CMSAF David J. Campanale
David Campanale was born in 1952, raised in the inner city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew up to be a good athlete with considerable smarts. As he put it, he “had the world by the throat.” After high school, when sports did not work out, he realized he had to make a change and find another profession. With some encouragement from his mom, he joined the Air Force in September 1970.
Campanale’s Air Force career began with a rough patch. He broke his collarbone in tech school and had trouble taking notes and studying for tests. He made a surprise visit home on Christmas only to find his high school girlfriend had found a romance with someone else, and his mom had left town for the holidays. He also struggled with his career development courses (CDC). But thanks to good supervisors who challenged him and taught him the importance of professionalism, his career soon took off. He became an excellent B-52 Stratofortress crew chief, deploying multiple times to Guam during the latter stages of the Vietnam War. He later worked on C-130 Hercules transports, the FB-111A Aardvark tactical attack aircraft, and the KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft and was promoted to master sergeant under the Stripes to Exceptional Performers program.
In October 1994 Gen Ronald Fogleman selected Campanale to be the 11th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). During his tenure, he fought for the one-plus-one dorm standard, remembering his living conditions during Vietnam and vowing to make a change. He led the Air Force through changes to TRICARE health care program and resisted a proposed change to retirement. Campanale retired in November 1996 after 26 years on active duty.
In November 2015 Campanale sat down for an interview to discuss his Air Force career and his tenure as the CMSAF. During the interview, he spoke of his initial challenges and his experiences deploying back and forth to Guam during the Vietnam War. He also shared how he was able to convince the secretary of defense to sign off on the oneplus- one dorm standard and his memory of the initial aftermath of the tragic Khobar Towers bombing. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Well Chief...we’ll just start at the beginning. I know you joined the Air Force in 1970, which was arguably the height of the Vietnam War. I’m curious as to what pushed you to the Air Force at that time?
Well, as a matter of fact, I came in seven days before my 18th birthday, so my mom had to sign for me to go in. And the real reason was to just find a career, something to do, an opportunity to go to school and receive an education. I was a pretty good athlete, and I thought something like that may pan out; but, when I played against other pretty good athletes, I found I really couldn’t stack up to a lot of them at that time. So, my mom wanted me to get an education and didn’t necessarily think community college was the best thing for me. She wanted some place where I could get some discipline, mature a little bit, and be among professionals—not necessarily in my home town. It’s funny, I often talk about that quite a bit. I often wondered why you have to be born here, raised here, live here, and spend the rest of your life here. There was a big world out there, and I often conveyed those thoughts to my mom; so, she thought joining the Air Force would be a good thing for a lot of reasons.
You went on to tech school and then to your first assignment, and I know you had a challenging start to your career. You broke your collarbone in tech school, had some troubles with grades, troubles with your CDCs. What do you attribute to some of those early challenges?
Well the collarbone was just bad luck. We were playing football on the field, and I was running—and the goal post got in the way. I remember that, and I still feel it every now and again when the weather gets a little bit cold. So, that really slowed down all the time in tech school. That was a big difference maker for me because I was constantly in pain and trying to learn. That was difficult.
I think the other early troubles, with CDCs for example, was just immaturity on my part—maybe some poor study habits and learning habits. I had a great bunch of supervisors on our team on the flight line. Tony Saenz was my supervisor there, George Juno who was really funny because he stuttered a lot and so we used to sing some of the instructions on how to do certain processes on the flight line. They were good, good guys, and they really tried hard; but, they were young NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who really weren’t a byproduct of professional military education [PME] and how to understand and coach and teach and document and to follow up. So, I think all of those things kind of contributed to a little bit of a struggle at first.
I imagine so. Understanding the little that I do about the Air Force during Vietnam and just the culture at that time, I’ve heard from others that there was less of a focus on discipline or standards. Did that play a role in the early challenges?
Those were early challenges for everybody to tell you the truth. Some people had been in the Air Force longer, and it was easier for them to understand. But for a group of people my age who were just starting out, both the young officers and the young enlisted people, it was quite a challenge because there wasn’t really a focus on quality of life for people. The focus was on sortie production, not necessarily safety, not necessarily training. As long as we got everything in the air—that was the most important thing.
