With 26 years of service under his belt, CMSgt. Eric W. Benken was beginning to think that his assignment at Ramstein AB, Germany, as Senior Enlisted Advisor for US Air Forces in Europe, would be the end of his Air Force career. Two years earlier, he had completed an SEA stint for 12th Air Force at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. The only place left to go was the Pentagon.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s a place I tried to avoid all those years,” said Chief Benken.
However, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAFE’s commander, had other ideas. When the Air Force last August called for nominees for Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, General Ryan told the 45-year-old Benken that he was his choice. A month later, Chief Benken was one of three finalists interviewed at the Pentagon by his soon-to-be new boss, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman.
In November, the Air Force Chief of Staff administered the oath of office to Benken—as the twelfth CMSAF. He replaced CMSAF David J. Campanale, who retired.
“No job is more important than Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force,” General Fogleman said as the new Chief and his wife, Johnne, and other family members looked on. “The troops depend upon that person in that position to represent them to the senior leadership. That person also has to convey the vision and ideals of the Air Force to the enlisted force.”
On that day, Chief Benken recalled a fateful afternoon in Houston, Tex., in 1970. He was 18 years old and had been pondering his future for some time. As he and his mother were driving through downtown, traffic was snarled and they came to a halt. A colorful Air Force recruiting poster caught his eye. The young Benken got out of the car, telling his mother he wanted to check something. He returned home with the news that he had enlisted in the Air Force.
The Way Up
“I was 18 years old with no money to go to college,” said Chief Benken. “I was working in a low-level job with no skills when I joined the Air Force. It’s been a great way of life ever since.”
Chief Benken recalls that the aura of the Air Force’s top enlisted man made an early impression. “From basic training on, we always knew who the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was, but you didn’t really begin to understand their impact until you actually saw one,” he said. “My realization came when Tom Barnes [CMSAF, 1973–77] visited Bergstrom AFB, [Tex.,] and addressed us in the base theater.”
While impressed with this introduction to the top man, there was never any thought of attaining that position himself. “It was never on my scope, nothing that I had ever aspired to do,” Chief Benken said.
Benken was at Bergstrom AFB when he faced his first reenlistment decision. It wasn’t much of a hurdle to get over. “I looked around as to what I might do on the outside,” he remarked. “I thought Air Force life had been pretty good. I liked the people I was working with. I liked my commander. I had just made staff sergeant, under four, which was a big plus.” He signed the papers.
Chief Benken sees the Senior Enlisted Advisor structure as essential. “A lot of times a commander will get caught up in some of the more cosmic things that go on in our Air Force. The advisor can then bring certain morale, health and welfare, and other issues not only to the service members but to their families.
“The enlisted corps constitutes 80 percent of the Air Force, so it is very important that the commanders have that ear to the ground, if you will, as to what’s going on. I think we’ve been very effective so far in bringing those issues to the forefront.”
The same week that Chief Benken took the oath of office in the Pentagon, one of his predecessors, retired CMSAF James M. McCoy (1979–81), assumed chairmanship of the Air Force Retiree Council. Heretofore an infrequent subject for the CMSAF, “I can expect to hear a lot on retiree issues now that Jim is in the chair,” the Chief said. “He is the first [former] enlisted person to chair the council, and [he is] a solid choice.”
Education continues to be a high-priority item for the new CMSAF. While in Europe, Chief Benken helped target funds to improve airman leadership schools. “These mentorship seminars put our senior NCO corps in touch with our midgrade NCOs to help them develop professionally,” he said.
The American Edge
“Professional military education [PME] is what sets us apart from other militaries in other countries. In Europe, for instance, military members from other nations would visit our NCO academies and leadership schools to see how they could better their enlisted corps. Right now, they don’t have the structure to do so. We would water their eyes every time they would visit one of our academies.”
A 1989 graduate of the Air Force Senior NCO Academy at Maxwell AFB, Gunter Annex, Ala., Chief Benken sees a bright future for the institution. “We now have master sergeants going there, and I see nothing but pluses in the months ahead.”
His first trip in his new position was to Gunter Annex. Addressing senior NCOs in the academy auditorium, he recalled that he had become an NCO overnight. “One day I was an airman first class and the next day buck sergeant. In those days, there was no PME. There was no formal way of giving you the tools to become a noncommissioned officer.”
