CMSAF James A. Cody
James Cody was born on 19 June 1965, and raised in Lakeville, Massachusetts. Like many who live along the northeastern coast, he developed a fondness for fishing and sailing. In high school he was an athlete, excelling in track and field, but his goal was always clear: he would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Massachusetts State Police. He joined the Air Force as a stop gap, something he could do until he became old enough to apply for the police force. But once he joined, he fell in love—with a fellow Airman and the Air Force—and his goals changed.
Cody became an air traffic controller, and in technical training, he met his future wife and fellow Airman, Athena. They were both assigned to Ramstein Air Base, Germany and quickly became well known in the air traffic controller community. They were hard workers, and well-trained and professional Airmen. They excelled in each assignment, serving at Pease Air Force Base (AFB), New Hampshire; Vandenberg AFB, California; Osan Air Base, Korea; Incirlik Air Base, Turkey; Langley AFB, Virginia; and many other installations. In 2005, Chief Cody stepped away from air traffic control to become a command chief, serving thereafter at the expeditionary task force, wing, numbered air force and major command levels.
In January 2013, General Mark A. Welsh III made Cody the 17th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). Immediately upon assuming the position, Chief Cody committed to the continued evolution of the enlisted force. He identified various policies and processes, and with the support of the Air Force Chief of Staff and Enlisted Board of Directors (EBOD) moved each of them forward to ensure the enlisted force was prepared for future challenges. Among the changes were a new enlisted evaluation system and weighted airman promotion system. He also evolved enlisted professional military education (EPME) and introduced Airmen’s Week at basic military training (BMT). He retired from the Air Force on 17 February 2017 after more than 32 years of service.
In January 2017 as his tenure was coming to a close, Cody sat down for an interview to discuss his Air Force career and his time as the CMSAF. During the interview he talked about serving with Athena as a join-spouse couple, the challenges of evolving an enlisted evaluation system, and the reasons behind Airmen’s Week and changes to EPME. The following are edited experts from the conversation.
Alright Chief, well you joined the Air Force in 1984. As I understand, that was right out of high school. What pushed you to join the Air Force then?
I came in the Air Force to get out of the Air Force, to be honest with you. I was very much focused on becoming a state trooper in Massachusetts. That’s what my dad had done, and what I wanted to do. I was tapped and ready to go to college. I had applied and been accepted, but as I got closer to graduation, like a lot of young people, I decided I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to go in the state police. Despite some objections from my parents, who were pushing me to go to college, I decided to join the Air Force. I figured I’d do this for four years. I would get on a state police list in that four years and then get out and go back home. That’s what pushed me to join. This was to do something, while I waited to do something else.
I guess the next question is what changed, because obviously that didn’t pan out.
I think what changed is I came in the Air Force. I don’t come from a military background, nor did I have any family members who were serving in the military. My stepdad was in World War II, I had an uncle who was a pilot, but I just didn’t have that exposure. I came in the Air Force and was exposed to different people, the different aspects of life. We went to Germany. Athena and I got married. We had our son. Even then, I think for a fairly significant period of time we both planned on separating, and neither one of us had these great aspirations of making the Air Force a career.
It really changed when it was time to get out. We were at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. This is 1988–1989 time frame. They did a base realignment and closure [BRAC], and were closing Pease. Athena and I were working in the tower and RAPCON [radar approach control system] there, as air traffic controllers. We were dual rated, and they came to several of us and offered us the opportunity to get out. At that time during BRAC, even if you had retainability, if you wanted to get out, you could get out. They would rather not move you. The Air Force said we could get out, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] said they would hire us the next day to stay right there. Just take the uniform off. Certainly, as you’d expect, we talked with our families about it. Our families didn’t have that strong military background; so, they were like, “Heck yeah. Get out.” We were only 2½ hours away from where I grew up at that point. That’s when Athena and I talked and asked ourselves, “Okay, what are we going to do?”
Initially I would tell you we were leaning towards getting out and just working through the logistics of that. That’s when we started talking about all the things we loved about the Air Force. We liked our job. We liked air traffic control, but we loved being Airmen in the Air Force. We loved what it represented, how it made us feel, the people that we were doing it with. That started moving us in this direction, and we decided we we’re going to stay in and do this for a career.
You mentioned Athena. Obviously she has had a big influence in your career. I know you met her very early in your career, I believe at tech school [technical training school] is that right?
Yeah, we did. We met at tech school. Athena was about a month ahead of me coming in the service. I joined in November. She joined in October. We were both air traffic controllers. We met each other the very first night that I arrived at Keesler [AFB, Mississippi], for tech school. It was New Year’s Eve 1984 that I arrived there. I met her that evening. We just met. No real thing beyond that. She was ahead of me. Obviously, through school we got to know each other. As we were going through school we became really good friends. That friendship became a lot more, and we ended up both going to Germany.
She was supposed to go to Keesler Tower. I was going to Tyndall [AFB, Florida], which was supposed to be my first assignment. They had a program back then where they were trying to get people into radar approach control facilities. They came to our class towards the end, and they asked if we wanted to go to a RAPCON. If you wanted to go overseas for three years for an extended long tour as a single person, you were guaranteed a RAPCON assignment. I jumped on that and said, “Yeah, I want to do that.” Then they ended up closing Keesler Tower because they were going to do some renovations on it. They went back to Athena and offered her an assignment to Germany. She had been an exchange student over there when she was in high school, so she decided to go. Here our paths are now both going to Germany. A little over a year later we were married.
How about that. I know she had a great career herself.