But good things came from that, because you have to think about who were the young officers at that time—Gen Colin Powell, Gen Ronald Fogleman, Gen Merrill McPeak, and a whole host of other young officers who saw what it shouldn’t be like and became determined in their career to demonstrate what it should be like. I can tell you that kind of struck me, because as much as you would learn lessons on leadership and management, some lessons you learned were not necessarily from the best leaders. Sometimes it was from the worst leaders or leaders that were in a predicament and had no other options or chose not to make a change. You just felt that if you ever got the chance this is not how you would do it.
Of course, everybody says that—it is easy to say. I remember when I first started we had a master sergeant who I think was the worst supervisor in the entire free world. But he did tell me something. He said, “If you don’t like it, get out of my Air Force or grow up, change, get promoted, and do something about it.” So I started making little notes to myself along the way: “If I ever...” I kept all those notes and I went through those during my career, and I did that on the eve of the day that I was going to be sworn in as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I looked through those notes again and realized that a lot of those things were in place for the right reason. They couldn’t be changed. I also thought there were some things that could be changed and maybe the timing wasn’t right 10, 15 years ago. Maybe now the timing was right, so we focused in on those types of things. So, for all his lack of ability, he did teach me some valuable lessons. I think a lot of that came out of the Vietnam War.
You certainly overcame your early challenges. What was it that shifted for you?
I think it was a variety of things. At that time the full PME wasn’t in place, but we had an NCO orientation course that lasted three weeks. I think that helped quite a bit. It was kind of funny because the gentleman who was the instructor was our maintenance officer, and he had been RIF’d [reduction in force] and he accepted a demotion back to become a staff sergeant to teach. So, I kind of took a look at that and said, “Okay, he was captain and now he is a staff sergeant and he is teaching professional military education at its lowest level.” He did a really good job and he accepted that and he recognized there were other things to do. So, I think that helped—and then having children and getting married. You grow up a little bit, and I think that creates better awareness for you.
It’s an interesting perspective on PME as you’ve seen it grown from the infant stages. Is PME one of the biggest shifts we’ve made toward the professionalism of the enlisted force?
Oh, I think it is, and I think it was consistent with the times. When I went into the Air Force in 1970 there was still a draft, but we ended up going to an all-volunteer force. And there was a focus from the leadership at that time recognizing that we just couldn’t have the same amount of people. We almost had a million people in the US Air Force. We had so many programs that we wanted to put into place that cost money; so, sometimes the tradeoff was personnel. I remember what some of the buildings looked like, the barracks. We didn’t even call them dormitories then. Dormitory became another word that sounded better than barracks. There were so many things that had to be done. I think they recognized we just had to get more out of fewer people, and that kind of fit in with an all-volunteer force. Part of that was we had to have greater expectations for our enlisted force. The leadership at that time recognized that it could be done. But again, as wonderful as everybody was, there were some enhancements that needed to be made, and professional military education was a big part of that.
One of the other things, education-wise, that happened early in your career was the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF). It was established in 1972; you were a young Airman at the time. Do you recall that?
In 1972 I didn’t recall very much except paydays and how poor they were, and just getting to work on time—doing the best that I could. Life was very, very simple at that time, and I was young, supporting my family. As time goes on, you discover some things, and I think it’s because you look to discover or somebody helps you discover. So, the Community College of the Air Force was a big part of that. I remember going to school at night and how hard that was. I’m reminded of that today—when I come down from Colorado here (to Arizona), one of the first things I do when I get home—because I haven’t seen the family for maybe three to four weeks—I take my briefcase and I place it in the corner. I remember Thursday nights getting off school. We were gone Monday through Thursday at night school; so, I would take my books and throw them in the corner. I would take a reprieve on Friday night, then do a little bit of studying on Saturday and Sunday night. When I earned my degree that was a special moment for me, particularly because it is what I wanted to do. Learning was fun, but the work was hard and it was a goal accomplished.
What was the perception of education among the enlisted force at the time? I’ve heard some were ridiculed for trying to get their education. Others say it became a greater focus and more important as the years went on.
