CMSAF Frederick “Jim” Finch
Frederick J. “Jim” Finch was born on 29 July 1956 and was raised in East Hampton, New York. He developed a tough work ethic in his youth, simultaneously holding two parttime jobs while completing high school. He had attended a vocational school, studying auto mechanics, but knew there was more beyond the small confines of his hometown. He enlisted in the Air Force under the delayed enlistment program during his senior year in high school.
Finch began his career in the munitions storage area--“bomb dump”— serving at Homestead AFB, Florida, and then RAF Welford, England. He returned to Homestead and became a missile maintenance crew chief. However, his career took a different path after attending the Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Leadership School.
Staff Sergeant Finch became an instructor at Homestead’s NCO Professional Military Education (PME) Center. Four years later he moved to Air University (AU) to help develop curriculum and teach new instructors in the recently created “NCO Preparatory Course.”
Four years later, he was reassigned to the Air Force Military Personnel Center (AFMPC) as a functional manager for the Air Force NCO PME program. During this tour, he helped implement major policy changes to the PME program, including the creation of the Airman Leadership School, the expansion of the Senior NCO Academy to include master sergeants, and the automation of NCO PME quota management across the major commands (MAJCOM). Upon promotion to chief master sergeant, he transferred to Alaska as the commandant of the Pacific Air Forces NCO Academy.
In the summer of 1993 Chief Finch was reassigned as the senior enlisted advisor (SEA) for Eleventh Air Force in Alaska. During this tour, the Air Force deactivated three remote sites: King Salmon AS, Galena AS, and Erickson AS (Shemya).
In 1995 Chief Finch became the second SEA (later renamed command chief master sergeant) for the recently created Air Combat Command (ACC). At the time, ACC was the primary force provider for Operation Southern Watch and led efforts to manage Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) taskings.
In June 1999 Gen Michael Ryan selected Chief Finch to be the 13th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). During his tenure, Finch helped move the Air Force toward an expeditionary mindset. He continued to solidify the AEF concept, focused on deliberate force development initiatives, and helped implement the first “Warrior Week” at basic military training. He also led the Air Force through the beginning stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) following the attacks of 11 September 2001. CMSAF Finch turned over the reins to CMSAF #14 Gerald Murray on 1 July and retired effective 1 October 2002.
CMSAF Finch sat down for an interview in August 2015 to reflect on his life and career in the Air Force. During the interview, he spoke about his passion for PME, the importance of mentorship, and the intense aftermath in Washington, DC, following the 9/11 attacks. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You enlisted in the Air Force in the early 1970s— soon after the end of the draft. What made you want to volunteer then?
I decided to join in the middle of my high school years. I was attending a vocational school with some friends during my junior year and realized becoming an auto mechanic was not the path I wanted to take in life. I honestly didn’t know where my future was headed. I looked to the Air Force because my neighbor was an Air Force retiree. One of his sons was my best friend who had joined the Air Force a couple of years earlier. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just join the Air Force.” I started visiting the local Air Force recruiter quite a bit during my senior year of high school and enlisted before graduation. I entered the delayed enlistment program to obtain a basic training slot that summer.
After high school graduation, I quit my two jobs and took a fouror five-week vacation before starting my new life in the Air Force. Looking back now, I suspect joining the military was more about growing up— like a rite of passage to manhood. My dad had been a “Frozen Chosen” Marine during the Korean War; uncles and cousins had served in both the Army and Navy over the years. They often spoke about their experiences traveling the world, although rarely about life in combat. None were commissioned officers; so, their expectation was that I would enlist, serve three or four years, and return home a man.
Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life at the time. However, I knew what I didn’t want. There was no future in a small town delivering groceries, working in a movie theater, or commercial fishing. I thought there must be something better out there. My recruiter told me I had good aptitude scores and I could enlist with a guaranteed job in electronics. I had no clue what that meant, but it seemed pretty high tech and exciting in 1974; so, I signed up. As it turned out, I became an air-to-air and air-toground missile maintenance technician—precision guided munitions using today’s terms, or more affectionately part of the “ammo” community.
In the early 1970s, America was shifting military service away from the draft to an all-volunteer force. What are your thoughts on the overall sentiment of the shift?
Although I knew I had to register for the draft, I wasn’t directly affected, since I joined the Air Force prior to my 18th birthday. Plus, the draft had just ended the year before. However, American sentiment was certainly antimilitary at the time. I suspect this was mostly because the Vietnam War was very unpopular.
I recall my first trip home on leave—I was in tech school at the time. I was proud to be in the Air Force and wore my white tee shirt with big blue Air Force letters across the front everywhere I went. I wanted people to know I was in the service, a member of the US Air Force, and an adult. Unfortunately, few in my hometown seemed to care, and the friends I grew up with didn’t come up to congratulate me. In fact, I felt shunned and looked down upon because I was in the military. Frankly, that was the last time I ever wore my uniform home. I also avoided wearing anything around my hometown indicating I was in the Air Force.
You saw it in other areas too. My first supervisor and many of the junior NCOs in my shop had joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army. Most had just returned from Thailand and were counting the days until they could separate. They didn’t want to be called “lifers” or give anyone the impression they enjoyed Air Force life. When it came to standards, they tended to meet them for inspections only, which we had weekly. Hairstyles were much different. During the week, some folks had their hair slicked down with “dippity do,” and on weekends, I could hardly recognize them with their long hair or their afros.
You might wonder why Airmen were like that back then. I suspect it had more to do with the fact they didn’t want to identify with the military because many Americans socially shunned or spit on them. They learned how to fit in. It was a difficult period, and I understand why some felt the need to challenge our grooming standards. We live in a much different environment today.
Sure. You were working with Airmen in the bomb dump, I guess that’s what they say.
The bomb dump was a cool place. Ammo was, and is to this day, a close-knit community within the Air Force.
What was your first impression of the Air Force, Airmen, and the culture you just entered?
Keep in mind, when I joined the Air Force, we were still wearing tan 1505s and fatigues, and there were beer machines in all the day rooms at tech school, since the legal drinking age was 18. I graduated from tech school in the spring of 1975 and arrived at my first duty station at Homestead AFB. We were part of the 31st TAC [Tactical] Fighter Wing. Since most of the live munitions were still over in Southeast Asia to support the Vietnam conflict, all we had to work on were a handful of training missiles.
My shop was run by a senior master sergeant. The other leadership included one technical sergeant and two staff sergeants. Everyone else in the 60-person shop was either an E-4 sergeant or an airman first class. The senior airman rank didn’t exist at the time.
The E-4 sergeants were the first-level supervisors, because we had a plethora, if you will, of brand new Airmen assigned. We couldn’t look to the E-4 sergeants for guidance, since most were ill-prepared for their supervisory role. There was no Airman Leadership School or NCO Preparatory Course for first-term Airmen. In fact, the NCO Orientation Course didn’t come online until late 1976 or early 1977. There was virtually nothing to help prepare people for transition to NCO status. One day someone was an airman first class and the next an E-4 sergeant responsible for supervising, writing APRs [Airman Performance Report], and being an NCO leader. It was just assumed everyone knew what they were supposed to do.
Mostly, I just tried to get along. The staff sergeants were usually in charge. The tech sergeant and senior master sergeant were too far removed from where I was operating. I knew who they were, but they didn’t dictate what I did moment by moment. I basically looked to the staff sergeants to figure out what was right and wrong. I recall thinking about the day I would be one of those guys—you know, the guy holding the coffee cup telling everyone else what to do!