She had a phenomenal career. I wouldn’t be sitting her today if it weren’t for Athena. Athena is a retired chief, did a little over 26 years on active duty, all that but one year as an air traffic controller—one year as a group superintendent. A phenomenal career. If I were going to give anybody the majority of credit for any success I’ve had, it’s certainly going to be her.
What were some of the challenges you two faced as a join-spouse couple?
I think in the beginning, a lot of it came down to the perceptions of others. You know, you’re an independent Airman. You come in the Air Force, put the uniform on, and you’re an Airman in your own right. Although, especially when you’re younger, people don’t think of you that way. Certainly, people who are probably old enough to be your parents are looking at you in a different way. What one does affects the view of the other. We were fortunate. We weren’t bad Airmen. We were good Airmen working hard; so, we had good reputations. There were always concerns. We couldn’t work together, couldn’t work in the same facility. People were always worried about stuff like that, especially when we were young. We, over time, gained a reputation that we were very professional. We never called each other by our first names. We always used either our operating initials or Airman so-and-so. We made a concerted effort to maintain a very professional relationship at work. Over time, it became less of a factor. Air traffic control is not that big of a community. Your reputations will always precede you. I think that worked to our advantage over time.
The challenge was assignments. I went on a remote assignment without her because a join-spouse assignment just wasn’t going to happen. We met back up in Turkey. Those things become a challenge, and certainly as we progressed in rank, it became even a greater challenge because there are less positions at the more senior enlisted ranks in air traffic control facilities. That really was the impetus behind me leaving air traffic control. It was either one of us get out of the military, or one of us leave air traffic control. I was an air traffic control functional at Air Combat Command. Athena was going to make chief. That was going to be challenging if she couldn’t get those positions she needed for her own development. I ended up getting on the command chief list and getting hired on that. We feel fortunate that, throughout our career, we could do it. It doesn’t mean there weren’t many separations. We had our remote assignments, deployments, and PCSs [permanent change of station] moves that didn’t align up exactly on time. In the long run, when you think about 26 years in uniform together, 31 years married together in the military, we’re pretty fortunate and blessed.
You two were both young Airmen when the Air Force went from the Airman Performance Report (APR) to the Enlisted Performance Report (EPR). What do you recall about the feelings of Airmen as we went through that transition?
That hit both Athena and I. We were brand new staff sergeants when that transition took place. Chief [James C.] Binnicker, our Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force at that time, made this transition. There was much of the same exact discussion that we had as we went through this recent change and evolution that we did over the last four years. What happened was they came up with a new form. It detailed things out differently, dramatically differently in the descriptions, to try to control inflation.
I’ve talked with many of my predecessors on this subject. You know, we didn’t have any of the communication mediums we use today. We didn’t have social media. None of us had computers on our desks. We weren’t going to the Internet. If the information didn’t come down in some written format that you were reading or somebody briefed you, it was just the unknown.
The reality is they did discuss having some level of quotas, but they couldn’t agree on that at the time. When they rolled that out, they established expectations. Basically, the expectations were that only one person in any work center would get the highest rating: a five. They didn’t put any numbers or restrictions to it, they just wrote out this generalized statement of expectations. Right off the get go, people did try to comply with that. Senior leaders put out directives and expectations. It personally affected me and Athena. It had everything to do with timing. I certainly wasn’t a better Airman than Athena, but timing-wise during that transition, when we were getting our first EPRs, I was ahead with my training. I had already completed all my training; so, I got one of those fives, and because Athena was in training and not fully upgraded in the opposite facility, she got a four, because there was only going to be one five for staff sergeants. That was obviously a sting for her, a sting for us, but certainly personally and professionally for her because, again, I wasn’t a better Airman than her or a better supervisor. Quite the contrary.
That situation took place in all kinds of work centers. And because there was such an uproar and there wasn’t a strong commitment from the beginning that we would put any type of quotas on it, we almost immediately walked away from that in the first year. Six months to a year later, we went away from it and basically said there were no expectations, just follow the instruction. We immediately transitioned right back to where we were, and that is complete inflation. The vast majority of Airmen received the top rating. It didn’t have the value it intended to have on performance. Every former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force will acknowledge that that was the case, and there were attempts to look at the system. There were attempts to see how we could rein it in. We certainly made tweaks on the form over time and changed the wording, but nothing fundamentally changed with the construction of it. The system had been inflated for decades. The force had been frustrated with it, and it affected us personally as Airmen. It wasn’t about performance.
How much did that experience influence your approach to the changes over the last four years?
I think we learned lessons from those original discussions. I had a great opportunity before Chief Binnicker passed away to sit down with him on multiple occasions and talk about this. As the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that led us through the transition from APRs to EPRs, he gave me a lot of good counsel on how to go through this and how to not fall into the traps that they did.
First and foremost, he told me that if we don’t somehow put restrictions on it—if we don’t put a force distribution quota or some type of limit on how many people can be rated at the very top end as it would relate to their advancement abilities—then don’t change anything. He said we would just go through a lot of churn and it wouldn’t change anything. That was a guiding principle we had as we worked through this, once [Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark A.] Welsh gave us the direction to go out and make sure performance counted. He gave it to me and the EBOD to work. Again, I had a lot of dialogue with several of the former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force on this, gaining their perspectives and understanding how they viewed it.