I always thought it became a greater focus, and it was the right thing to do. We used to ask Airmen when I was the Chief, “Why did you join the Air Force?” A lot of times education was the number one answer, and then people would say, “To see the world.” The service and what Airmen can give is predicated on how well educated they are—both personally and professionally. So to work through a degree in the Community College of the Air Force wasn’t always about a degree for after the Air Force, even though that is good for our country. It was a degree for while you were in the Air Force. So, I think it was the exact right thing to do at the time. There were some naysayers, because some people thought that’s all they wanted to do, but most people would find the right balance and do the right things.
You were a B-52 crew chief and deployed back and forth to Guam a few times in support of Vietnam. What do you recall about those deployments?
So it was called “Bullet Shot.
Why was that?
I don’t know. It was called Bullet Shot, and we called it “The herd shot ’round the world.” The troops had a little fun with that. It was our first deployment, and most of us were excited to go because we had been a garrison force as part of Strategic Air Command [SAC]. We just did the same thing every day and practiced for what we hoped would never come. So, we were now deployed in a conventional operation.
I can remember when we got off the plane that brought us to Guam. We had flown all night and had a long day ahead of us, but we threw our bags in the room and went right to work on the flight line because aircraft were coming behind us. They didn’t have buses to bring us in; so, we rode around in converted old cattle cars that were used to move cattle around. That’s why we called ourselves “the herd shot ’round the world,” because we took these cattle cars around the base to get to the flight line.
I remember looking out the window and seeing a sign that said, “Guam is good by order of the base commander.” I really didn’t have high expectations, but most of us were there on orders for 60 days; so, we thought, “Okay, no problem.” Then we got extended to 90 days, then 120, and then eventually 179. After the tour, we went back home, processed back in, spent a couple of days, and were then told we could go do anything we wanted for three weeks. We didn’t have to take any leave. We took off for three weeks, and when we came back—boom—we were off again for another six months. We did that, came back, again the same process, and then deployed again except this time we came back home after about three months because of the Yom Kippur War.
It was a rainy, wet place. The first time we lived in the barracks, but the second time, we lived in some converted chicken coops we called Tin City. If you can imagine living in Tin City, where the roof is this far [roughly a foot] from your face and it is pouring rain on the tin roof most of the time. There were 200 people that shared two washers and dryers...five sinks, five showers, and five toilets. It really wasn’t a great place to be. But the last time I went back, we were staying in tents, and it was far worse than that. It wasn’t a good experience, but it was a living experience I remembered throughout my entire career. I always reminded myself that our troops should never have to live like that for what they do for our country.
After the war ended, you volunteered and went to Grisham AFB, Indiana. I think you were a senior airman then and, as I understand it, really made a mark on your unit. I found that interesting, because many would say that as a young Airman you can’t have that sort of influence. Why did you have that influence?
Well, first of all, I was never a senior airman—I was a sergeant. A senior airman was only created as an additional grade to keep the amount of enlisted people or noncommissioned officers below the congressional limit. So, I was a sergeant, and I was always looking forward to work on the flight line. But I happened to be the lucky person. They assigned me to field maintenance to handle logistics and technical orders. I worked with quality control to put together deployment kits for cold weather deployments—tool kits and all that type of stuff. I learned how to handle a budget and started using a computer—a Burroughs 3500. I was like a jack-of-all-trades; so, they pulled me away from the flight line to go work in field maintenance and work in their logistics division. I learned an awful lot there. Of course, while you’re learning, you’re always trying to do your best, and fortunately, I was able to have an impact on the unit.
What advice would you have for younger Airmen and NCOs who maybe feel they don’t have any authority or influence to make much of a difference?
Well, the first advice is don’t worry so much about authority. Worry more about influence and what you can do. When I was the Chief, General [Ronald L.] Fogleman used to say all the time that we’re all small little teams. You’re a team within a bigger team, which is part of a bigger team and so on. I think that’s a strength and goes to how well we’re able to focus and do the little things. When you consider what the US Air Force does—and really the entire Armed Forces—not only for America, but for the world, they’re able to do it and execute it in such a professional fashion. They do everything so quickly and so well. I think people lose sight of that bigger picture sometimes. Everybody is valuable in and of themselves, and they can influence the team. A team of five people can vary in rank from E-8 to E-3, but they function very, very well because they all have influence. I think that is the most wonderful thing about the Armed Forces of the United States today. We’re in a society where we all wear our authority, but we don’t choose to use that unless it is absolutely necessary. We instead use the collaboration of everybody’s talents and thoughts to produce a better product for America.