In 1976 one of my close friends and I decided we would volunteer for overseas assignments. We went together to the CBPO, which stood for Consolidated Base Personnel Office—MPF [Military Personnel Flight] using today’s terms—to update our dream sheets. He selected the Netherlands, and I volunteered for England. Surprisingly, about two weeks later we each received assignments—him to Soesterberg [AB], Netherlands, and me to RAF Welford in the UK [United Kingdom]. Sadly, we never crossed paths again.
I arrived at RAF Welford an airman first class. I had expected to make sergeant soon after arriving. However, the Air Force had just announced a new policy that all those promoted to E-4 would first spend a year as a senior airman to gain experience. And, they would attend a class preparing them to become noncommissioned officers. I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled when I learned that my tech school buddies who had enlisted for six years and become airman first class out of basic training made sergeant before the new policy went into effect. I, on the other hand, was still going to be called Airman for another year. I was a senior airman the first year we had the rank. We changed the silver star to blue for senior airman and below chevrons. Silver stars were for NCOs only. I recall many first-term Airmen painted over the blue star upon promotion to sergeant, since they were separating from the Air Force in a few months and didn’t want the expense of sewing on new chevrons. Eventually, I made sergeant during this tour. However, everyone in my shop still outranked me; so, my job remained the same—sanding missiles, painting missiles, and doing all the things missile maintenance technicians did back then. Basically, whatever our staff sergeant said to do—that’s pretty much what we did.
A couple of years into that tour, I received an assignment back to Homestead and a line number for staff sergeant. I can remember how excited I was, thinking I would return to the same missile shop with a senior master sergeant, a tech sergeant, and two staff sergeants—only this time I would be one of those staff sergeants! As it turned out, we still had a senior master sergeant shop chief when I arrived. However, now there were also a couple of master sergeants and four or five technical sergeants. Soon after arriving, I became the eighth ranking staff sergeant in the shop of about 50 folks with plenty of supervision. Also, we had igloos full of live missiles that had arrived from Southeast Asia—it was a busy place. My unofficial duty title was “Assistant to the Assistant Crew Chief.” So, I was in charge whenever one was on leave and the other went to lunch! It was much different than what I had initially expected.
Virtually all my original Homestead teammates had separated by the time I returned for my second tour there, and attitudes were beginning to change. We also had a few women in the shop—something new in the bomb dump back then. Over the next couple of years, people departed, and I moved up the ladder—eventually becoming the swing shift supervisor. It was surprising how fast changes happened.
I worked with some very good Airmen and NCOs during my first six years in the Air Force—my ammo years—and I still have lifelong friends from that period. However, a few of my colleagues were not so good. They resented being forced to serve in the military and seemed to take it out on whomever they could. A couple of coworkers from my shop at Welford made different life choices and consequently served a few years incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth. Overall, it was these folks and their good or bad actions who influenced and shaped my original view of Air Force life.
What did you learn from that period that stuck with you or influenced how you would lead later in your career?
There were a few things I learned from that period. First, life is full of choices, and the decisions you make tend to either open or close doors. Also, when you’re placed in charge, the burden is on you to ensure the job is completed—and done correctly. You simply must perform. The expectation is much different when you’re responsible for others.
I yearned for leadership positions early on. However, I was a staff sergeant with over a year in grade before I received any formal training about how be a noncommissioned officer in our Air Force. It was at the NCO Leadership School [NCOLS].
There were many lessons while at the NCOLS about communication, leadership and management, military studies, and world affairs. I learned about my personal strengths and weaknesses. And more importantly, I discovered I could compete academically with the best NCOs there. I enjoyed the competition and was amazed to graduate at the top of my class. This drastically improved my overall confidence as an NCO and made me aware of opportunities I hadn’t known existed.
Another important event from that period had a significant impact on our NCO corps and how I would later view NCO professional development. The AFMIG [Air Force Management Improvement Group] study led to the creation of the senior airman rank and put us on a different developmental path for Air Force NCOs. As I mentioned earlier, I was a senior airman the first year we had them. Since I was at a GSU [geographically separated unit], I didn’t complete the NCO Orientation Course with peers in a classroom setting. The rank was unpopular because airmen first class (E-3) expected NCO status with promotion to E-4. However, it was monumental for the Air Force and for the enlisted force specifically.
I believe it was the first time we embraced the idea that we must educate and prepare people before holding them accountable for certain responsibilities. Senior airman was a one-year transition rank to E-4 sergeant that required mandatory NCO PME attendance for promotion to NCO status. Although we later eliminated the E-4 sergeant rank, the concept of education before responsibility continued. It also shaped many of my later ideas about deliberate development—especially during my time as both a command chief master sergeant and as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
At that point, your career trajectory changed quite a bit. You became an NCO PME instructor.
Yes. I was recruited to join the NCO PME Center staff soon after my NCOLS graduation. It seemed like the best option for me since I knew the Air Force was eliminating my AFSC [Air Force Specialty Code] and would reclassify those who chose not to retrain. Little did I know it would completely change my career path in the Air Force. When I joined the NCO PME Center faculty, we taught the NCO Orientation Course, which was a 2.5-day program for senior airmen; the USAF Supervisors Course, a two-week program for new E-4 sergeants and staff sergeants; and the NCOLS, a 30-day in-residence program also for sergeants and staff sergeants. Both the NCO Orientation Course and the USAF Supervisors’ Course were centrally developed at Air University. However, the NCOLS and NCO academies were owned and operated by the MAJCOMs. Consequently, we were responsible for locally developing our own curriculum and tests. During my tour at the Homestead AFB NCO PME Center, our major command, Tactical Air Command [TAC], began to consolidate curriculum development so that all the TAC NCOLS programs would be similar. I recall working on some of the curriculum writing teams with instructors from other schools. I was promoted to technical sergeant about three years into my tour and became the NCO PME Center’s director of education for my last year there.
You mentioned in previous interviews we have read that I think you met a guy named Richard Roller around that time.
Yes, Richard is my brother from another mother. Technical Sergeant Roller started out as my NCO Leadership School instructor. He then became my immediate supervisor when I joined the faculty. He made master sergeant and moved to the Leadership and Management Development Center [LMDC] at Air University in early 1984. As it turns out, I joined him a year later and was promoted to master sergeant in late 1985. We then were master sergeants together. He was my next-door neighbor for a couple of years, was the best man at my wedding, is the godfather for two of our sons, and remains an integral part of our family to this day. He has been one of my mentors for my entire adult life and has known me since I was in my early 20s as a young NCO.
How did that mentorship relationship begin?
I suspect I was looking for direction. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me. When I attended the NCOLS, I realized there were people who focused on issues and ideas I thought were important—like how to grow the next generation of enlisted leaders. It opened my eyes to new possibilities.
It began with Richard requesting me to join them. He asked me to become an NCO PME instructor at Homestead PME Center, and frankly, it was a pretty cool gig. When I first arrived, NCO PME instructors carried special duty identifier [SDI] 99502—which was the same as military training instructors [MTI] at basic military training. In the summer of 1980, we split from the MTIs and picked up our own SDI—99605. At the end of my four-year controlled tour, I was again faced with retraining. My missile maintenance AFSC was gone, and I was ineligible for an overseas assignment without a primary AFSC.
Luckily, Richard somehow convinced the leadership at Air University to consider me for a position. I was fortunate they called, since I was unsure what other options were available.
For background—the Air Force modified the NCO PME program from five levels to four in 1984. The NCO Orientation Course and the USAF Supervisors’ Course went away, and a new program called the NCO Preparatory Course [NCOPC] stood up. It was a two-week long course taught to senior airmen at virtually every major installation in the Air Force. It included testing and other evaluations, with a requirement to pass before becoming an NCO. The rationale at the time was to re-blue our Airmen and put rigor in the program. Since this program was centrally developed and managed at Air University, it made sense they would also have a course to teach new PME instructors how to instruct and run the program at the base level. Also, at the time, there was no correspondence version of the NCOPC for those on active duty, in the Air National Guard, or in the Air Force Reserves who simply couldn’t attend a resident program.
