Toward a “Community” of Airmen

Nov. 1, 2009

In a rare opportunity to sit down as a group at AFA’s Air & Space Conference, command chief master sergeants of four Air Force major commands and NORAD emphasized the urgent need to build strong communities of airmen throughout the Total Force.

This is the Year of the Air Force Family, and each of the chiefs agreed on the importance of helping service members cohere into mutually reinforcing groups.

CMSAF James Roy (left) moderated the command chiefs’ discussion panel: Seated l-r: CMSgt. Joseph Barron Jr., CMSgt. Dwight Badgett, CMSgt. Pamela Derrow, CMSgt. Michael Gilbert, and CMSgt. Allen Usry. (USAF photo by MSgt. Stan Parker)

Guard and Reserve forces face a special set of challenges, the chiefs observed at the Sept. 15 event. They have always had roots within their civilian communities, said CMSgt. Dwight D. Badgett, command chief for Air Force Reserve Command, but ties to the Air Force community are sometimes not as strong.

“We, as a reserve force, need to do a little better job on taking care of our families,” said Badgett.

When active duty airmen return from deployments, they go right back into their units, where there are supervisors to watch them and monitor how their reintegration is going, Badgett noted. When members of the Guard and Reserve return from deployments, they have no such safety net. They just go home.

“So we have to do a better job of addressing that. …We have a ways to go,” said Badgett.

In Air Force Special Operations Command, senior enlisted members will be emphasizing personal contact with airmen, said AFSOC Command CMSgt. Michael P. Gilbert.

Gilbert noted that when he was a young airman, if he had shown up on base with a flashy new Mustang, there “would have been a fistfight among the NCOs over who could come over and counsel me first on where did you buy it? How can you afford it?”

Today the service is missing some of that personal concern, he said.

Ability To Go Deep

“I look at our NCO corps—we are phenomenal in so many things, but this piece we’re letting slip,” he said.

At a recent forum of 16 senior NCOs, all of whom are supervisors, Gilbert asked how many had been to the homes of their airmen, and four raised their hands. The same four were the only meeting participants who had had airmen over to their own homes.

“When you see failure among our airmen, invariably you see they’re not getting the leadership inputs that they should get,” said Gilbert.

“Eyes-on every day is extremely important,” said CMSgt. W. Allen Usry, command chief for NORAD and US Northern Command.

Command CMSgt. Joseph E. Barron Jr. of Air Mobility Command seconded that point, and added that senior NCOs need to hold airmen to the same high standards they would expect of themselves.

“None of us should ever settle for mediocrity,” said Barron.

CMSgt. Pamela A. Derrow, command chief for US Air Forces in Europe, said that there is an ongoing “headquarters level” look at how the Air Force trains its people for war.

Whether airmen on such a deployment are going to be serving within the perimeter of a base, or traveling outside the perimeter, the service is going to tailor training to make sure personnel get what they need to be successful, said Derrow.

“Trust me, [Air Force leaders] want to make sure that our airmen are trained and protected as much as possible,” she said.

Gilbert noted that the record of the service speaks for itself, in that airmen are “kicking butt” doing tasks in war zones that they were not originally assessed to do.

“Transporters” are an excellent example, said Gilbert. One day, someone taps them on the shoulder and says they are going to be sent somewhere for two months of training, and soon they are driving along some of the most dangerous roads in the world.

“The Air Force has responded correctly” and has given these airmen the training they needed to do the job, and to do it right, said Gilbert.

Long-term changes are also needed to bolster expeditionary capabilities. The Air Force needs to take care of the airmen they ask so much of, and build the force the US is going to need over the next decade or so.

Right now, “our ability to go deep into some country some night” and put in a 60-man special operations force is “questionable,” said Gilbert.

Asked about the state of Air Force morale, the chiefs noted that the current pace of deployments is hard on airmen—but that the job is something they all signed up to do.

A1C Daniel Anderson (l), A1C Marvin Richardson (r), and Amn. Rodrigo Maranon (back) load pallets onto a C-17. All are transportation specialists, a field that has stood up to unusual challenges in the wars in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by James M. Bowman)

“Anybody at this point, post-9/11, that is still in our Air Force, … gets it,” said Gilbert.

The chiefs agreed that the question they get asked most about deployments is not, “When do I have to go?” but “When do I get to go?”

That is true for the Reserve and Guard as well as active duty units. “We have yet to not fill a tasking,” Badgett said.

Service recruiting and retention numbers remain strong, added AMC’s Barron.

The weak economy has helped out a bit in this area, but private-sector job prospects are only a small part of the equation. The majority of the Air Force entered military service since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the current pace of action is all they know.

“What I begin to wonder about, if things start slowing down, how are they going to feel?” asked Barron.

Back at home station, enlisted professional military education is under review; a number of changes have been made, or are about to be made. For instance, there have been many complaints that PME does not occur at the right times in careers, and that is being addressed, said Derrow.

Education Is Key

“Same thing” on the curriculum, she said. “There’s a lot of work being done on the curriculum to make sure that it’s the right training, the right time, and at the right level.”

Usry said there are efforts to make sure airmen can benefit from sister service PME or similar training offered by partner nations.

His own command, NORAD, would be a perfect place to take some American airmen and put them through the Canadian PME system, said Usry, and that is “one of the things we’re looking at right now.”

Badgett of AFRC said there is a wide range of opportunities in the civilian educational system, and the service needs to continue to encourage young airmen to pursue those options and not just military PME. “I think we need to look at the entire educational experience,” he said.

The chiefs expressed skepticism about the idea of privatizing the dorms used by unaccompanied junior airmen. Such a move might make it more difficult to lead that community, said Gilbert, if the airmen were placed in privatized housing where senior NCOs had limited access.

Badgett added that the Air Force sometimes looks at programs with an eye toward saving money, but in this case, that approach might not be appropriate. There is a lot of strain on 19- and 20-year-old airmen who are given enormous responsibilities and are trusted with pieces of equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We need to make [it] feel more like a community, not like we’re trying to push [them] away,” said Badgett.

Similarly, the chiefs were not supportive of any effort that would close Air Force dining facilities.

“When it comes to a dining facility on a base, especially when there aren’t a lot of other options around, I don’t really care what the business case is,” said Usry. “Young airmen need a place to eat.”

Derrow said it is very important to remember that single airmen are also members of the Air Force family, whether they live in a dorm or off base.

USAFE is trying to spruce up dorms to make them seem more homelike for airmen, she said, because sometimes “you go in there and there is not that sense of home.”

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, “The College Park Century,” appeared in the September issue.