Chief Roy

Dec. 1, 2009

The new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, James A. Roy, reports he has been getting ready to serve as USAF’s top enlisted airman for 27 years. That is how long the Monroe, Mich., native has been in the military. He said that from early jobs as a heavy equipment operator, through supervisory positions of increasing responsibility, to the post of senior enlisted leader and advisor, US Pacific Command, each of his stops along the way has helped prepare him for the responsibility he now faces.

Not that anyone would ever be 100 percent prepared for this post. It is the kind of leadership position that can only be learned by doing.

“We like to think we are ready, but there are always those nuances of the position that you just don’t know until you step in,” said Roy in an interview.

CMSAF James Roy speaks with airmen and civilians at the financial services center at Ellsworth AFB, S.D. (USAF photo by A1C Corey Hook)

Roy became the Air Force’s top enlisted sergeant June 30, when he took over as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force from Rodney J. McKinley, who retired. Among the highlights of his first weeks on the job were spending the night in a missile alert facility, he said, and testifying before Congress on Air Force family support programs.

“Day 23,” he said of his Congressional appearance. “And it was an honor to represent all of us, not just enlisted, but all the Air Force.”

A Different Perspective

If Roy brings a different perspective to his job, it may be due to his recent service at Pacific Command. He is the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force to come into the post directly from a geographic combatant command.

“The lens that I look through is a little different,” he said. “Maybe I’m able to see things on a different plane.” That means that today, as someone in the position of providing forces, he may better know what those combatant commands need. He can ask himself what he and the airmen wanted at the combatant command.

“What was it that we needed? What capabilities?” he asked. “And then … I try to provide that capability.”

Roy’s joint credentials are further enhanced by the fact that earlier in his career he served as an instructor at the Army’s Ft. Leonard Wood, in Missouri.

Asked what his priorities are, Roy said that helping to reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise is one. Having spent some time at Air Force Space Command bases in his first months as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, he said that energizing the nuclear mission is a priority that is on track. He himself was even denied entry at a facility until his identity was verified.

“Our young airmen out there are complying with established procedures,” he said.

Developing airmen and their families is a second priority. Airmen’s development, he said, should include some educational experience that leaves them with knowledge of the other military services—and perhaps US allies as well.

“That’s the way we fight—joint teams and coalitions,” said Roy.

Not every enlisted member of the Air Force will need the same amount of joint education. Roy said he is looking at the whole continuum of Air Force training, from basic training through technical school, to see where changes should be made.

One way to expose Air Force personnel to possible coalition partners from other nations would be to do technical training together. That is already happening with some airframes.

“We’ve been sharing some training and such with some of our partner nations on [C-17] Globemasters,” said Roy, who added that he would like to see similar training in other areas, such as coalition professional military education, PME.

At Pacific Command, Roy helped select a promising senior master sergeant to attend Singapore’s warrant officer course. That sergeant came back with an increased appreciation for what US allies can provide.

“He is a much better airman today for having done that,” said Roy.

The Air Force now is working with Singapore and Canada to see if it can set up a formal process of PME exchanges. Such swaps could demonstrate to the militaries of other nations that the US is interested in their progress, as well as provide benefits to the US airmen involved.

Airmen engage “enemy” targets during Road Warrior VII at Camp Guernsey, Wyo. Road Warrior is a joint Air Force Space Command and National Nuclear Security Agency training exercise. (USAF photo by A1C Heather R. Shaw)

International Exposure

Canadian students already go through the US Air Force Senior NCO Academy. There are also USAF instructors in the Canadian system. The missing piece is the student—specifically, US students in Canadian PME.

“Not everybody needs it, but I believe it is an area where we could get our airmen exposed to other countries, and their cultural awareness increased,” said Roy.

Helping the families of airmen is another critical aspect in building a healthy Air Force. The entire service is currently highlighting the importance of Air Force families, and top leaders have designated this as the “Year of the Air Force Family.”

By “family,” the Air Force means everyone who is part of its team, emphasized Roy. Single airmen are part of the Air Force family. In fact, there is going to be an Air Force conference in the near future devoted to the concerns of its unmarried airmen. Civilian employees are part of the Air Force family, too. So are the parents, spouses, and children of airmen.

One point of the effort is to rebuild some of the camaraderie and sense of community that has been lost with the closing of clubs and other facilities that long served as gathering places for the Air Force family.

“We want to build a sense of community back into our bases, reinvigorate that,” said Roy.

This does not necessarily mean the Air Force will institute new programs, said the service’s top enlisted leader. It does include fine-tuning programs that already exist.

The Air Force will be looking at such things as the quality of enlisted housing, whether it is on- or off-base, what those communities look like, and whether they foster professional development and recreation, said Roy.

