in a few years."

The Air Force detachment developed an elaborate scheme for the surprise promotion.

Branham was told to prepare a report and provide the results to the 82nd TW's commander, Brig. Gen. Patrick Doherty, by conference call.

During the call, Branham began his report but was cut off by Doherty. "He began to thank me for my work at the squadron," Branham recalled. "Shortly after, he told me an order had been given to promote me immediately."

Branham said he was surprised, and it took a few seconds to regain his composure and continue the conversation with the general. He also got to share the moment with his wife, Molly, as his leadership made sure she was present.

He said it was important that his wife was present.

"She understands how important this (promotion) is to me," Branham said. "I had scored well above average on my annual promotion evaluations, but was still not selected. She got to listen to my frustrations and is relieved to see that weight lifted off my shoulders."

"It is often said that E-6 is the hardest stripe to make in the Air Force, so this is an absolute honor," Branham added, who has served in the Air Force for eight years and two months.

The average time in service for last year's staff sergeants eligible for selection to E-6 was 10.16 years, according to an article in the "Air Force Times."

Branham said his selection as the Air Combat Command Airman of the Year and one of the Air Force's 12 Outstanding Airmen in 2012 certainly might have tipped the scales in his favor.

"I had no college education, focus or goals until I joined the Air Force," Branham said. "By listening to my superiors, following simple instructions and showing some initiative, I have had a successful career through this point."

Keller said Branham has shown a career- spanning trend of exceptional performance.

"Programs like the Stripes for Exceptional Performers reinforces the idea that hard work and dedication to duty pays off," Keller said. "Tech. Sgt. Branham put 110 percent into his performance and, hopefully, his example can inspire others."