Ultimately, the team that was in the seat during my tenure came up with what we have now. I think we’ve hit it where it needs to be today, to be honest with you. The force was frustrated. The force was demanding a change. I’m not sure they were prepared for that change. It’s easy to cast the stone at what you’re doing. And there were countless challenges with the rollout of the new system. I think all the necessary elements were there in the previous system, in writing in the AFI [Air Force Instruction], but it just didn’t have the control measures to ensure it worked as planned the first time out. Human nature being what it is, people are going to gravitate towards inflation. It’s just what people do. It’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because the easiest thing to do is to say somebody’s doing good. The easiest thing to do is to let somebody else make the decision. The hard thing to do is to tell the Air Force who’s next from your perspective.
A major change like that requires strong leadership. I’m sure throughout your career, especially as a younger noncommissioned officer (NCO) you were in leadership positions as an air traffic controller. What did you learn from those experiences that influenced the way you led as a command chief, or as the CMSAF?
I tell this story a lot. It was a lesson I was fortunate to learn early in my career, by somebody that is just a dear friend, a brother, to me. He was my first trainer at Ramstein Air Base, then subsequently became one of my supervisors. Then he was my best man when Athena and I got married. That’s retired MSgt Dennis Larsen. I probably wouldn’t even be in the Air Force if he wasn’t sitting there giving me some direction as a very young Airman.
We went to Pease together. It was the first time I was a watch supervisor, which is a little different than frontline supervisor. It’s different than being a reporting official for somebody and providing feedback and setting expectations. This is about how you run a crew. You have a crew of air traffic controllers. You’re on the top line. You assign positions, make sure things are going right—that type of thing. Back then I didn’t have the awareness of how the whole process works, which I would gain years later. They would put the most junior people on the top line, and the more senior people would be in the coordinator positions, working the positions and training people because they had greater experience. They would put inexperienced people on the top line to gain that experience.
What I learned early on is, one, I thought I was the best air traffic controller out there, like a lot of our young Airmen do. You can be pretty hung up on yourself when you’re younger sometimes. Maybe not everybody, but I self-admit that I certainly felt that way about myself. I knew how to do things. I had learned the books; I understood the things that I thought were right, and that’s how I did things. And if you didn’t do it that way, you were wrong. I didn’t have the maturity or the temperament, I guess, and the confidence to be honest with you, in myself that it could be done any other way. If people weren’t doing things the way I thought they needed to be done, I’d be quick to tell them to do it the way I wanted them to do it. It didn’t necessarily mean the way they were doing it was wrong, but in my mind, it was. As I was trying to get some experience, and the team was helping me get experience as a supervisor, I was acting like that.
One night after a swing shift, which means we got off at 11 o’clock at night, we were in the parking lot and my buddy Dennis, DL, called out to me. He was a tech sergeant, and I was a staff sergeant. He said, “Hey, CY. I need to talk to you.” I was like, “Yeah, what’s up?” I was thinking this was a normal, friendly conversation. He said, “You better just knock it off, or they’re gonna kill you.” I was totally oblivious, which probably makes this even sadder. I was oblivious to what he was talking about. He basically goes on to tell me, chapter and verse, how I was just being a tyrant. I was not giving anybody any breathing room. I was all over everybody’s back, and they were tired of it. He said if I didn’t stop it, and if I didn’t start letting them do their job and just take care of the stuff I needed to take care of on the top line, then they were going to beat me. They might have back then. They could have got to that point of frustration where they might have taken me in the back there and given me a beat down just because they were fed up with me. I say that in jest of course.
I fought him on it, as you can imagine, as a young person. I gave him every excuse and told him how the things I was doing were right. I was proud of myself. At least I thought I was. I thought I was doing it right. I fought back on him, and I was frustrated. One, because I was getting negative feedback that I didn’t want or think I deserved, and two, I was getting it from my friend. It wasn’t that it was a tech sergeant giving me feedback, it was somebody I cared about and I thought cared about me. Of course, he did. That’s why he was giving it, but I didn’t see it that way at the time.
I had about a 30-minute ride home. After the adrenaline from that interaction settled down—and I can remember this day like it was yesterday, and I always have—I started to reflect on what just happened. After I got through my own denial phase by myself and I started to decompress a little bit and calm down, I started to think about what he was saying. The moment that solidified in me that I needed to listen to what he was saying and not what I was feeling about it, was the fact that I had another swing shift the next day. As I was thinking about this, I thought to myself, “Okay, so I’m pissed at my buddy Dennis, and I’m pissed that I got this feedback, but now I have to somehow muster up and go back into that RAPCON and take the top line with 15 people, and now I know what they think of me.” I thought they were thinking one thing about me, then I understood they thought something dramatically different. That was hard.
What I learned from that is, this just isn’t about you. This whole idea of supervising people, being in leadership roles, it isn’t about you. It’s about making sure the people you have the privilege of leading can be successful. Your role is to give them the tools they need to do the job that they’re being asked to do. In turn, that’s where your success will fold out, is in their success. I share that as a lesson I’ve constantly tried to remind myself. I can honestly say that even though I learned that lesson, and I was fortunate to learn it very early in my career, I didn’t always heed that advice. I’m still a human being. I’m still an emotional being like anybody else, but at some given point, I always reflected on that experience. That’s just one. I could give you countless different leadership examples that I’ve learned, good and bad, from people. That was the foundational lesson for me—a basic principle of what is important when it comes to leadership, and a little bit of self-reflection early on.
A few years later you were stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. I believe that was in the mid-90s. It was after Desert Storm and Desert Shield, but there was obviously a lot going on in Turkey. Operation Provide Comfort operated out of there, and of course it then transitioned to Operation Northern Watch. What do you remember about the sentiment and feeling of Airmen at that time?