So, again thanks to Richard, I was asked to consider joining the LMDC faculty in the fall of 1984 with the initial intent of developing a correspondence version of the NCOPC. I accepted and moved to Maxwell AFB, Alabama. My next year included developing testing instruments and working with some very talented writers at the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education to publish the NCOPC by correspondence. When that was completed, I was tasked to run the NCOPC instructors course and later became chief of the NCO PME Evaluations Branch at LMDC.
The NCO PME faculty at LMDC was led and mentored by CMSgt Jimmie B. Lavender. He was one of the finest chiefs ever, and he continues to be a source of inspiration for me today. LMDC was renamed to the Center for Professional Development [CPD] during my tour there. I was also promoted to master sergeant. Therefore, when my Code 50 was about to expire, I found myself as a senior NCO [SNCO], again, without a viable AFSC or job.
I had always wanted to go to Alaska, and a former classmate worked at the NCO academy there. He had previously told me to give him a call if I ever wanted a job at their NCO academy. So, I called him. He was the director of education at the time. Unfortunately, he felt I had too much time in grade as a master sergeant to be a classroom instructor, and I would create a potential problem by taking a leadership position they had groomed someone else to fill. He apologized for turning me away, and I went back to exploring retraining options.
Military Personnel Center, MPC as it was affectionately called back then. I became the functional representative for the 99605 NCO PME community. I worked there for a great personnel expert, CMSgt Chuck Hasty. He taught me about the Air Force personnel system, how to properly staff packages and change policies, and more leadership lessons on hard work and ethics than I can count. This assignment was a four-year controlled tour—again in SDI 99605. I made senior master sergeant within the first year after arriving and was selected for promotion to chief master sergeant about three years later—before my tour was up. Unfortunately, I was now a chief without an AFSC or many crossflow options—since the Air Force didn’t have a program to retrain chief master sergeants.
Fortunately, the NCO commandant job in Alaska became available. I received a call asking if I was interested in replacing the commandant who had just moved over to become the 3rd Wing senior enlisted advisor. Ironically, he was the same person who had previously turned me away from an assignment there when I was a master sergeant. I gladly accepted the position. Later, I was offered the opportunity to become the Eleventh Air Force senior enlisted advisor and then the command chief master sergeant for Air Combat Command.
All the jobs from a PME instructor at Homestead AFB to the ACC command chief began with someone asking me if I would consider doing a particular job. When I became the Chief Master of the Air Force, I realized I was always a willing participant—but never a volunteer. It was a concept that stuck with me. I kept thinking we tend to put people in boxes—volunteer and nonvolunteer—basically because of laws and regulations regarding the assignment business. Unfortunately, some start making erroneous assumptions that people who are not volunteers won’t do a good job. I was willing, but I wasn’t a volunteer. There are many great and willing people out there, and we must figure out how to identify them. This is an important point. I’m happy we now embrace the idea of leveraging those willing for developmental and nominative duties. We made some policy changes during my tenure to help further this concept.
How important would you say mentoring is to the development of the enlisted force?
It is the key to deliberate development. Part of mentoring is setting the right expectations. We all want to know what others, particularly leaders, expect from us. We also set expectations for others around us. Frankly, what I faced as an Airman is considerably different from what we expect of today’s Airmen. We ask much more of young Airmen today. The expectations for NCOs are also different. I look at the bios of some current command chiefs and see amazing educational levels and operational accomplishments. Clearly, the deliberate development expectations for them differed from what was asked of us on our Air Force journey.
The bigger issue is not focusing on what changed to grow today’s leaders, but understanding the needs of tomorrow. We must adjust expectations and provide opportunities now to meet those needs. In other words, what must we accomplish today so Airmen can meet the challenges they will face tomorrow?
When I was the CMSAF in 2000, our focus was on developing the right force for 2010. We were trying to figure out what enlisted leaders should look like 10 years out and what programs or policies would help get them there. The current leadership team in the Pentagon is also focused on setting people up for success down the road. Their goal should be to have qualified people on the bench to meet the requirements of our enlisted force in 2020, 2025, and beyond. That is the challenge. The force of yesterday is interesting for perspective but not necessarily relevant to future needs.
You spent a lot of your career in enlisted professional military education (EPME). At one point, you were tasked to figure out how to put master sergeants into the Senior NCO Academy, which proved to be a challenge. Why was that important?
I’ve told the story, sometimes in an open forum that my first major task when I arrived at AFMPC as the NCO PME functional was to find a way to put master sergeants into Senior NCO Academy classes. And my last task before I left four years later was to rewrite the policies to take master sergeants back out of the Senior NCO Academy. Some might infer we thought we had made a mistake by allowing master sergeants to attend. However, both were right decisions at the right times.
In 1988 about 250 people attended each SNCO Academy class. That was the seating capacity in their auditorium. They taught five classes a year. So, if you do the math, there were 1,250 seats available annually at the Senior NCO Academy. We were also promoting about 1,700 active duty master sergeants to senior master sergeant every year. The Senior NCO Academy was, at the time, a school for senior master sergeants and chief master sergeants. So, those seats were designed primarily to educate the most senior enlisted leaders of our Air Force.
Of the 1,250 seats, 75 were blocked for Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and sister-service students—about 15 per class. That left 1,175 seats annually to meet the needs of Air Force active duty senior NCOs. The alternative for all who didn’t attend in-residence was to live with only the correspondence course on their records or compete for one of the few sister-service school slots. There were no other options.
Selection to attend the Senior NCO Academy was tied to the senior master sergeant promotion list. Every year, we would promote about 1,700 and offer PME to 1,175 of them. The other 525 never had an opportunity to attend. We did allow chief master sergeants to attend if they had been overlooked previously. But, they basically took a seat from next year’s E-8 promotion list. We tried to evenly distribute Senior NCO Academy seats across AFSCs by creating an order-of-merit list for each AFSC, using promotion board and test scores.
I was initially caught off guard when I learned about an initiative to allow E-7s into school. I thought, “How are we going to do this? We don’t have enough seats for all the senior master sergeant promotees. Why would we give them to those not selected for promotion?” The official guidance was that master sergeants were senior NCOs, and Air Force leadership wanted to send people to school earlier.
Our task was to figure out how to find the right master sergeants to send. Ideally, we would send only those already destined to become senior master sergeants and chiefs. Of course, we didn’t know how attendance would impact future promotion opportunities. There was concern that school selection as a master sergeant might, by itself, change the normal promotion order of merit to senior master sergeant for some AFSCs.
Initially, we didn’t have a selection process designed to meet the immediate need. For the first year, the MAJCOMs selected master sergeant attendees. Then we started selecting them based only on the combined promotion board and test scores from each respective AFSC during the senior master sergeant promotion cycle. Those factors seemed to be the biggest predictors of future promotion and were variables people could influence. We also allowed MAJCOM commanders to add other deserving master sergeants to the list based on other factors or because some had not yet competed for promotion to E-8. Ultimately, master sergeant attendance became the driving factor to expand the Senior NCO Academy production and build a new facility.
Once we publicly stated we would allow master sergeants in school, we created a requirement that didn’t exist before. Now it wasn’t just 1,700 people annually trying to fit into 1,175 active duty seats. We had 30,000-plus master sergeants who were instantly eligible, and we needed a much larger school. Construction to expand the Senior NCO Academy began soon after I attended as a student—during my AFMPC tour.