A couple years later, you went to NCO Leadership School. You talked about PME a little bit already, but just to that experience and that moment of your career—what stands out to you?
It was fun. The commandant of the school was MSgt John Oulette. He was really a super guy. We both had daughters that were the same age and liked to play soccer, but there were no soccer leagues, or very few soccer leagues that were mostly for boys and not for girls. I thought he was a fun guy to be around. He pointed out the fun things. He wasn’t necessarily your in-the-box type of guy; he was an outside-the-box kind of guy. The staff was great. It was a great educational experience, and I remember it quite well because they had a physical fitness award and a speech award and I ended up being a distinguished graduate in the class and winning the physical fitness and speech award. It was a great time, and John and I became friends for life after that.
You mentioned the soccer leagues...you were very involved in base activities. You actually established a soccer league at one point. Why was it important for you to get involved?
Well, the first thing that started it was the fact that we were in Hawaii and there were a lot of things for young boys to do—but not for the girls. There was baseball, soccer, flag football, and a lot of other stuff. I had two daughters, and I found that a lot of parents felt the same way. So, we decided to work with the American Youth Soccer Organization to put together a league of our own—myself, John Oulette, and three or four other people who had kids that went to school together and wanted to play soccer together. We started out with just four girls’ teams, and at that time there were six boys’ teams. We didn’t have any fields; so, we had to create makeshift fields and maintain them. We found referees and set up a league organization and made sure we complied with the rules of the American Youth Soccer Organization. By the time we got done, we had eight leagues and more than 50 teams.
We had two seasons. We had one season where the boys and girls were in separate leagues and then another mixed season where the boys and girls could play together on the same team because we felt that was important. We tried to make sure the lineups were 50/50 so everyone could play. I thought that was a big part of bringing the community together on Saturdays.
So, I’m guessing you didn’t do all those things for the recognition. What was it that motivated you to help out?
I don’t know. First of all, it is your kids, it is your family, and things to do. I joined the Air Force Sergeants Association at that time as well and did some recruiting for them and thought about what private organizations do across America. If you look at it today, there are 800,000 private organizations in America. They don’t do it for tax reasons; they do it because there is a void in the community that has to be filled, and a lot of times it’s focused around children. I was a byproduct of the Boys and Girls Club of America. I was an inner-city kid. That’s where we went, and that’s where we had our entertainment. We didn’t have that at the base; so, that was really the motivation to do that for the kids.
You later made Chief and were president of the Chief’s group. What do you think is important for those professional organizations to do, and what impact would you want to see them have on a base?
Well, I think the first thing they have to do is what makes them feel good. There is a large number of things that can be done in a community. There are children’s programs, programs for seniors, programs for people who need a meal, need a break, need a handout, and need a little love. All you have to do is care. If you do that, it sets a good example. It’s not because you put it in your performance report. It’s because it makes you feel good and it’s the right thing to do.
Sure. Tell me a little bit about when you made Chief...
My goal was to become a senior master sergeant. I read the little clips that only two percent of the force gets to senior master sergeant; so, I thought that would be pretty good. I moved on from Pease AFB [New Hampshire]. I was at SAC Headquarters and again working in logistics, this time as a program manager for the FB-111 weapons system for the command. It was a very interesting job, but our boss at the time encouraged us to be 15-minute experts on anything. So, you learned to be a quick study and work through things quickly.
One of the things I think I always had as a young enlisted person was the passion for doing what was right. I learned along the way to put the detail and facts behind the passion, and I think that was a mark of being a good leader at that time. We were able to do interesting things at SAC Headquarters, and I was fortunate to make Chief the first time out. I was really surprised, because I received a call at 5 a.m. in the morning. I was doing the morning reports. and it was Gen [John T., Jr.] “Jack” Chain who was the commander of Strategic Air Command. I answered the phone and said, “Bomber Systems Branch, this is Sergeant Campanale. How may I help you?” and he says, “Is this Dave Campanale?” I said, “Yes, sir,” and he said, “This is Gen Jack Chain. Congratulations.” He called me Chief for the first time.