Where we were, I don’t know that we thought about war in the way we think about it post 9/11. It was a post–Desert Storm/Desert Shield environment. It wasn’t completely uncontested, but there wasn’t nearly the level of combat engagement that we had post 9/11. We were over there in Turkey, and we had combat missions going up every day, unless Turkey decided we couldn’t fly that day so they could do some of their own stuff. I think the sentiment was things had changed dramatically from the Cold War, but what did that mean? I don’t know that we fully appreciated it. We weren’t growing as an Air Force then. We were still probably getting smaller and smaller. I know we were, because when I was in Korea, just prior to Turkey, we did some major drawdowns. We were still doing operations over there, and we had a sense that we were transitioning to a constant presence in that region—like what happened after the Korean War. The region was going to be another footprint that we had. We were going to be in this region, and it was going to be normal day-to-day business. There will be some missions, but mostly we would get back into an organize, train, and equip mode.
We did have a lot of things going on. At this stage of the game, I was a technical sergeant—a watch supervisor getting into the training aspect of what we were doing as air traffic controllers.
Things were changing. There were deployments. There were a lot of missions going on in Turkey, but we still had this idea that we were going to be normalizing a bit.
How did that change after 9/11?
I think everything changed after 9/11. We go into stop loss. What are we going to do? What is our response going to be? What does this mean to the country? How are we going to respond? Is it going to be an initial one-time big response and then this is over? To a degree, I think based on history that’s how the force would have fought it. We would have thought, “Okay, we’re going to find out who this enemy is. We’re going to thwart this enemy, and then we’ll get back to where we are today in the region.” The reality was that this was a much more complex enemy than we thought, and a much more dynamic environment to fight in. We had to step back and realize what we were good at, what we were capable of, and where [we] lacked as an Air Force. Certainly, my predecessors would have a better vantage point of everything that was going on in the Air Force to ensure we were prepared and ready to respond. This goes back to [CMSAF #13 Jim] Finch’s, [CMSAF #14 Gerald] Murray’s, and [CMSAF #15 Rod] McKinley’s timelines.
When I think about that, we weren’t an expeditionary force to the degree that we needed to be an expeditionary force. We didn’t have all the skill sets refined the way we needed them to be refined. I think our special operators were the most prepared, but even they weren’t fully prepared for what our nation was asking them to do. The dramatic evolution of all of that has been remarkable. It’s hard to characterize it fully. I would say the force was somewhat in shock. We had to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be an Airman? Things just dramatically started to evolve and it took our focus in a different direction.
Let’s fast forward a little bit. You later became a command chief and then served as the 18th Air Force command chief. You were there in 2010 when the earthquake hit Haiti. Many Airmen from 18th Air Force and Air Mobility Command responded through Operation Unified Response, and I know you went down there as well.
Yep, we went down there.
Can you talk a little bit about that experience and what those Airmen showed you at that time?
This was unique for us in a way and a little unique for me because of where I started out as a command chief. I started out at the 15th Expeditionary Mobility Task Force [EMTF]. There were two EMTFs, the 15th was on the West Coast, and the 21st was on the East Coast. They used to be numbered air forces, the 15th Air Force and 21st Air Force, but the Air Force is constantly evolving and changing and they were turned into expeditionary mobility task forces that had contingency response wings that fell underneath them, which then had contingency response groups. The groups had air mobility squadrons in the Pacific and European theaters that fell underneath them. The contingency response wings and contingency response groups were set up to respond with quick reaction forces from a mobility standpoint. We could go in there, open the base, and start running mobility operations. I saw that when I was in the EMTF.
The response to the earthquake in Haiti was a different thing because it wasn’t on American soil. We were going into another country. There were many different countries coming in at the same time—all there to aid the nation of Haiti. It was much different than responding to a natural disaster in your own country. What I saw was that team of Airmen displaying a tremendous set of skills. We got into Haiti immediately. We brought in our mobility assets. We got the airfield open. We secured the airfield. We started working the logistics with all the nongovernmental organizations that were trying to get into the country to bring aid and support. We coordinated that with a very small team of Airmen on the ground. The Army came in also, and many other folks came in after that. But we gained access and control very quickly to that airfield. Opening that airfield was the beginning of bringing hope back to that country that was just devastated, just devastated.
The 12th Air Force command chief at the time, Layton Clark, and I went down there just before the Super Bowl that year and spent time with our Airmen. You can’t even describe the destruction. The ability of our team to get in there and take the lead from a global standpoint was pretty impressive. We brought hope and light. I’ll tell you a story about how impressive our Airmen are.
You can imagine that things were getting desperate there. The people knew there was food and water on the airfield. It was a logistical challenge to distribute the food and water in a safe and effective manner. It took a little bit of time to stand things up. [Maj Gen Darryl Burke], who is the AFDW [Air Force District of Washington] commander was down there as part of the joint task force at the time.
We wanted to help them out, but we were working with a sovereign country and they needed to have a lot of say in how that took place. Every day the situation intensified more and more, especially as the people saw the supplies on the airfield that we had not distributed to the different areas. There were a few altercations, and there were some peacekeepers there. Our role was not to engage with any of the Haitian people in any combative way, but there were certainly some citizens there that acted aggressively out of frustration.