The expanded facility was slated to include a 500-person auditorium, which meant we would be able to teach 500 students per class, or 3,000 annually. It didn’t take a math wizard to figure out educating 3,000 people every year while only promoting 1,700 to senior master sergeant would eventually make the Senior NCO Academy a school for master sergeants.
We began placing master sergeants in school before construction began. However, it wasn’t long before the issue of fairness to the senior master sergeant community came back into play. With 3,000 annual seats, we had an opportunity to capture all those senior master sergeants who had previously been denied the opportunity to attend the resident program. Keep in mind, for a couple of years, we had told some E-8 selectees their school seat would go to others lower on the promotion list—in the non-select category. It was a tough pill for those good enough for promotion but not for school.
Since we could eliminate the backlog in a relatively short timeframe, it made sense to suspend master sergeant attendance until all the senior master sergeants could get through school. So, we changed the policy back. We also began requiring resident attendance for promotion to chief master sergeant.
Out of context, it looks like we kept changing the policy—first master sergeants could attend, then they couldn’t. Frankly, I doubt we would have received support for the Senior NCO Academy expansion without a policy change to allow E-7s into school. However, I was happy we went back to capture all the overlooked E-8s, since they would be our enlisted leaders for the next decade or more.
You mentioned earlier you were involved in developing curriculum for the NCO Preparatory Course. You also attended the NCO Leadership School, and now we have the Airman Leadership School and NCO Academy. It kind of speaks to the evolution of our PME.
It was much different. When I became a PME instructor, there were five levels of enlisted professional military education. One was a 2.5-day course for senior airmen. One was a two-week course for young sergeants and staff sergeants and lower grade Air Force civilians. There were no tests or awards involved in either of these courses—just a discussion on management and leadership issues. The next two levels, NCO Leadership School and NCO Academy, were competitive courses both to enter and to graduate. The top level was the Air Force Senior NCO Academy.
Historically, we have had NCO academies and NCO leadership schools since the 1950s. In 1973 we moved to three levels of enlisted PME with the addition of the Senior NCO Academy. In 1976 we added two more levels. In 1984 we consolidated back to four levels. In 1990 we returned to three levels—one for Airmen, one for NCOs, and one for senior NCOs. Of those levels, some were written and managed for the Air Force at Air University, while others were controlled and funded by the MAJCOMs. We didn’t stand up the College for Enlisted PME until 1993. This centralized both curriculum and course management for the enlisted PME program.
You were also pretty heavily involved in developing Airman Leadership School when that came about, right?
When we decided as an Air Force we were going to move away from the four levels of PME, I was a senior master sergeant working PME issues at AFMPC. As I recall, the topic first came up at the 1990 NCO PME conference with Chief [CMSAF #9 Jim] Binnicker. We were at Air University discussing PME policy issues of the day, and Chief Binnicker asked us where we thought NCO PME should be in the year 2000.
We went off to discuss the question. I was in the group led by Chief Tom Nurre, commandant of the Electronic Security Command NCO Academy at Goodfellow AFB [Texas]—later he became the chief of Air Force NCO PME Policy in the Pentagon. Our recommendation was to streamline the program by matching the PME levels to the three enlisted tiers—Airmen, NCO, and SNCO. We previously had a lot of overlap—especially at the NCO Leadership School and NCO Academy levels.
The proposed template later included other Year of Training initiatives that were implemented during Chief [CMSAF #10 Gary] Pfingston’s tour. The idea then was to train young Airmen at technical training, have senior airmen attend the Airman Leadership School, and send staff sergeants back to resident 7-level training schools. Technical sergeants would attend the NCO Academy while master sergeants would go back for 9-level training and begin attending the Senior NCO Academy.
We thought the money saved by eliminating NCO leadership schools could help fund TDY [temporary duty] to school for resident 7-level training. Initially, we wanted to do this training for all AFSCs. It just didn’t turn out that way.
Fundamental questions in the development stage were: should we model the Airman Leadership School [ALS] after the NCO Leadership School or after the NCO Preparatory Course? Also, should students live in dorms on campus or just attend in a resident status if they lived locally? Those were big questions. Some NCO leadership schools already had dorms for their students and felt strongly about the benefits of in-residence PME. TAC had spent years creating live-in NCO leadership schools at all their installations. MAC [Military Airlift Command] and SAC [Strategic Air Command] had regional schools run by the numbered Air Forces. If the ALS was to replace NCO leadership schools, would the MAJCOMs still own them and who would pay for the TDY to school costs? Also, it might require significant MILCON [military construction] funds to build more dorms. If, however, we made the ALS a base-level program to replace the NCO Preparatory Course, we could use the existing classrooms and have AU develop the program. As you know, we opted to make the ALS a base-level program. However, TAC and later ACC took control of their Airman leadership schools and kept them in resident programs since they had existing dorms attached to their PME facilities. I believe they were the only MAJCOM to have in-residence classes throughout the 1990s.
We had to name this new PME program. As a joke, I recommended calling it the “Airmen Supervisory School.” I knew it was a nonstarter since we then had the option to wear fatigues with ballcaps that included our organization acronyms—and “A-S-S” just wouldn’t work! [Laughter]
Quota management was another challenge for the PME program in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since the NCO academies and NCO leadership schools were owned and operated by the individual MAJCOMs, they controlled production and wanted a voice on who attended their respective schools. TAC had NCO academies at Tyndall [AFB, Florida] and Bergstrom [AFB, Texas]. SAC had schools at Barksdale [AFB, Louisiana] and March [AFB, California], MAC had an east coast academy at McGuire [AFB, New Jersey] and a west coast school at Norton [AFB, California]. The ATC schoolhouse was at Lackland [AFB, Texas], and Air Force Communications Command [AFCC] had their NCO academy at Keesler [AFB, Mississippi]. In all, there were 18 NCO academies run by 15 separate MAJCOMs. To save TDY dollars, we used to have annual quota sharing conferences, where MAJCOM reps would offer seats at their schools in exchange for obtaining seats at other MAJCOM schools. Unfortunately, some commands were a little parochial, while others wanted to better leverage the money they were spending on enlisted PME. TAC wanted a large percentage of their seats at Tyndall and Bergstrom filled by TAC students. SAC had lots of people assigned in the Northeast, but their schools were in Louisiana and California. It was much cheaper to send SAC students from Plattsburg AFB, New York, or Loring AFB, Maine, to the McGuire NCO academy—but MAC had to be willing to share their seats. We also faced continual audits for overflying schools. ATC would often send their Keesler students in Mississippi back to Lackland in San Antonio, while AFCC would send their Kelly AFB students in San Antonio to the Keesler NCO academy. In effect, students from different MAJCOMs would pass each other on Interstate 10. Something had to be done. In the early ’90s we moved from a quota sharing system to an automated quota distribution system, where we, at AFMPC, distributed annual PME school seats based on student location regardless of which command owned the students.
Unfortunately, receiving a quota at a given school didn’t force the MAJCOMs to fill them as intended, since they were not by-name quotas, and overflying persisted. Consequently, the Air Force stepped in and gave all the CONUS [continental United States] NCO academies to Air University in 1993. It was the beginning of the College for Enlisted PME, or CEPME as it was called. Another benefit of standing up the college was it consolidated NCO academy curriculum development and course policies at Air University. I recall asking CMSAF Pfingston, when he was in the seat, why CEPME didn’t include the overseas NCO academies. He replied, “Overflying is a CONUS problem only. There is no need to take the schools away from the overseas MAJCOMs.” If you fast-forward 20 years, the Barnes Center now manages all enlisted PME, and they inherited CCAF [Community College of the Air Force] along the way. Enlisted education is now under one umbrella. We have come a long way in a short time.
