The Concerns of the Troops

Nov. 1, 2006

Cutbacks in the enlisted force. … The state of airmen’s dormitories. … Pride in wearing the uniform. … The need to win the Global War on Terrorism. …

These and other topics emerged in a wide-ranging Sept. 25 discussion among command chief master sergeants that unfolded at the 2006 Air Force Association Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C.

If the forum had an overall theme, it was the need for USAF’s enlisted troops to ward off day-to-day distractions and to stay focused on the main Air Force mission.

“I’d just like for you all to continue to think about the four Rs, and the four Rs are readiness, readiness, readiness, and readiness,” said CMSAF Rodney J. McKinley. “We’ve got to be ready. … We have to be ready for the next event, wherever it is.”

McKinley moderated the panel, which consisted of the command chief master sergeants of four USAF major commands, one field operating agency, and one reserve component. They were:

  • CMSgt. Joseph E. Barron Jr. (Air Mobility Command)
  • CMSgt. Anthony L. Bishop (Pacific Air Forces)
  • CMSgt. Michael C. Gilbert (Air Force Special Operations Command)
  • CMSgt. David W. Popp (Air Combat Command)
  • CMSgt. Chris Redmond (Air Force Office of Special Investigations)
  • CMSgt. Richard Smith (Air National Guard)

Smith noted that base closings are a big issue for the Air National Guard. More than 60 ANG units are facing a mission change as a result of the 2005 BRAC process, he said. More than 20 have been stripped of their aircraft, for the same reason.

“We face retraining and all the fallout from remissioning and relocation of our weapon systems and our personnel throughout the Air National Guard,” said Smith.

Gilbert emphasized that Special Operations Command is small but busy.

“We’re bringing on new units, new aircraft, and retiring others,” said Gilbert. “But best of all and most importantly, [we’re] killing terrorists every day.”

It was questioning from the audience that drove most of the 90-minute discussion.

Keeping the Culture

One questioner—who said he was a dorm manager from Hickam AFB, Hawaii—asked about prospects for dormitory privatization. Use of private contractors to provide and manage housing for married enlisted had improved Air Force quality of life, said the questioner. Might the same approach help dorm residents as well

One barrier to contracting out dormitory management is the atmosphere the Air Force wants to maintain in the dorms, said panelists. The service wants to instill Air Force culture in airmen during their first three years in uniform, said Popp of Air Combat Command, and dorms are one place to do that.

“So who is the right person to do it?” asked Popp. “A contractor to help us with that? Or maybe a military dorm manager? I believe it’s a military dorm manager who helps us with that.”

“We need a noncommissioned officer … who’s in charge of those airmen while they’re in that dormitory to make sure they’re getting the supervision and guidance and, more importantly, the leadership they need to be successful in our Air Force, said Bishop.

Downsizing was another key issue raised by questioners. As Gilbert of AFSOC noted, it is inevitable that the enlisted force will be losing people. Currently it appears that attrition will cover the loss.

That said, it may still be a good time for airmen to look at where they are in their careers and decide whether they should now take advantage of opportunities in the service.

“As I travel around, I keep running into great jobs, great opportunities to go and do really good things for the country, that are undermanned,” said Gilbert. “So we’ve got opportunities for people.”

Combat control, pararescue jumper, tactical air control party, and intelligence are some of the fields that are short of people, said Gilbert. “So if you’re concerned that in your particular career field there may be a time when you’re going to be asked to move or forced to move or whatever, there are opportunities available for you that are very rewarding and a great place to be,” said Gilbert.

In the current environment, some officers may be asked to leave, however. For an enlisted person whose goal is to win an officer’s commission, this may represent a dilemma, at least for the short term. Barron said that some NCOs whom he recommended apply for a commission several years ago were successful in their quest—but are now being separated from the service.

Nowadays, he counsels young airmen and NCOs that working on their college degrees is a good thing for its own sake. “But I will also tell them [that] until this turmoil kind of slows down, until we get through a lot of these cuts that we’re going through in the next few years, I would also recommend that they hold off applying for a commission for a little bit,” said Barron.

Paycheck or Adventure

Given the nature of the Air Force today, with personnel cutbacks, decorations perhaps harder to come by, reviews tougher, and frequent deployments, some airmen might consider their job just a paycheck, not an adventure. One questioner asked what the chiefs would say to try and reignite the enthusiasm of someone with such an attitude.

One way would be to emphasize opportunity, said Popp. The Air Force provides many opportunities for travel, education, and retraining.

“As a person who joined the Air Force 63 days after high school, the message I’d say is, what an equal opportunity employer,” said Popp. “It doesn’t matter who you know. It’s all about you and how you apply yourself.”

Another way would be to deliver a tougher message, said Gilbert. The Air Force is now at war against an enemy that has killed thousands of Americans. It needs strong leaders—and if anyone in this generation of NCO leadership wants to step aside, the coming generation will pick up the slack.