The new Chief believes the Air Force has stabilized after continued personnel reductions in 1996 brought active-duty strength figures below the 400,000 level for the first time since 1948.
“At the same time, the missions that we have now require us to be more flexible. We also have to begin to think long range, and we have to begin to think what our air and space force is going to be and begin to focus on what our enlisted force is going to be. We must understand that we may be called upon to go anywhere at any time.”
Increased reliance on the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard is certainly part of the new streamlined force. “This integration of forces has been tremendous,” Benken said. “At 12th Air Force, for instance, we had counterdrug operations where we utilized Guard and Reserve forces. Also, in Bosnia[-Hercegovina] and in other operations, we had about 40 percent Guard and Reserve forces.”
Evidence of the integration is sometimes hard to see. “Every time you go out to talk to the troops in Europe, you don’t know from one minute to the next whether you’re shaking the hand of a Guardsman, a Reservist, or an active-duty person. We have blended that well. When you talk Total Force, I would say we are absolutely Total Force concept now.”
Chief Benken steps up his enthusiasm when you mention Bosnia. “I think our operations there have been an outstanding success. I have never been more proud than I have been with the Air Force people who participated. Under very austere conditions, where the immediate concern was for food and for water, we overcame those obstacles. We had the RED HORSE [Rapid Engineer Deployable, Heavy Operational Repair Squadron, Engineer] team from Hurlburt [Field, Fla.,] that came in and built a life-support area for us.
“The airlift continued round the clock. Security Police forces went in and integrated very well with military police units. In my mind, it was an outstanding team effort, from a joint perspective.”
Even with the reduced number of installations now maintained by the Air Force in overseas locations, Chief Benken sees foreign duty as a great experience. The Cincinnati, Ohio, native should know. He has served in Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and a joint-service tour at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium.
Overseas Duty a Plus
“Serving overseas is still a great thing to do,” he said. “From a housing standpoint, I think we face the same challenges throughout the Air Force. There are obviously unique challenges [to] living overseas. But I think getting involved in the culture and getting involved in the life that particular country has to offer more than compensates for the minor inconveniences.”
He added, “The quality of life at some bases in Germany took a back seat in some areas from 1989 to 1994 as the drawdown occurred and there was uncertainty as to which bases would be retained. We have reversed that, and there have been a lot of quality-of-life improvements since then.”
Another subject Chief Benken is pleased to respond to is the role of women in today’s Air Force. “I have watched the role of women evolve in the last six years, as the Air Force took the lead in opening up its career fields. It has had a positive effect on our recruiting. I think about one in four new enlistees today [is a woman]. More than 99 percent of our career fields are open to women. We’ve just about reached parity.”
On the issue of sexual harassment, the Chief has a simple, two-word response: “zero tolerance.” He sees his role on the subject as a reinforcement of the obvious. “We do not tolerate sexual harassment in the United States Air Force, and we respect that concept.”
Chief Benken said it behooves every member of the Air Force to be acutely aware of this issue. “We need to continually recognize the fact it is much better to meet this thing head on, deal with it, and focus on the truth.”
He noted that for more than two years, USAF has maintained a toll-free hot line (800-558-1404) to ensure that military and civilian members have easy access to report any concerns of improper behavior. The hot line is in addition to established processes for reporting allegations of misconduct.
Away from his primary career field of information management since 1988, Benken still has the highest regard for Air Force advances in electronic technology. He recalls that in 1972, a quarter-century after the Air Force had been established as a separate service, he was fulfilling his administrative specialist duties with an Underwood manual typewriter.
Today, he has two manual typewriters—in storage. He relies heavily on electronic mail to keep in touch with the enlisted force. “I find it a good way to take communications and broadcast it to the troops. I think as we further develop that capability, we’re going to rely on it more and more.”
During a farewell dinner for Chief Benken before he left Germany, the emcee read from the Chief’s first efficiency report. His supervisor had noted that “Airman Benken has the attributes to make a good airman, should the Air Force decide to retain him.” That supervisor proved prophetic.
“I believe I am responsible to the enlisted corps as a role model, as the epitome of accountability,” said Chief Benken. “Our goal is to help shape our Air Force enlisted corps, so we can enter the next century and fulfill General Fogleman’s strategic vision that encompasses people, capabilities, and infrastructure.”
CMSgt. Charles Lucas, USAF (Ret.), was an editor with the Air Force News Service and is a member of AFA’s Veterans/Retiree Council. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.