One last question on PME, if I could. Looking back, you’ve seen it evolve and you’ve seen the true effect. How important is PME to the enlisted force?
PME is important because it helps us focus on leadership, human relations, and personal development, but it is only part of the professional development equation. For years, it was assumed if we attended PME we were ready to go out and conquer the world. The truth is we all are simply the sum of our experiences. PME is certainly part of professional development, but assignments we’ve had, the organizations we’ve joined, and the colleges or other courses we have attended all help make us who we are.
There has nearly always been some vocal group advocating to provide PME earlier. I am not a strong proponent, since earlier is not always better. We should give people the education, experiences, and exposure to issues when it will benefit them the most—typically just before they assume new roles and responsibilities. The fundamental questions are: when will roles change during a typical career path, and how should we deliberately prepare people to fill those roles?
Senior airman to staff sergeant is a major transition. During this period, we ask people to become noncommissioned officers and move from being responsible solely for themselves to assuming responsibility for the actions of others. While promotion to technical sergeant typically moves NCOs from a working team leader role to becoming a leader of multiple teams, the expectations are closely related to those we have for first-line supervisors. However, expectations change again upon promotion to master sergeant. Not only are they senior NCOs, but they are often tasked to manage entire shops. We also ask them to think more operationally. There is a significant expectation shift from my perspective. We owe them new skill sets and exposure to the new issues they will face. The same holds true for promotion to chief master sergeant. I believe the transition from senior master sergeant to chief is much more challenging than the transition from master sergeant to senior master sergeant. We expect chiefs to think more strategically and be experts on virtually everything in the Air Force.
When roles change, ideally we should help people just prior to the transition. It doesn’t work as well if the timing is off. For example, preparing someone in 2015 for a role they won’t assume until 2020 is virtually worthless because they may not remember the lessons or we may not be the same Air Force by then. It should be just-in-time training. When and what are both important. However, there are lots of delivery methods suitable for preparing people. No doubt, some lessons are better learned via one method over another, but I don’t get caught up in whether something is designed for a classroom setting, interactive online, or experiential. The how is less important, since there are lots of ways to get there from here.
You left the PME world—
Not by choice [laughter]. However, this is probably a good time to add that PME is only part of the deliberate development process. Other initiatives like local NCO and senior NCO professional development seminars leverage the expertise of senior NCOs at every base.
Also, first term Airmen centers, or FTACs, help smooth the transition into the operational Air Force so Airmen can have a productive start. The FTAC concept began at Offutt AFB [Nebraska] in the mid-1990s while I was assigned at ACC. It was a great idea to build friendships, solve the base detail challenge, and help Airmen during one of their most trying times—moving to their first duty station. It’s normal to feel like an outsider when everyone else has an established routine and you are still trying to get out of the starting blocks. FTACs connect Airmen with others in a similar situation and help them learn about the local support network available.
We expanded FTACs throughout ACC, and by the late-90s, pushed to make it an Air Force program. Thankfully, it still operates today.
You were plucked up because General [Joseph W.] Ralston wanted you to be his senior enlisted advisor at Eleventh Air Force.
It actually surprised me. To this day, I’m not exactly sure why he selected me. When I arrived at Elmendorf AFB [Alaska], I was the junior of 62 chiefs on the base and the new NCO academy commandant. In fact, that was the only Air Force job [in which] I ever began feeling very confident. I had taught at a PME center for a few years, so I understood the teaching part. I had developed curriculum and had relationships at Air University. I had worked operations and PME policy issues at AFMPC; so, I had a good handle on program intent and what we could waive in certain circumstances. And, I had a fair understanding of the manning and budget piece. It might be a little cocky to say, but I thought I knew as much about PME as the other NCO academy commandants and most likely more than anyone on the faculty at my new school. By the way, we had a great team of talented instructors in Alaska who collectively made significant improvements to the PME program and taught me a few lessons about how to be a successful leader.
A year into my NCO academy tour, I was pulled out to become the senior enlisted advisor for Eleventh Air Force. Thankfully, I wasn’t fired. However, I was just getting started as a chief and hadn’t considered what other jobs might be available to me.
What did you think your role was as the senior enlisted advisor? It was a completely different shift for you. Were you ready for that role?
Initially, I didn’t know everything the role included. There was no formal training—although I did attend the SEA orientation a few months into the job. I knew some SEAs but didn’t have a good feel for what their day-to-day responsibilities were since I had been pretty removed from that group. It’s like looking at the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force role from the outside. To some it may appear easy and exciting. However, the closer you are to the position, the less awe there is. You tend to see everything the job entails and the level of effort required.
In Alaska, we had a fighter wing at Eielson AFB with a senior enlisted advisor who was making things happen up north. The 3rd Wing at Elmendorf was a large organization with lots of different aircraft and missions. The senior enlisted advisor there had a good handle on the issues and didn’t need me inserting myself into wing business. We also had an air control wing senior enlisted advisor who worked mostly remote site issues in Alaska. My goal was to figure out how to get all three of them to march down a similar path as we moved forward—while keeping my boss informed on enlisted issues in the field.
I didn’t feel overly challenged once I learned the expectations of my new role. It was a relatively small numbered Air Force, with only three wings and no deployment taskings at the time. I worked primarily on helping develop solid relationships with our local community partners and visiting Airmen at remote sites as often as I could. We still had a significant number of Airmen serving remote tours during my time in Alaska. We had about 300 at both King Salmon and Galena Air Stations. Eareckson AS, on the island of Shemya, had about 600 Airmen. Shemya is the next to last island at the end of the Aleutian chain—a long way from Anchorage.
They had some unique challenges at the remote sites, since they had to be self-sufficient at virtually everything. There were no stores outside the main gate...or even a main gate at Eareckson. Thankfully, mission changes after the Cold War allowed us to place contractors at these sites and eliminate the one-year tours for about 1,200 Airmen. They were the last of Alaska’s remote assignments which ended during the ’94–’95 timeframe.
The SEA tour in Alaska was my first. It gave me some exposure to working for general officers. I’m not sure I ever told General Ralston how much I appreciated him. He taught me many things, both at Eleventh Air Force and later at Air Combat Command. Although our tours together were much shorter than anticipated, it was easy to stay in step with him since we tended to agree on all the important issues. He was a great boss who always supported me and forgave my mistakes. I was fortunate to work for both him and General [Lawrence] Boese during my Alaska tour. I also learned many leadership lessons from General Boese. He inherited me at Eleventh Air Force, and I’m thankful he kept me on his team. Similarly, General [Richard] Hawley inherited me at ACC. He was a brilliant leader who valued the time of others, especially those on the staff. He championed many issues and helped me think more strategically. We inducted him onto the Order of the Sword before he retired.
You were actually at ACC when we began to change to more of an expeditionary force, and ACC led that initiative. Can you comment on why that was an important shift for the Air Force?
There were many things going on at the time, but you’re right, we were becoming expeditionary. It’s not that we wanted to, but America needed us to change. Most Airmen of the time were used to serving in a garrison force. Although we had some battlefield Airmen, we typically sent our pilots out to fight, while the rest of us stayed back at the home base in maintenance and support roles. The airlift community was TDY all the time, but they were the exception. There were some who believed six-month deployments were for Sailors, not Airmen. The Navy went to sea on six- to nine-month cruises—the Air Force never deployed. We built major bases across Europe to support NATO and brought our families with us on three-year tours. We knew who and where our enemy was, and we put our resources there.
However, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world started changing. We were facing the reality we couldn’t always predict where the next military threat was going to emerge. This made it difficult to have the required infrastructure in the right places to operate as we had for decades. We also couldn’t afford to operate major bases everywhere around the world. We didn’t have the aircraft, people, or resources to make it work—unless we became expeditionary. We could, however, stand up temporary bases virtually anywhere by borrowing people and assets from multiple CONUS locations.
I arrived at ACC a few years after Desert Storm. At the time, ACC had been providing forces to support Operation Southern Watch. Unfortunately, they seemed to be doing more than their fair share. For the rest of the Air Force, it was business as usual. F-15 squadrons from Langley [AFB, Virginia] and Eglin [AFB, Florida] were rotating in and out of the theater, while other F-15 squadrons in Alaska and elsewhere had virtually no deployment taskings. Some units were being overstressed, while others had no way into the fight. We needed to bring the entire Air Force into the game.
ACC took the lead in setting up an Air Expeditionary Center. Of course, standing up a center to manage deployment taskings was easier than changing the mentality of Airmen who grew up in the Cold War era. Many had no desire to leave their families and deploy to Southwest Asia for four months to a year at a time.
I was responsible to help manage first sergeant deployment taskings within ACC. Unfortunately, I often had to task non-volunteers who were unhappy and/or unwilling to deploy. Some even offered to turn in their diamonds rather than deploy for four months. They were happy to serve in our Air Force but had no expectation to leave their families for months at a time. Consequently, we needed to change the expectations of Air Force life for future generations of Airmen.
I recall participating in a biennial review of basic military training, BMT, during Chief [CMSAF #11 Dave] Campanale’s watch. BMT had historically done an amazing job of transitioning civilians into Airmen and preparing them for technical training. However, we found Airmen at BMT didn’t know much about life in the operational commands of our Air Force. They didn’t know about deployments or frankly what the Air Force would expect of them in the years to come.
Consequently, the MAJCOM command chiefs agreed to send BMT some videos about operational missions in our respective commands. The idea was BMT would play these videos while trainees were waiting in line or during short periods of down time. And, exposure to these videos would ultimately provide a clearer picture about serving in the Air Force. We also needed to change expectations and grow expeditionary mind-sets in our youngest Airmen. Over the next few years, this idea blossomed into Warrior Week. Later, after I retired, it was renamed The BEAST. As I recall, this fundamental shift in focus was popular in both the MTI and trainee communities.
In today’s environment, people expect to deploy. Almost every AFSC has a deployment tasking. It doesn’t make any difference where you are assigned. Airmen have much different expectations than we had just 20 years ago. In 1995 we were a much different Air Force. Compare the number of ribbons current Airmen wear to those worn by Airmen from other service periods. You can see far more Airmen today have been involved in multiple contingency operations. Deployments are normal business for those currently serving.
You can really trace today’s expeditionary Air Force back to that time—
You’re right. Although we have been continually evolving as an Air Force, some ideas implemented during this period have had a significant and lasting impact on our Air Force. One was making the term Airman special to trainees. By withholding the label until trainees completed Warrior Week along with presenting them an Airman’s coin to commemorate the occasion, transitioning from trainee to Airman became a valued experience.
I had the distinct honor of presenting the very first Airman’s coin to the first flight of BMT trainees completing Warrior Week. This occurred in September 1999, soon after I became the CMSAF. I am extremely proud of this experience and cherish receiving one of the very first Airman coins minted. It holds a special place in my coin collection.
Can you talk a little more about Warrior Week?
Sure. The leadership and MTIs at basic military training began working this initiative during Chief [CMSAF #12 Eric W.] Benken’s tour. They reorganized training objectives and moved all week five training to a tent city. The intent was to provide trainees an experience like what they might later experience in a deployed environment. We called it Warrior Week. It also had a culminating event at the end of the week—typically a retreat ceremony with a keynote speaker.
Trainees could not claim the title Airman until completing this training and receiving their coin. Also, they weren’t allowed to wear a blue uniform until after Warrior Week. Completion was a rite of passage, like stepping over a line in the sand. You and I may not pay much attention to the value of a week in our careers. However, I suspect those trainees felt like they finally arrived when they joined the ranks of Airmen. People tend to value whatever the institution or leaders make important. BMT curriculum has evolved since then, but I’m glad we still make a big deal out of becoming an Airman.
In the late 1990s, right as you became the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the Air Force faced recruiting challenges. You took some action to improve that. Can you comment on what we did and how it affected the Air Force?
Until 1999 the Air Force had always met its annual recruiting goal. We didn’t focus on it much or spend funds on national television ads. Typically, the only time you saw the Air Force on TV was during some public service announcement late at night. However, when we didn’t make our recruiting goal in 1999, it was like a splash of cold water in our faces. It had our attention. This was a problem that required our immediate focus.
Our new undersecretary of the Air Force, Carol DiBattiste, came on board in 1999. She had once been an Air Force recruiter, and I remembered her from our LMDC assignment together in the mid-’80s when she worked at the JAG [Judge Advocate General] school. She was a great leader and friend who became a champion for recruiting issues.
My direct role in helping the recruiting effort was to travel in uniform as often as possible and to provide the voice for the original commercials. The tag line then was “America’s Air Force. No One Comes Close.” We stopped using this line in 2001. Frankly, it didn’t fit after the tragic events on 9/11.
In addition to establishing a significant recruiting campaign, we also believed we needed more recruiters on the street to solve this challenge. We began to focus on ways to incentivize recruiting without breaking other Air Force programs. We didn’t want to make recruiting duty more lucrative than other special duty positions, break faith in our promotion system, or alienate recruiters within the enlisted force.
Our method of manning this special duty had been to only seek volunteers. We had recruit the recruiter teams who traveled around enticing Airmen to volunteer. I questioned why we waited for volunteers, because I didn’t recall volunteering for any job from the time I was a staff sergeant. All my assignments began by someone asking, suggesting, or directing I move to a new position. I was always a willing participant—but never a volunteer.
I don’t believe the recruiting community was initially excited with non-volunteer assignments into recruiting duty, but we started discussing ways to identify our best and brightest for this duty. Recruiters were the face of the Air Force, and in many communities, the only face. It was vital we select the right people. We also wanted mature NCOs with Air Force experience, since they might be out there virtually on their own. Our solution—identify and select people without waiting for them to volunteer.
A quick story from that timeframe—I remember receiving an e-mail from a staff sergeant at Robins AFB, Georgia. He said, “I’m a maintainer and I love my job. However, I was just tagged as a non-volunteer to attend recruiting school. I don’t want to be an Air Force recruiter and am willing to go anywhere you want to send me so long as it’s in maintenance. Everyone in my chain of command has tried to get me out of this duty, and no one can. You are my last hope. I’m slated to start recruiting school in about 10 days. Please help.”
It wasn’t unusual to receive correspondence from someone unhappy about a specific Air Force program or assignment. However, something troubled me about this note. I knew we wanted some of our best NCOs to become recruiters. However, he indicated his chain of command had unsuccessfully tried to have him removed from the list. It started raising a question in my mind—had we made a mistake?
I asked the folks in my office to track down the contact information for this NCO’s shop chief or immediate supervisor. Shortly after, I had a name and phone number for the master sergeant who ran that shop. So, I rang him up. He seemed a bit caught off guard to receive a call directly from the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in the Pentagon. We talked for a few minutes, and I shared my concern about the statement indicating everyone had tried to get this NCO off the recruiting duty list. He replied, “Yeah, he doesn’t want to be a recruiter, and we have been trying to support him.” I followed up with, “Are we making a mistake sending him to recruiting school?” He replied, “Actually, Chief, this young staff sergeant will make a great recruiter. He is the type of guy who will be successful anywhere you put him. He just doesn’t want to do this.”