That’s a great story. Not too much later you become a senior enlisted leader. Was that the direction you wanted to go?
Well, I really didn’t know because when I made Chief it was gravy on the potato. We were happy living in Omaha [Nebraska]. The kids were going to school, and I really didn’t want to move to California and become a wing chief. I made Chief at 16 years in the Air Force and still had a lot to learn; so, I actually initially declined the first opportunity to interview for a wing chief. It was my late wife Barbara—she worked in SAC Headquarters and went to the Chief’s office, Jan Boyd, and said, “My husband will interview. Just tell him that.” I didn’t want to disrupt the family.
So, we interviewed and got the job and went to California. It was quite an experience, because the senior enlisted leader at the time had just retired after 30 years. Here I was with less than 18 years in the Air Force, with a whole different mind-set and thought process. At that time Castle AFB [California] wasn’t renowned for many good things. It had a high DUI [driving under the influence] rate, a high Article 15 rate, AWOL [absent without leave] rates, a lot of discipline issues, and problems on the base. It was a training base, and there were a lot of transitory people. But it was a great assignment, and I learned a lot. You go through these stages in your life, and you grow up and learn different things by who you’re around and the circumstances you’re placed in.
You were later at the Mobility Airlift Command (MAC) and were actually there when it evolved to Air Mobility Command (AMC), is that correct?
That’s right. Gen Hansford T. Johnson was the commander of MAC, and he chose me as a wing guy to move to a major air command, which typically didn’t happen. At that time, usually people would go to an air division position or maybe a numbered Air Force position. There were several other steps, and I jumped through that, but we seemed to hit it off pretty well. He thought that someone from outside of Military Airlift Command might have a good and positive influence on the troops.
At that time in the early ’90s; there was quite a bit of reorganization. What do you recall about that transition?
Well, whenever there is a change, there is always a bit of heartache. Looking back on that restructure of the force, it was emotional and painful because Strategic Air Command had gone away, and I was a part of that almost my entire career. We were going through a Base Realignment and Closure [BRAC]; so, units were closing down, the infrastructure was smaller, and it had to be that way. Air Mobility Command was part of US Transportation Command as well, and General Fogelman was the commander of both. We also stood up the Tanker Airlift Control Center at the time.
There were a lot of things we needed to change, because if you look at the world events...in 1989 the Berlin Wall comes down. The world changed immediately after that. We had to respond to world events. The motto of Air Mobility Command was “Global Reach for the World, Global Power for America.” Making all these command changes was the right thing to do at the time, and most certainly it has benefited us as years have gone on.
That was your first experience working with General Fogelman, who later hired you to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. What went through your mind when he told you the news?
Well, I didn’t even really hear what he said at first to tell you the truth. It was a Sunday, and we were expecting all the Chiefs and their spouses from Air Mobility Command to come to our house for a big barbecue on Monday night. So, my wife was working feverishly to make sure we were ready, because we were expecting about 80 guests. We were going to have a conference and entertain them all week long, so you want to put your best foot forward.
This was also the day I was in the headquarters because we were ready to send a military force into Haiti. Eventually, President [Jimmy] Carter convinced them to do this peacefully. I had my two numbered Air Force Chiefs with me at the time; so, I said, “Hey let’s go over to the house because the ladies are over there. We’ll have dinner tonight and be ready for all our guests tomorrow and just relax a little bit.” I was going down the elevator and was on the first floor when one of the elite guardsmen said, “Hey Chief, General Fogleman needs to see you.” I asked the guys if they wanted to come up, but they decided to just stay down there and hang out.
General Fogelman had some family members that had visited him a month before, and one of them had made a little flag, which was a bull with a circle around it and a line through the middle—no BS is what it was all about. He gave me that and said a couple of his family and friends wanted me to have it for being such a great host when they were there. So, I said, “Okay, thank you, sir.” Then he said, “Oh by the way, you’ve been selected as the 11th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.” And I said, “Okay, thank you, sir.” I just walked out of his office, went into the elevator, and when I was half way down, I thought, “Oh, my word, what did he just say?” So, I went back up, confirmed it was the truth, and he said, “Yup, you have to be there in two weeks.”