We had two young Airmen defenders, two stripers that were guarding one of the gates. As you can imagine, the access to the airfield was open prior to our arrival; so, trying to secure the airfield in this situation was challenging. The gates were very flimsy. It was difficult to close things off. And these two Airmen started to get rushed. Basically, the crowd said, “We’re coming on.” We had two defenders with a Humvee guarding the gate. They were carrying loaded weapons, but they were not cleared to engage and fire back. These two young defenders had the presence of mind to not escalate but deescalate the situation. They thought quickly enough, and moved quickly enough, to close the gates just enough so they could block the way. One of them closed the gates and the other got in the Humvee and drove it and secured the gate with the Humvee as the blockade behind the gate, which stopped the people from coming on. Really, if they had come through that gate, they would have gotten onto the airfield, and we would have had to let them take everything.
That’s the kind of Airmen we have. They’re just innovative and have the presence of mind to act appropriately in those situations, and they are trained for that. That’s what we could do as part of 18th Air Force. That ability to bring in that life-sustaining supplies was amazing.
A couple years later you were the command chief at Air Education and Training Command (AETC), which was around the time when the Department of Defense repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I wanted to ask you about that transition and the sentiment of Airmen at that time.
Sometimes it’s much ado about nothing. You can appreciate that. I say that with a great sense of respect for the way we went through it and the challenges some people felt might exist versus what did exist. For years prior to the repeal, there was a large contingent of folks that didn’t like that we had a rule like that. The idea that you would tell somebody “don’t tell us something” smacks in the face of what we believe. I think we worked through it in a very methodical way. We educated the force to be respectful of the implications of a decision like that, when you have a policy such as we had. If you didn’t have that policy, it’s a different discussion. Society was evolving, along with perceptions and feelings on this. I think what we underestimated as an Air Force, which worked to our advantage to a degree, was that most of the force was younger. This was a nonissue for them. It was probably a greater concern for those that had been in the service longer.
There is also the religious aspect of this, people have strong beliefs. We tried to step through all of that as the Department of Defense in a very respectful manner. The fact is people have strong convictions one way or the other, and it can be challenging. I think as an institution, as the Department of Defense, we took the right approach and continued to move forward to where we sit today.
Here’s the bottom line. If you can serve and you can do the mission that the military needs you to do, then you should have the opportunity to serve. Like I said, I think we learned some things along the way. I think there was greater concern than necessary in some areas. The day changed, and things changed—and it was great for those Airmen because they no longer had to live a separate life to serve their country. It was right to give them that ability to freely and openly be who they are. I think that’s right for everybody, and I think the force is good with that, just as society is.
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell seemed to lead to a greater focus on diversity and inclusion, and as you mentioned the Department of Defense continues to grow on that. Why do you think that’s such a significant focus?
I think a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about diversity. For all the obvious reasons—it can be emotional. It can be hard sometimes to say the right thing and have people not take it the wrong way. That’s why people get scared talking about it.
f you look at the aggregated definition of diversity, it doesn’t just talk about gender, race, or religion. It talks about everything. It talks about socioeconomic background, education, and more. It’s a plethora of things that would fall under the broad definition of diversity. The challenge is most people are more narrowly focused when they think about diversity. They think about gender. They think about race. They may think about religion. They may think about heterosexual or homosexual. They tend to categorize people a bit more specifically than when you talk about education and when you talk about socioeconomic background.
It comes down to the acknowledgement that there is phenomenal strength in diversity, meaning the varied perspectives that everybody would bring to the table. The broadest of definitions of that is important. It’s proven time and time again to be a huge strength to any organization, beyond just the United States Air Force and the Department of Defense. If you consider the most diverse organizations, you can see a level of capacity and capability that exceeds those that are not diverse. If everybody is thinking the same, then everybody is kumbaya-ing to the same answer, and that may be the absolute wrong answer. When you bring in these diverse groups of people with different backgrounds, different upbringings, and different perspectives and realize that we need to reflect society, you start to appreciate that.
I do think we still must acknowledge that while we can all—from an enlightened perspective—appreciate that broad definition of diversity, that is not how we are measured every day. We are measured in a different way. That is, if the pictures on the wall don’t look like the force that is out there in the field, then we’re not diverse—even though we might be by that broad definition. We could be very diverse. We could have 15 people that look identical to me, and we could be very diverse. The only thing that wouldn’t be diverse is the fact that we look like each other. The problem is you will probably not be measured by that in most circumstances. If there is not a diverse picture of women, African-Americans, Hispanics—everything that makes up the strength of our Air Force—and if you can’t see yourself as a young Airman, then it doesn’t feel like an organization that is inclusive and is leveraging the diversity and strength that we bring.
I believe we are consistently and continually making strides in that direction, but by no means are we there. We have work to do. Secretary [of Defense Deborah Lee] James has pushed this forward. Gen.Welsh did the same. Gen. [David L.] Goldfein has, and their predecessors for sure. It’s incremental advancement in this area, but the idea that we’re there? We’re not there. A tremendous amount of strength rests there; that’s an absolute. There’s just no question about it.
You were selected as the 17th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in November 2012 and began the position in January 2013. Two months later, sequestration went into effect. What was the sentiment in the Pentagon at that time, and probably more importantly, what was the feeling among the force?
I think, for the most part, the initial feeling for the force was anxiety, but nothing else because, to be honest with you, for most Airmen on a day-to-day basis not much changed. In 2014, a lot changed. We became smaller. We started to feel the overall impact of the budget cuts.
I think in the Pentagon it created a sense of urgency. You know, “Holy smokes, what does this mean, not just to today but to the future?” The Secretary of Defense, with the Chairman and the other Joint Chiefs were thinking, “Okay, what are we going to do here?” We were a busy, busy military, and the demand signal from combatant commanders wasn’t decreasing. We were still heavily engaged globally and that was not slowing down. How are we going to do all that with the type of budget we’re talking about? It created a sense of stress, anxiety, and disbelief.