I then said, “Well, we need great people to represent maintenance in recruiting duty. If he’s truly an outstanding NCO, he’s going to be a great recruiter for the next few years. I’m not going to help him avoid recruiting school. Please tell him I received his letter and that you and I have talked.”
I also called the recruiting school when he started and asked to be kept in the loop on his progress. I just wanted periodic updates—which they provided until he graduated. After that, he fell off my radar.
About six months later I visited Robins AFB. Frankly, I had forgotten about this NCO and the recruiting concern he had. One of the stops during my visit was at a maintenance hangar with about 25 NCOs lined up. Everyone wore BDUs [battle dress uniform] except one staff sergeant who wore a blue service uniform. Although he stood out in the sea of green, I didn’t think it odd. I had no idea who he was—just a staff sergeant in blues. I started moving down the line shaking hands and saying hello. When I asked him what he did for our Air Force, he informed me he was no longer assigned to the maintenance squadron at Robins. He then said, “I heard you were visiting and wanted to meet you. I’m a recruiter stationed about 100 miles from here. I sent you an e-mail a few months ago asking for your help to get me out of recruiting duty—but you wouldn’t help me.” It was then I realized he was the young staff sergeant from six months ago. I asked him how things were going—not sure which direction the conversation would go. And, he replied, “I just want to say thanks. I didn’t know it would be this much fun.”
It reinforced for me that we have great Airmen. They want to be led and to be told what’s important. They want us to take care of them in a reasonable way and to appreciate what they do. You can ask them to do virtually anything, and they will step up.
Was he successful?
As far as I know—I never saw him again. He was a sharp NCO. I suspect he had a stellar recruiting tour and went on to become a great senior enlisted leader.
That’s a great story. You were also the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force on 11 September 2001.
Everybody remembers where they were, and I’m sure you do too. Can you tell us about that day for you?
September 11th, 2001, was a Tuesday. Back then, Tuesday mornings included our weekly staff meeting with the Air Force’s secretary, chief, and senior leadership staff at the Pentagon. Since the Air Force had recently changed chiefs of staff, this was General [John P.] Jumper’s first staff meeting as our new chief. We held these meetings in a secure area of the Pentagon. The day began like any other Tuesday.
We were in the middle of the meeting when someone came in to interrupt with news that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. The big screen switched over to either CNN or Fox News to provide us live updates. We didn’t know what type of aircraft it was at the time or whether this was intentional or an accident. I was sitting next to [Brig Gen James M.] Shamess, who was our Air Force’s top cop back then, when we watched live as a commercial airliner flew into the second tower. General Shamess commented something to the effect, “Well, that was intentional. It looks like we have just been attacked.” Like most Americans, we were glued to the news. It was surreal. We knew it was intentional and very bad, but we had no clue how the day would unfold. I didn’t think much beyond the moment. I couldn’t wait to return to my office and didn’t know if any of my staff had heard or seen this bizarre news.
Shortly after, we concluded the meeting, and I beat feet to my office on the fourth floor. The staff was already glued to the TV in my office, as news outlets continuously replayed the attack.
At 9:30 I knew I had to depart. I had an editorial board slated with the Air Force Times set for 10:00 at the Military Times building in Alexandria, Virginia. And it would take 20 to 30 minutes to drive there. Keep in mind, the CMSAF office was on the ninth corridor of the fourth floor, and it typically took more than five minutes to walk to the Pentagon’s river entrance on the first floor.
I turned to my public affairs NCO, Beth Alber, and said, “Grab your service dress. We have to go.” As we departed the building, I remember telling Beth it was probably not a good day to be in the Pentagon with all the crazy stuff going on. We had no idea what was about to happen.
We walked to my car that was parked in the river entrance parking lot just outside the Pentagon, hopped in the car, and drove out through security towards I-395 South. As we drove around the south side of the Pentagon, the plane crashed into the north side. It was literally seconds after we departed. By the time we reached the hill, near where the Air Force Memorial is now located, I could see the Pentagon in the rearview mirror along with the fire and black smoke beginning to emerge above the back side of the building.
I said to Beth, “Hey turn around—quick, turn around. There’s something going on back there.” We didn’t see the plane but knew something had happened. Beth suggested they might just be holding fire drills or training. But, we dismissed the thought as unlikely given the earlier events of the day. So, I turned on the radio hoping for some news. About a minute or so later, someone broke in over the airwaves to announce that a commercial airliner had just flown into the Pentagon. We had just learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center that morning, and now this. It seemed almost unbelievable.
I remember pulling off the road immediately to call the office on my cell phone. Nobody answered. We didn’t know if no one picked up the phone because they had been killed or if they had just evacuated. The Pentagon is a big building, and it would be standard procedure to evacuate immediately. My very first thought was about how lucky we were to have left the building before the attack. But that thought lasted about a nanosecond. Then it switched to worrying about all the people we just left.
I-395 North was already a parking lot because of the typical rush hour traffic that time of day. And, compounding the bumper-to-bumper traffic we saw was our realization that emergency responders would close any access to the Pentagon before we could return. There was simply no way to get back. Our only alternative was to drive down to the Military Times.
While we were on the shoulder of I-395, I also called my house to speak with my wife, Pat. I wanted her to know I was okay, since she would assume I was in the building when it was hit. She didn’t answer the house phone so I left a voicemail message to turn on the TV. I told her I was fine but something had happened at the Pentagon and in New York City. I would talk with her later.
Once I hung up from that call, cell phone service was gone. I couldn’t get through to anyone. So, we drove to the Military Times building. Fortunately, they knew about the tragic events of the morning and understood we would have no editorial board that day. They were nice and offered me their landline phones to attempt to contact my colleagues. I tried using their phone but couldn’t reach anyone.
We knew we had few options at that point. We couldn’t return to the Pentagon. We couldn’t reach anyone to find out what was happening. There was a good chance Washington, DC, would shut down and they would close the I-495 beltway making it virtually impossible for me to get home to Andrews AFB. Beth lived just north of Fredericksburg in Stafford, Virginia. So, I drove Beth home.
We watched the news at Beth’s house for a few minutes, seeking updates. Then I decided I would try to drive to Andrews using the southern Maryland route. It was the long way around, but it would probably be the quickest route. The only news available was from the car radio. I recall hanging on every word as I drove north. Along the way, I learned World Trade Center Tower 1 had collapsed. Then, the second tower also collapsed. I also learned United Flight 93 had been hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania. There were lots of bad things happening, and I was unsure when it would end. My immediate focus was on getting home to my family.
Around 12:15 I received a call from Pat to tell me everyone in my office had made it out of the Pentagon alive. I also learned SMSgt Mike Gilbert, our first sergeant functional leader, was flying to Montgomery that morning but had landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was okay. That was the first good news I had received all day.
I arrived outside of the Andrews main gate around 12:30. Pat had gone off the base to pick up our youngest son, Brian, from school. I waved as I passed them on the road near the base. Ultimately, I ended up stuck in traffic just north of the gate. However, I was only four or five cars back from the intersection and thought it would be just a few minutes to enter the base. There was another line of cars, over a mile long, trying to enter the base from the south. I sat there for nearly two hours waiting for my turn to enter. The Prince George’s County police were directing traffic, but things were slow since our security forces were searching each car coming through the gate. Keep in mind President [George W.] Bush was slated to return to Andrews later that day on Air Force One.