So, I went back down the elevator. The chiefs asked what the general had to say, and I said, “Well, I’ll tell you a little bit later.” So, I went home and told my wife first. She was happy and gave me a hug, and she said “So, two weeks?”
So, we had a conference for one week. We were literally waving goodbye to everybody Friday afternoon following the conference and then were home pulling pictures off the wall and packing stuff up because the van was going to arrive the following Wednesday to come get our stuff. We had three days and then drove from Scott AFB, Illinois, to Washington, DC, Friday morning.
When you became the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force you had a lot on your plate and a lot to lead the Air Force through. One of them was the shift to TRICARE from the previous system, which brought a lot of uncertainty, frustration, and concern. What do you recall about the primary concerns Airmen had?
Well, again, it was change. Bases were closing, and in a lot of cases, hospitals were closing. We only had so many people we could keep in the force, and as valuable as the medical crews were to us, we had to keep the majority of the force in war-fighting positions because we were a deployed force. We needed something to fill in the gap, and I think it has turned out to be an incredible success.
The bigger thing was being visible and communicating. I think a sign of leadership is facing the crowds when there is something controversial going on. I can remember being in every movie theater imaginable, never watching a show, but giving presentations for people about TRICARE. It wasn’t just active duty; it was retired people as well who had become used to the idea of going to the base hospital and getting care on a standby basis. Of course we were going from CHAMPUS [Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services]. There were questions on deductibles. How do I do this? How do I enroll? Just a lot of confusion. I give a lot of thanks to our incredible administrative people and the docs and all the med techs who were able to explain the process. Not only did they provide great medical care when they could, they also provided an explanation of the transition.
The other change that came from this was for many of our tenured people. When they reached age 65, they were converted to Medicare. There are different payments involved in that; so, after TRICARE came TRICARE for Life, because everyone thought it was an earned benefit that had been promised. There was never anything in writing, but I can tell you that everyone was promised that as a benefit. So, we were able to make that change and relieve a lot of anxiety for people. We just coached them through the process and made sure they were armed with as much information as they needed.
Retirement became a hot topic during your tenure as well. There were conversations to change it to a High One, and you played a role to keep what we had. Can you expand on that?
Well, first of all, this is kind of a theoretical thing, but when anybody gives you a contract or there is an agreement, if someone is trying to change it, it’s typically never good for the people signing the contract. Just as a general rule of thumb.
Military retirement is an important part of why a person serves and takes less salary to do what they do. When we were a garrison force it didn’t sound so hard, but when you’re a deployed force and you’re away from your family, you’re in harm’s way much more, and many things impact your quality of life. A retirement is a pretty important thing. It is not just about the repayment for the great service that people give, it’s also about finding the right people to give that service for the United States of America. When you can do that and people stay in and receive a reasonable retirement for what they have done, they come back to America, they come back to the community. When we talked earlier about community involvement on the base, they come back and make a difference in their communities across America. So, if you’re changing the retirement system, or if you’re taking away the benefit, fewer people are going to want to come in. More importantly, fewer of the right people are going to want to stay in.
I find those two topics interesting because they always seem to be coming up. They’re coming up again now as well.
I think that it is just a matter of budgetary concerns. Sometimes people are just looking at the budget and trying to make cuts. This is the message I would give to everybody, and I hope they get a chance to hear it: If you thought it was such a good deal, why didn’t you do it?
In times of war, when the war is right there facing America and the challenges are there, nobody talks about taking away a benefit. It is when the wars are over, or the perceived wars are over, that everyone wants to take back money. There is not one military person who I think wouldn’t sacrifice some salary or some retirement benefits, but, if they’re going to do it, every other American has to do it as well. It can’t be placed on the shoulders of those who protect and give freedom—it just can’t be that way.
Earlier you were talking about Tin City and how that experience influenced your perspective on how Airmen deserve to live. You pushed heavily for the one-plus-one dorm concept. Why was that such an important push?