Initially there was a lot of disbelief. I can tell you, when I first came into the job and was making my first office calls with our elected officials and those on the staff, the sentiment was clear: “We will not go into sequestration. It’s not going to happen.” I can’t tell you how many people told me that. “It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.” Then bam, it happened. It caught us all off guard.
It certainly needs to be repealed. It certainly continues to have a big impact on our Air Force, although getting the two-year bipartisan budget agreements gives us a little bit of stability, but it by no means is the way to run an organization like this. We must be able to plan through a fiscal year defense plan. We must have 20- and 30-year visions and plan how our Air Force is going to look into the future. Without some type of budget certainty, it makes it very challenging.
Despite those challenges, you still moved the enlisted force forward in many different areas. We talked about the changes to the EPRs. You also significantly changed the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS). When did you know that was also going to be something you took on?
The reality is the conversation took place long before I came into the position. It’s taken place with all my predecessors. Chief [CMSAF #16 Jim] Roy really did want to get after this. He did, but given his time and tenure when Gen. Welsh became the Chief of Staff, he deliberately talked with Gen.Welsh and said, “It needs to be somebody that can take this on and try to get us all the way through this.” They made the conscious decision that it would be the 17th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that took this on because they only had a little over six months together.
It was one of the first things that Gen. Welsh and I talked about. He said, “Performance has got to count, and we’ve got to get the evaluation system and the promotion system moving in the right direction.” I had that initial conversation with him, and his intent was that this challenge should be given to the senior enlisted leadership of the Air Force, not just advising but completely taking it on and owning it. We took it on from the beginning, and then as we got into the implementation, the policy, and the logistics part of it we brought back in the A1 community, and they helped us work through that.
I think Airmen were surprised initially. They had been saying we needed to change it for years. The typical response had been, “We’ve got a good system. Just do it right.” I’ve said that many times, and I believed it. It was a good system if you did it right. The problem is we weren’t doing it right. We had to acknowledge that we were never going to do it right. I think we put people back on their heels a little bit, especially those Airmen that came at us hard and said we needed to fix it. When we said, “Yeah, you’re right, and we’re going to change it,” they were like, “Okay, what do I do with that?”
It took some time for us to do it right. I think there was a little bit of euphoria at first. Then they wanted details. Then there was disbelief. Then there was skepticism. Then there were the armchair quarterbacks poking holes in it. We went through all that, and there will always be a small part of that. By and large, we took on some big things and made some big changes. Certainly, things could have been done differently along the way. I don’t know that there’s anything anybody did that couldn’t have been done somewhat differently. I don’t know which ones you’d pick and what effect they would have, but you could certainly have dialogue about them.
I am very confident we are where we need to be and have hit the mark on what Gen. Welsh asked us to do. I do think we are serving the force better. I do think there’s some legitimacy behind it, and we’re gaining confidence with it daily. I think it’s at a place now where, if we’re smart, and if we continue to keep our finger on it and evolve it over time, we won’t find ourselves in the same situation.
I talked often with the former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force, and I value their perspectives and insight on this more than most. I asked all of them, “Why did you leave it for us? This is not a new problem.” To be honest with you, they all wanted to get after it. To a one, they would have liked to have gotten after it. They recognized the challenges with it. They tried to, but from a timing standpoint with all the other things that were going on in the Air Force, it just didn’t seem like the right time. I think we were at the point where there was never going to be a good time. This is just what it is. You’re either going to get after these things and fix them or you’re never going to fix them. At some given point, you have come to the realization that it’s time.
We took this on as an Air Force. I just happened to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force when we did it. It was the entire force that worked through this and will continue to work through this.
You also introduced developmental special duties. We’ve been into that for a while now. Why did you feel that was important?
Developmental special duties was something I had been working on the entire time I was at Air Education and Training Command. We initially looked at this for the technical training instructors, who I had responsibility and oversight for, from a broad perspective, as the command chief for Air Education and Training Command. When I got to the command, one of the very first things the chiefs brought to me was that we weren’t getting the instructors we needed for the pipeline [initial skills training] courses. In some career fields, we were getting the most eligible nonvolunteers. It was creating a great challenge for them to produce because they couldn’t put some of their Airmen on the podium to teach. They didn’t meet some of the requirements to be on the podium.
You can obviously see how that’s a real disconnect. We worked for two years with Chief Roy, the EBOD, and the Air Staff to implement a version of this, a nomination process for a developmental special duty with some deliberate action to select folks. I don’t want to say it languished because I worked on it the entire time I was there, but I was just not able to get it over the finish line. I brought that with me into the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force position and said, “Hey, we still need to look at this.”
At the same time, we had the terrible, horrific situation that came to light at basic military training, with a very small percentage of our MTIs [military training instructors]. It was certainly not a reflection or representation of our MTIs in any way, shape, or form. There was a very, very, very small contingent of folks that were doing some pretty terrible things. Unfortunately, that community in our Air Force, by the behaviors of a very small contingent of people, tarnished our reputation.
When we did the forensics on that, and when we looked at all the investigations that were done as result, we realized we didn’t have a process in place to ensure we had our top Airmen in those positions. We had a very high level of confidence that we had great NCOs down there, and they were performing exceptionally well—but we knew we could do better.