“You either do it, or someone coming up behind you [is going to], because what we’ve got coming up right now is a generation of the most experienced combat veterans we’ve ever had, and we’re keeping them,” said Gilbert. “They’re re-enlisting, they’re staying with us, and they’re going to make great master sergeants who know what the heck’s going on.”

The chiefs agreed that anyone who was in the Air Force for the money, praise, or awards was in it for the wrong reasons. Being a member of any of the branches of the US military means being part of something larger than yourself.

Smith noted that he has worn an Air Force uniform for 35 years. Thirty-three of those years he was a drill-status Guardsman. In civilian life he was a senior vice president of a bank, a profession at which he became quite good. He wore a business suit to work. “That was a job,” he said. “This is a passion.”

Smith said he still gets a lump in his throat every morning when he puts on the uniform of his country. Most airmen look at it that way, he said. Most serve at great personal sacrifice. They could make more money outside the service. They could certainly spend more time with their families and at home.

“I think the passion is very much alive throughout the active, Guard, and Reserve today,” Smith said.


Bringing the discussion back to specific service processes, a questioner asked about Air Force Smart Operations 21 and who its target audience is supposed to be.

As defined by McKinley, AFSO 21 provides tools that allow members of the Air Force to evaluate what they do against the value it brings to the mission of their organization.

“If there’s no value added by a task, we can’t afford to do it—it’s as simple as that,” wrote McKinley in an “Enlisted Perspective” on the subject released Sept. 20.

The MAJCOMs are all designating one person each to become their enlisted AFSO 21 expert, said Barron of AMC. These people will receive 26 weeks of AFSO 21 training.

Once the training is finished, those newly minted experts will probably be sent out to bases to brief more enlisted people.

“I would think what we need to do is gradually train our folks in AFSO 21, maybe start off with giving them a little bit in technical training, then give them a little bit more when they go through Airman Leadership School, and a little bit more when they go through the academy,” said Barron.

Popp said that for his part he is finding that senior NCOs don’t really know what AFSO 21 means and that they want to know what it requires them to do.

In Air Combat Command, they are starting with functional managers and asking them what processes their area does at every ACC base—and if there is a way they can be documented so that people will carry them out the same way, wherever they are.

“For example, the launch sequence on an F-15, F-16, B-52, B-2, B-1,” said Popp. “What is it about a launch sequence? … We’ve all traveled around and what we’ve seen is everybody’s got the best idea, … and they want to show that to you. So what we’re trying to say is, can we standardize those processes so we have something we can sustain?”

The Air Force is losing 40,000 people, so it has to become more effective at what it does, pointed out Popp.

“For ACC, that’s 9,200 people [who, beginning] 1 Oct., we are not paid to keep,” said Popp. “So how do we get smarter?”

McKinley added that he believes the Air Force is at the beginning of a long journey, in which everyone, military and civilian, officer and enlisted, should have the opportunity to come forward and speak up if they have a better, more efficient way of doing things. “We can call it whatever we want to. We call it AFSO 21,” said McKinley. “But it’s just recognizing the fact that we can do things better and smarter.”

Enlisted performance reports are a prime example of something that could benefit from AFSO 21, added the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Should fitness performance results be added to EPRs, for instance? If so, should they be pass-fail or something more detailed? How should they take into account something temporary, such as pregnancy or a broken leg, that might affect fitness performance

Or should the whole enlisted evaluation system be revamped? The MAJCOM command chiefs are going to get together and come up with recommendations in this area soon, said McKinley.

“With the amount of time and effort we spend bouncing EPRs back and forth and OPRs back and forth, that’s time away from taking care of our airmen,” said McKinley. “So I’d like to see us develop a new form that’s much more efficient.”

Symbols of Strength

One issue that came up was the decision of McKinley’s predecessor, CMSAF Gerald R. Murray, to prohibit use of American Indian images on official Air Force documents and in service ceremonies.

The use of such images has been a cherished part of the history of chief sergeants in the Air Force, said panelists. Many airmen see Indian chiefs as symbols of strength and leadership.

But some chiefs or chiefs’ groups at different bases had gone too far, said Bishop of Pacific Air Forces.

McKinley added that he supported the decision to ban the imagery, and that it was unlikely to be changed.

The Air Force has had a culture of change and innovation throughout its history, and that will undoubtedly continue, said Bishop in his closing remarks. But as service members continue to work through these changes, be they new enlisted performance reports, or new uniforms, or any of a million different small distractions, they need to keep their eye on the ball.

We need to “keep the force focused on our No. 1 priority, and that’s winning the Global War on Terrorism,” said Bishop. “The one thing I think we’d all agree [on] is, that needs to be an away game. We never want to fight that game on home territory again.”

Some may think the Air Force is too focused on the Middle East, but there are other conflicts around the world, and the Air Force will support US efforts wherever needed, said McKinley.

“So thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for your service to your country, and please do not take your eye off the ball,” said McKinley. “We’ve got to have the sense of mission if we’re going to win this long war, the Global War on Terrorism.”

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C. editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent articles, “The JDAM Revolution,” and “The Laptop Scandal,” appeared in the September issue.