It all focused back to the same thing. If you’re going to have a smaller force, you’re going to have fewer people doing more with less. Everybody in Washington, DC, said, “Chief, don’t say that word...doing more with less.” I said, “Okay, tell me that it isn’t that way.” It was politically incorrect, but that’s exactly what we were doing. We’re asking our people to do much, much more—extend their days, work harder, deploy, and separate from their family. The thought process was, you should want to do it for less because you love your country.
There is always that back and forth that applies to everybody. It applies from the president on down—every elected political leader. I don’t see them taking less for love of their country, and oh, by the way, they can quit on Friday if they want and walk away. So, when you talk about all of those types of things, the one-plus-one dorm was about who comes in and what is attractive to them.
When I came in, I shared a room with three other people. I just thought that was the way it was because that was the barracks. I had to accept that, but I hated it. I don’t know of anybody who liked that at all. Eventually, it went down to two people, and only because the Air Force got smaller, but it was still a shared room with a gang latrine. It was just totally unacceptable. You don’t attract quality people with those types of things.
The funny thing was, at the time we were married; I had two daughters. By government regulations, they were allowed to have a separate bedroom. So, why can’t people who serve have a separate bedroom? I spent a lot of time in the extra room downstairs in the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force House at Andrews AFB [Maryland]. We moved stuff around, and hung Post-Its all over—I fell in love with Post-Its. We developed a dormitory occupancy standard and, as a result of that, put together a good plan to send forward to the secretary of defense for approval, which he declined to do at first.
What was his reasoning?
He was the secretary of defense, a great guy, Dr. Bill Perry. The Army and the Marine Corps wanted nothing to do with it, neither did the Navy at first, but I was able to work with my Navy counterpart and support him on basic allowance for quarters for deployed sailors. You learned to collaborate a little bit and work together.
So I asked the secretary of defense one day, “Dr. Perry, we interview Airmen all the time. We do all of these surveys; we spend millions of dollars on surveys. I just want you to do a favor for me.” He said, “Sure, David.” I said, “Let’s just tell the people of the Air Force and all the services that we’re not going to ask them what they want anymore. We’re not going to waste money on surveys, and we’re never going to have a one-plus-one dorm standard. If you do that for me, I’d appreciate that.”
He looked at me a little quizzically and wondered why I would say that, but it was the truth. We ask Airmen what they want; we do these surveys when we have no intention of ever giving it to them. That’s ridiculous. So, just a few days later, the civil engineering folks who had been working with me on the program said, “Guess what? Come on down.” Dr. Perry had signed the one-plus-one occupancy standard in spite of the objections from the Army and the Marine Corps representatives. I had the Navy guys on my side, and what comes with the Navy comes with the Coast Guard; so, it was three against two.
What was the response from Airmen when they heard the news?
I was pretty excited about that. I looked at demographics of the Air Force, and you could see trends that were happening in our dormitories. One out of every five recruits was a female coming into the dorm, and there was a trend that young men and women were getting married for the sole purpose of moving out of the dorm. Sometimes those things didn’t end happily. So, I think we created a better environment and really made a dorm feel like a dorm. Part of that was to put a kitchen in between. A kitchen is neutral space. It’s what the people wanted and indicated in their survey by an overwhelming margin. So, why not give it to them? I think that would be a clear message to everybody that says leaderships listens to you. We spend money on these surveys. Now we’re ready to make a commitment for you.
You were the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force to begin the shift in basic training to focus on an expeditionary mind-set. Why did you make that shift?
We were teaching a lot of stuff that really didn’t have an impact. When we revisited our basic training, we made two significant changes. We took away some of the training we thought was wasteful, that was repeated when they got to tech school or their first duty station. We were looking at some of the statistics on our lost ratios for people, and we were losing about nine percent of our people that would come into the Air Force simply because they had problems with some type of abuse, whether it was spousal abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse, or they couldn’t manage their budget correctly. So we changed some of our classes to life skill classes to teach people how to manage their life. You know, like me, I was 17 years old, a lot of people aren’t going to get it right away. So, that was one thing we did.