“We’re looking at all elements,” he said.

Some family friendly projects that were on the back burner have been accelerated as part of this process. These include improvements to chapels, running trails, tennis courts, and other things that improve airmen’s quality of life.

Child care is another area of focus. In particular, officials will be looking at how to adapt child care to meet the demands of today’s Air Force.

Airmen asked Roy if it might be possible to have 24-hour child care, for instance. He said that it is probably not going to be possible to have child care centers open around the clock, but there may be other means of providing such a service, targeted at individual needs.

The Air Force Exceptional Family Member Program—which aids those who have a spouse, child, or other dependent with long-term medical needs—might be tweaked as well. Right now, this effort focuses more on the assignment process than on actual support for airmen and family members. But the service is going to give additional training to Family Readiness Center technicians to allow them to work some of these concerns, according to the chief.

Health and wellness is yet another focus area this year. Among other things, the service is looking at how to change access to medical care, so that families can have a family health care provider, instead of just a number of individual providers.

“The year is focused on looking at the programs we have to make sure they fit,” said Roy. “To make sure the communities are the communities they need to be. It’s a large project, very multidimensional.”

At Whiteman AFB, Mo., TSgt. Damen Cipolla (r) checks the rotary launch assembly as it’s being lifted into a B-2. SrA. Gregory Lowe runs the lift controls. (USAF photo by A1C Carlin Leslie)

Nor is it limited to 365 days. The effort may be called Year of the Air Force Family, but it is intended to have long-term carryover. “We want to continue this over the ages,” he said.

Roy said his own family is an example of a true Air Force Family, in that the spouse is the glue that helps hold it together.

He and his wife, Paula, grew up together. They started dating in 10th grade.

Today, their elementary school-age twin boys keep them busy at home—Roy and his wife are now trying to catch their boys up on some things that were not taught at their previous school in Hawaii, but are part of the curriculum at their current school in Maryland.

An Air Force at War

This is a minor illustration of a larger problem: making sure that the educations of the children of airmen flow smoothly, despite numerous moves. In later grades, for instance, transfer of credits can be difficult.

“In high school, it becomes much more of a challenge to get those credits to flow over,” said Roy. “Though there are some good programs out there to help us.”

As part of the Year of the Air Force Family, Paula Roy also will serve as the senior spouse champion for the Key Spouse program. Key Spouse is a communication network intended to enhance readiness and establish a sense of community among unit leaders, airmen, and their families. A video endorsement from Paula Roy will open each Key Spouse training session.

Asked his favorite job, Roy said it was his recent stint at PACOM. It was “dynamic” to be part of such a large entity, with its focus on jointness and partner nations.

The experience opened up his view of the world. When you work in the same environment every day, you become comfortable with your surroundings, he said. But to break outside of that routine and serve at a job that is a little bit different than what you have normally done over the years is to challenge yourself.

“In that position I was able to discover, not more about myself, but more about us as a nation,” he said. “So for me, that job is one that certainly ranks up there.”


In a word, that sums up one of the top concerns of airmen that Roy has heard as he travels to bases.

Airmen want stability and predictability as to when they will be deployed, he said. Knowing when to get ready to go back out helps them prepare their own families.

Roy addresses the 316th Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. (USAF photo by SrA. Steven R. Doty)

But not all airmen have jobs that will allow them to deploy forward to areas where the US is at war. Missile maintainers, for instance, have a specialty that will keep them in the continental United States. “I’ve had some airmen apologize because they couldn’t deploy forward,” said Roy. “I’m trying to get them to understand that their mission is so, so critical. We need them to do it here.”

Roy said some airmen are “deployed in place.” They operate satellites that provide GPS signals to soldiers in the front lines, for instance, or they spend days at a time in underground command centers, helping to provide nuclear deterrence.

“Sometimes we only focus on those forces that are forward deployed. We have an awful lot of forces deployed in place,” said Roy.

The Air Force’s enlisted leader said that one of his missions is to communicate the importance of these airmen to other services, and to the world at large. That is something that everyone in the service needs to remember, every day, Roy told the AFA’s annual Air & Space Conference this fall.

On any given day, there are about 200,000 Air Force men and women who are either deployed or employed by combatant commanders. Of those, about 40,000 are actually forward deployed.

“We are an Air Force at war, and we need to make sure that we look like that, we act like that, and we think like that,” Roy told the conference attendees. Airmen staying at home stations are performing critical nuclear, homeland defense, and command and control missions—among others. They’re in the fight, he said. “They understand that we’re a nation at war.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Toward a ‘Community’ of Airmen,” appeared in the November issue.