I think that was the tipping point. I was then able to work with the EBOD and look at these developmental special duties. We looked at all special duties, but decided which ones would require a nominative process. We worked with the Air Staff to come up with a better process that included direct involvement by commanders, and we raised the criteria. We worked with the functional communities to make sure we had the right Airmen at the right time in their careers serving in these developmental positions.
I think our confidence level has risen dramatically. I certainly know we’re manning those positions at the highest levels we’ve ever done historically. While we haven’t completely eliminated poor behavior by everybody, the numbers are very, very, very small. They’re not in the same areas we had concerns with previously.
You were also the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that introduced the term “blended learning” into an Airman’s lexicon.
Yeah, blended learning. That could be debated, whether it was blended learning or not. Depends on who you’re talking to.
What was the value of going to a blended learning model, where now Airmen have two different portions of PME: the distance-learning portion followed by an in-residence leadership experience?
It was something we had been working on prior to my tenure as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. It’s the continued evolution of how we deliver education. We had been working on this model for quite some time. As the command chief for AETC, I had presented the blended learning model. Chief Roy was very focused on that. The senior enlisted leaders that made up the EBOD at the time, of which I was one, were all very engaged in this. Over the last few years, we moved all the way through this. It was always going to be a long transition that came in phases.
Essentially, as we continued to look at the professionalization of the force, the development of the force, it was clear our behaviors and actions were not necessarily aligned. We would tell people they had to do a distance-learning course, only to later send them to an in-residence course that taught the same material. That’s not valuing and respecting people’s time, for one thing. Everybody doesn’t want to do that.
The blended learning model allowed us to deliver foundational knowledge that every Airman could receive based on their year group, just continuing education. It wasn’t tethered to an Airman’s actual grade but how long have they had been in the service. If you’ve been in the service this long, this is what you should know about our Air Force. This is going to help you at your current rank or help you advance to the next rank.
Then later, Airmen would be in a window for in-residence education. When we sent Airmen to school, we were not going to reteach them anything. Everybody that came in would have that same level of foundational knowledge, and we would provide a leadership experience that isn’t instructor-centric. It’s not an instructor standing at a podium reading to you. It’s an Airman coming in with everybody else that has the same level of knowledge. Now an instructor is facilitating an experience that brings them all to a higher level of understanding and education. We could deliver it to more people in a very consistent manner across the force.
That was the essence of the blended learning model and why we made that decision. I think you could debate with some whether they would consider it blended or not. It’s a two-part process. We will give you the foundational information in distance learning. We will say you have met the requirements to continue to advance once you’ve done your distance learning, but there’s a 100-percent commitment to provide a 100-percent opportunity for people to attend the in-residence experience. That doesn’t mean everybody will. Nobody will ever go to every level of PME, just because of circumstances. It’s no different than under the previous system. The opportunity is still there.
It’s a model that you can find in every other major university. You go to any college, even as a full-time in-resident student, and you are going to take some distance learning. You’re going to do it. They all have that kind of course curriculum. Air University, which the Senior NCO Academy and all our NCO Academies align under, is an accredited university. We should be delivering education in a manner consistent with the evolution of education.
This was an approach to not lessen the bar but to raise the bar for everybody. That’s what I think we did. We are delivering more education to more people now than we have ever done historically. We are no longer being disingenuous about it. We are clearly stating to people when and what they must do. If they don’t, they can’t keep moving forward. We should be clear-text with people. If you don’t do this, you can’t go beyond this point. Make the choice. I think that’s fair. I think in any professional organization that environment exists.
Professionalism was also a big focus throughout your tenure with Gen. Welsh. The Air Force refreshed the Little Blue Book, now titled America’s Air Force: A Profession of Arms. Perhaps more significantly you introduced Airmen’s Week at basic training. Can you explain what Airmen’s Week is and how that came about?
I’ll start with the former first, the Little Blue Book. To be honest with you, Chief [Lee E. Jr.] Hoover is the guy that penned this for us. He took all the information we wanted and brought it together. We were getting questioned because of some of the things I talked about earlier, with the military training instructors and some other situations in the Air Force and across the Department of Defense that highlighted inappropriate or unethical behaviors. While we certainly would stand in front of anybody and talk about the professionalism of Airmen and show how we are a professional force, there were certainly a lot of indicators out there that could challenge that position and were challenging that position. We had to look at ourselves internally and say, “Okay, really where are we at with this?” Saying it doesn’t make it so. Saying you’re not doesn’t mean you’re not either, but you’ve got to be able to quantify this somehow.
If you were to look in what used to be our PDG, our professional development guide, which is now the Airman’s Handbook, it used to say you become a professional when you cross into blue. That’s when we would quantify this transformation. You are a part of the profession of arms. The interesting part was we didn’t have a definition of the profession of arms. We utilize that term broadly and loosely: “You are part of the profession of arms.” But what does that mean? That’s when we looked at the Little Blue Book with our core values and said, “It’s probably time that evolved.”
The original Little Blue Book came out during Chief [CMSAF #12 Eric] Benken’s tenure, after some things took place where it called into question our professionalism yet again. Our core values have a history, but that’s when they came out in the Little Blue Book. This current evolution of the book was our opportunity to say, “It’s not just about the three core values. It is about being part of the profession of arms.” We wanted to fully articulate what it means to take the oath and commit to service in the Air Force. The book needed to be something that people can read and say, “This is what I’m part of in the profession of arms. This is what bonds us together.” That’s what we did.