The other thing was that, although we were preaching the benefits of the Air Force, we had to appreciate the responsibility and the commitment that people make when they take an oath of enlistment. When you take that oath, you think about what you’re doing. You’re really saying you’ll give your life for your country. I think we needed to put a greater focus on that, to get us moving toward that mind-set so people wouldn’t lose it as they left basic training and went on in their career.
I think it was the right thing to do because of the changes we made. You look at 1989 and how the world changed when the Berlin Wall came down, and then subsequent events that tipped off right away. The Berlin Wall came down, and we had an outbreak of conflict that started in Bosnia right away. We were a deployed force, and people needed to understand that mentality. Basic training was a big part of that.
Toward the end of your tenure, you experienced one of the most tragic events in our history—the bombing of the Khobar Towers. What do you remember about that time?
I remember that pretty vividly. It was one day that my late wife Barbara was not at the house. She was down in Atlanta, Georgia, with my daughter Jessica, trying to help her prepare for her wedding. So, she was away, and I was out in the yard doing what I like to do. I like to cut my own grass, and so, I was home cutting my grass in the backyard.
My neighbor, who was the Chief of the Air National Guard, came down and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You need to call the command post.” So, I called command post at Andrews AFB, and they told me what happened. They connected me with Dr. Perry’s assistant, Major General [Paul J.] Kern—he was an Army general officer—and he told me that Dr. Perry wanted to speak with me. He wanted to organize a trip to Khobar Towers as quickly as possible. I said we’ll gladly do that. I checked in with General Fogleman the next day, and then myself and my counterparts from the other services all left and ended up going down to Khobar Towers.
The commander there was Brig Gen Terry Schwalier, an incredible leader and just a great guy. We went and got a survey of everything. I was ahead of General Fogleman, so I called him over the secure phone. I told him what to bring and who to come with. I told him to bring the JAG [judge advocate general], and he asked, “Why should I bring the JAG?” I said, “You can’t believe the incredible job the young JAG corps is doing here helping people with money and recovery.” There were 19 people killed and a couple hundred wounded in that whole event, and it was really something else.
Dr. Perry met with King Fahd [bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] and talked to him a little bit. We flew to Sigonella, Italy, and jumped on the COD [carrier onboard delivery], which is the plane that lands on the carrier deck. We landed on the USS George Washington and spent two days steaming down the Mediterranean. Then we jumped off and had a dinner in the evening with the Italian defense ministry; then, I flew nonstop back from Rome, Italy, to LaGuardia Airport in New York. My public affairs guy, Mike Brown, met me there, and we flew to Comiskey Park [Chicago, Illinois] to throw out the first pitch on the Fourth of July.
They did an interview, and normally you do interviews where it’s face-to-face or there may be a camera and the interviewer is right there, but it was a remote interview that I was doing. I thought it would be one or two TV stations, but there were dozens—and they were all asking about Khobar Towers. Before the game started, we enlisted about 180 people in the infield grass; so, it was a really cool thing that the owner of the White Sox did for us.
I remember all of that very, very vividly. People seemed to have more of a focus on you and were looking at you a little differently than perhaps in the past.
During your tenure, what do you remember most about the Airmen?
I think really their resiliency. It just never seemed to matter. Whatever the challenge was, the resources they lacked, or the work schedule they faced, they just never got down. They always kept their head up, and they did it with such an incredible level of expertise and excellence—just absolutely spectacular. They never failed. They didn’t want to be separated from their family; you could see that. Most people think service members love being deployed, but that’s not the truth. Maybe the first time, but that wears off pretty quick. When they get there, they just go, “Okay, this is what we have to do,” and they execute flawlessly.
Today we have a new generation of Airmen doing equally impressive things. When you look at the Air Force today and the Airmen serving today, and you had to say something about them but you had to start the sentence with “I believe,” what would you say?
I believe our country is in great hands.
Great, I like that. Is there anything you’d like to add?
You know, I think about our time in the Air Force and some of things we did. Sometimes we hit on some big ticket items, which we talked about, but what I’m most proud of, really, is the onesies and twosies I could help with here and there. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories where an Airman had a problem with this or an NCO had a problem with that, and we were able to use our office and the staff of the Pentagon to help people out and to do what is right.