I’ve been a part of our Air Force for almost thirty-two of its nearly thirty-nine years, and, upon retirement, Pd like to share some thoughts about the past, the present, and the future.
Throughout our short history, NCOs have been referred to as various parts of the human anatomy. Not all of these analogies have been favorable, but the one expression most commonly heard is that the NCO is the backbone of the Air Force.” It has generally been meant to carry a favorable connotation. I don’t like it, though, and I believe it has outlived its usefulness. I like to think of our airmen and NCOs as proud professionals—the heart and lungs of our Air Force, for without us, our mission would never get accomplished. We play a tremendously important role, and we do it in a dedicated and disciplined manner.
It hasn’t always been this way. When our Air Force was established, many career enlisted personnel were looked on as “lifers,” society misfits, people who produced for a day’s pay—and the pay wasn’t that great. In the beginning, we had a relatively simple Air Force—piston-driven aircraft, virtually no computer capability, and the age of missiles yet to be realized.
With advancements in technology in the 1950s, we could not afford to have individuals who looked forward to the proverbial “three hots and a flop.” We needed NCOs who were highly specialized and who could supervise airmen trained in the more complex machinery of the day. To meet this requirement, we introduced the grades of senior and chief master sergeant and started to educate our NCOs in management, leadership, and supervision—their NCO responsibilities, Professional military education was born—the greatest step taken for enlisted personnel, in my estimation, in our short history as a separate service.
The 1960s were the great age of specialization, and the word “technician” was prevalent in our vocabulary. We centralized many things and encouraged our people to become technical experts and specialists. Management replaced leadership, and supervision became a byproduct of a specialist’s duties. Technology continued to advance. Missiles were operational. Pro-pay was in. Promotions loosened up. WAPS was implemented and TOPCAP was born.
Our rank structure changed: airmen third, second, and first class became airmen, airmen first class, and sergeants. Sergeants (E-4s) were recognized as NCOs. And our first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force was appointed.
The Slump of the Seventies
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a very trying period, both in our society and for our Air Force. Individuality dominated to the extent that “I” overrode “we”; we were faced with a permissiveness that almost destroyed many of our time-honored traditions. But the low point of the 70s came in 1979—the only year in our short history when we did not meet our recruiting objectives. Our mid-career NCOs were leaving our Air Force in great numbers.
The 1980s started with some much needed improvements in benefits, entitlements, and philosophy. The NCO technician concept was out; decentralization was back in; management was replaced by leadership; and NCOs were again expected to supervise and guide.
Today, we have the best Air Force we’ve ever had. Top to bottom, we have the most people-oriented leadership ever. Along with this we also have what makes me so proud and what I’ve seen in my travels—the most educated, dedicated, and disciplined enlisted force that I have served with in my thirty-two years of Air Force life. You’re damn good! You do your job with a dedication and enthusiasm the likes of which I don’t believe has been seen in a military department in the history of our nation. It makes me very proud to be able to represent you.
Direct leadership in day-to-day activities of today’s Air Force—as well as the foundation for the future—is in the hands of our NCOs. Are we fulfilling these responsibilities? In many cases, I would answer with a resounding “yes.” In other areas, though, I believe there’s room for improvement.
We still have too many NCOs who are concerned only with their technical jobs and the people under their direct supervision. We need to work on this. We must set the example we expect from all contemporaries—not just those we rate. We must increase our involvement in as many unit and base activities as possible—get out and be visible, know where our people eat, sleep, work, and play. We must increase our involvement in the everyday, nontechnical activities that affect our subordinates. We must communicate with each other and ensure free-flowing communication up and down the chain. We must also recognize our people for doing good jobs and counsel those not doing the job properly.
Leaders of Tomorrow
Enlisted personnel of the future will be very technically qualified, dedicated, and disciplined—able to take on virtually any job in a career field, even some presently held by officers. You who will lead in that force of the future can’t be concerned with reinstitution of the traditional NCO authority and roles—the kind I saw when I first started. You’ll have to go beyond that.
You’ll have to step forward and take charge. You’ll have to work hard, lead, manage, and supervise. In most cases, you’ll lose the security of being one of the masses. You can’t be afraid to tell the boss the truth, and you can’t pass the buck. You’ll have to give of yourself wholly and inspire by example, actions, integrity, and self-discipline.
As an NCO, develop a trust in your people by showing a genuine interest in their well-being. Be professional in your dealings with your superiors and subordinates alike. Appreciate the accomplishments of your people. Assign them meaningful jobs and only accept an honest effort for these jobs. The future of our Air Force and our enlisted corps rests in your hands, and believe me, we can’t succeed without you being a success.
My wife, Inge, and I have been blessed to serve during a great time in our history, and we’ll leave with very mixed emotions—extremely proud to have been able to be a part of our Air Force, but saddened that we’re leaving when the future may look bleak in many areas. It’s truly been an honor for us.
Keep up your positive attitude, dedication, and enthusiasm. Give my successor the same support you’ve given Inge and me, and we’ll continue to have the best enlisted force any nation could ever hope to have.