Now to the Airmen’s Week part of this. Under Chief Roy’s time as the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force we reviewed BMT, like we do every three years. When we did the review, we realized that basic military training was seven-and-a-half weeks of training that we were delivering in eight-and-a-half weeks. That’s why you get people saying it’s hurry up and wait and all this other stuff. When we looked at this, and again, we were fiscally constrained at the time, we said we can do basic training in seven-and-a-half weeks and not take anything out. We were still going to get the same Airmen.
The one thing that became a part of that discussion, which was valid, was the thought that there’s value to all the marching around Lackland [AFB, Texas] when you consider the whole transformation from citizen to Airman. That was the major point of discussion back then. Why go to seven-and-a-half weeks instead of eight-and-a-half when you’re going to drop them right into the pipeline training. For some, that’s too fast—and then they’re right into their operational bases.
The timing wasn’t right then to cut basic training down to seven-and-a-half weeks. I always knew we could. When I came up here, we started to have more in-depth conversations about the profession of arms, professionalism, and this idea of dignity and respect. General Welsh talked about that a lot. Secretary James talked about it. We all were focused on creating a culture of inclusiveness, where Airmen treated each other with dignity and respect.
We were working through that in various meetings. We looked at things we could do. Then OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] stood up their professionalism working group. That’s when I went to General Welsh and asked to bring some folks in to look at basic training again. Instead of cutting the training down to seven-and-a-half weeks for efficiency purposes, let’s look at what we could do with that extra week to help these Airmen come into the profession of arms. That was the impetus to the change.
Most of us that have gone through basic training, whether you’re an officer or enlisted Airmen, can appreciate that experience. I commonly refer to it as the fog of BMT. You know you were there. You know something happened, but you’re excited it’s over. You’ll have flashbacks to different moments during the training, but it was too fast to comprehend what just happened. You’ve had your whole life up until this point, and now suddenly, in two months, you’re this different person.
What we were hoping to do is develop a capstone event, which we ended up calling Airmen’s Week, and let the Airmen go through that. Let’s let them cross into the blue and become Airmen. Once we give you that title, things are different. Whether you know it or not, they’re different. We wanted to take some time talking with them about what that difference means. We wanted to let them absorb and reflect on what just happened and then have a conversation.
That is the essence of Airmen’s Week. We bring in people from all over the globe. It’s not just Americans that join our United States military. It is a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, upbringings, and values, and they’re coming into an organization that absolutely expects them to live up to our core values and high standards. I think what we’re getting out of that is, one, a more professional Airman. Two, we are getting a more confident Airman. They now understand what just happened at basic training, and what is about to happen and what we expect going forward. It’s this idea that now you’re a part of the family; you’re part of our Air Force; you’re part of this profession.
How do you think the culture of professionalism and dignity and respect has changed—not just in your tenure but throughout your entire career?
It’s dramatically different. There is no comparison in my opinion. That doesn’t mean we had a bunch of unprofessional people and that they weren’t great Airmen and great patriots. They absolutely were. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if I wasn’t mentored and coached by them. We are so much better today because of them. Not because of any bad things they did, but because of their commitment to continue to elevate the force. I think we should thank them for that. I think we should take that as our responsibility to do the same for future generations of Airmen. We hold ourselves to the highest of standards—we really do. The things that people would do when I first came in, much of that accepted by society, is no longer accepted by society; so, we evolve with that.
Nothing I’m saying is disparaging, but the idea that you would even contemplate doing some of those things in today’s all-volunteer professional military, it just wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t play for a second. I think we have taken the work that those who have gone before us have done, and we have continued to build on it. I think we will continue to build on that into the future. That doesn’t mean it will be perfect, because it won’t be perfect. I just know it will be better.
There is nothing wrong with leaning towards old school on certain things, but it can’t be an anchor to your evolution. What are you holding on to, and what are you letting go of? That’s what is important. There are certain things—our heritage, our pride and history, and the service and sacrifice—that we must hold on to. We owe those folks a debt of gratitude. To forget them would denigrate their legacy. But we can’t celebrate anything that they did that was wrong. The fact is it might have been okay then, but to celebrate it today when it’s not okay doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t do it.
I’m proud of our Air Force. I’m proud of where we’re going. It’s not without challenge. It always is when you’re trying to institute change, especially when things hit to people’s core. When it gets to who they are and what they feel and what they believe. There are differences in that for many different reasons. How you walk that fine line of being respectful to everybody can be difficult. It has been difficult for us.
I think what we should be proud of is the fact that we acknowledge those differences exist. We don’t just take this one hard line. We are open to the dialogue. We’re looking for the best possible answer. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be the perfect answer, but the force must continue to evolve. The country absolutely demands and expects that we are professional. It expects that we are the epitome of every American.
Last question. Chief [CMSAF #18 Kaleth] Wright is going to become the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force very shortly. He’s going to take the baton and just carry it forward. What are your thoughts on Chief Wright, and what do you expect to see from him?
I am really, really excited for our Air Force. I’m absolutely confident he is the right chief to be the 18th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. There’s just no hesitation. He is going to take our Air Force to places that I was never going to be able to get us, or anybody else. He is fully qualified and excited about the opportunity. Both he and Tonya will represent all Airmen and their families phenomenally well.
He brings his own background. We all come into the seat with our own life experiences, our own career experiences, and that’s great. There is no one path to that position. He’s the right chief at the right time in our Air Force. He will have my unequivocal support, as well as Athena’s, as well as the support from all that have gone before us. He and Gen.Goldfein and our next Secretary of the Air Force and the entire team will face challenges, but I am 100-percent confident they will overcome them. We always do.