Frustrated, I exited my car and walked up to the police officer directly traffic. I was in uniform and said, “I’m the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I was in the Pentagon this morning. I live on Andrews, and I need to get on this base. I’m willing to wait my turn, but I’ve been here for a couple of hours, and you haven’t let anybody from my line through.” He replied, “Well, just bring your car up here and I will put you in the next available slot.” Frankly, I no longer cared about who else might have been ahead of me in line. I drove up to the middle of the intersection, and shortly after, he waved me through to the two short lines of cars waiting to enter the base gate.
As soon as the Air Force Security Forces saw me, they came out from the gate area and instructed everyone to move their cars to the outside of the respective lanes. It was like the parting of the Red Sea! Our defenders then escorted me down the center of the road to the gate. They said, “Chief, we have to let the dogs go through your car.” And, I said, “You betcha.” I was happy to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that day. Pat and Brian made it home a couple of hours later.
Once home, I contacted the Air Force staff working in our ops center at the Pentagon and passed along that everyone in my office had survived the attack. They were still working on the process to account for everyone. I was told [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld wanted us all to report for work the next day—it sent an important message that those who attacked us did not take us down.
My colleague, Chief Dawn Rich, and I drove together to the Pentagon the next morning. When we arrived, the Arlington and other firefighters were still on the roof fighting the fire. No doubt, they had been there all night. The building reeked of jet fuel, and black soot covered everything. Our office was on the side of the building opposite the crash site. We were issued protective masks and could write our names on the office walls because the soot was that thick.
Over the next week to 10 days, the parking lot became transformed into an operational staging area. What began as search and rescue sadly became a tedious recovery-and-investigative operation. Volunteers from around the country showed up to share their talents. Local businesses set up shop to provide their services free of charge. I recall a day spa brought in equipment and offered massages. Donated food and fuel just arrived. That period included the worst day of my Air Force career, followed by some of the most memorable days. I met some wonderful and talented people, some in uniform and some not, but all gave of themselves expecting nothing in return. I will forever remember the events of that period. For example, Jack Tilley, the Sergeant Major of the Army, and I met with some Soldiers who wanted to hang a large American flag from the top of the Pentagon. They asked us how it should hang so we instructed them on proper flag protocol. Little did we know that flag would become part of an iconic photo of the Pentagon attack and a symbol of our national resolve. Jack and I still speak of that event. Like everyone else who experienced September 11th, 2001, we knew exactly where we were, and the surrounding events are permanently imprinted in our memories.
I had no idea how much the world would change based on the attacks that day. September 11, 2001, was certainly a tragic day in our American history. However, I also made new friends and took away some positive memories from that period. I learned about the amazing capabilities and patriots we have in America. I also felt pride in the willingness of people from all walks of life to come together in support of a single cause—it was a new feeling I hoped would last.
Certainly. Obviously, that day shifted the way we looked at the world, and the way our Air Force operated specifically. Do you think we were ready for that shift?
From my perspective, we had already become expeditionary. Many in America, including some in our sister-services, tend to speak of deployments and our war on terror as if it all began in 2001 after 9/11. They use Operation Enduring Freedom as the starting point. However, Airmen have been deployed since Desert Storm in 1991. The terror attacks on the USS Cole, Khobar Towers, and elsewhere are reminders that America’s war on terror began long before 9/11. Our Air Force was engaged daily in Southwest Asia, supporting both Operations Southern Watch and Northern Watch. We never left. While some bases and missions have changed over the years, we became expeditionary almost 10 years before 9/11.
Deployment locations and expectations both have changed considerably since I retired. Many bases the Air Force operates from today didn’t exist while I was serving. We were standing up Prince Sultan AB in Saudi Arabia and building bases in Kuwait during my time. I recall visiting Al Udeid in Qatar when there were no aircraft assigned. It was still in the early stages of construction. Also, the roles and expectations of enlisted Airmen have changed a little as well. We now have more battlefield Airmen and others working outside the wire. We should be very proud of ourselves and what Airmen contribute.
Yes. Looking back and thinking about where we have come, did you ever think we would be where we are today?
This is a tough question. It’s much clearer looking back than forward, since hindsight tends to be 20/20. When thinking about some of today’s older veterans or Air Force retirees, I believe it’s challenging for many who served during Korea, Vietnam, or only in the Cold War to relate to the expectations expeditionary Airmen face today. Forty-five years of an all-volunteer force coupled with 25 years engaged in the Southwest Asia AOR [area of responsibility] have shaped America’s expectation of war. It has also become a filter for the view we have of ourselves as Airmen. The more important questions are what will America ask of our Air Force in the future and how can we best prepare the next generation of Airmen for an uncertain tomorrow? What values and expectations do current senior enlisted leaders consider important as they groom tomorrow’s Airmen?
I served the first half of my career during the Cold War. Early on, we had monthly mobility exercises and trained for NBC [nuclear, biological, and chemical] attacks. However, we never actually went anywhere, and I was a bit naïve doubting anyone would ever attack us at home during my lifetime. It was a relatively stable period. Then the world changed.
The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended. We began to draw down our military because America wanted a peace dividend. However, peace didn’t last long. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we responded with Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It was a first large-scale force mobilization in a couple of decades, and Airmen have been deploying to that theater ever since.
The Air Force I experienced in the 1980s focused on training and development. Thankfully, professional development translated to new opportunities for senior NCOs as we took on roles previously reserved for commissioned officers. However, most of us didn’t deploy and rarely went TDY except to school. This changed when I moved to Air Combat Command in the mid-’90s as the senior enlisted advisor and, later, command chief master sergeant.
When I arrived at ACC, we were still in the early stages of becoming expeditionary. My TDY schedule jumped to nearly 200 days a year visiting ACC units. I began to see a completely different side of our Air Force. The operational tempo was picking up, and Airmen were stepping up to the challenge. Unfortunately, some mission areas had a mismatch between resources and tasks. We called them “low-density, high-demand” assets and asked a lot of the Airmen and their families working in those areas. There were numerous challenges and sacrifices as families adjusted to extended deployments. It was a busy time, but I enjoyed visiting Airmen, listening to their concerns, and advocating on their behalf. It was also my first opportunity to work in a joint environment with our sister-service colleagues.
It will be interesting to see how 25 years fighting in Southwest Asia will impact the expectations future leaders have of Airmen. I served during a period of transition—both Cold War and expeditionary. However, virtually everyone serving today only knows an Air Force actively engaged around the world. They have a unique perspective on what constitutes important work.
During your tenure as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and after, what have you learned about the impact that position can have?
The CMSAF position has evolved during the past 50 years. We are a much different Air Force than we were in 1967 when Chief [CMSAF #1 Paul] Airey stepped into the position. Changes along the journey may have seemed relatively small at the time. However, I’m confident Chief Airey would agree the role, expectations, and status have changed immensely. Also, challenges Chief [CMSAF #17 Jim] Cody faces today are considerably different—even from those of my time 15 years ago. This is not to say the challenges are harder or easier today—just different.
Over the years, I have listened to virtually all the former CMSAFs as they told stories about their respective times in the Pentagon. Sadly, I have no CMSAF [CMSAF #3 Dick] Kisling stories, since I only briefly met him once in the early ’80s—a couple of years before he passed away.
The role has changed over time. I’ve been told the CMSAF position was not universally accepted in the beginning. It was new and not clearly defined. I’ve also heard there were general officers and others who didn’t think it was necessary or appropriate for the Air Force to have a chief master sergeant working directly for the chief of staff. In contrast, there are no Air Force senior leaders currently on active duty who served during a time without a Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I believe each CMSAF along the way stepped up to fill the role expected of them during their time. Each had his issues of the day.
The role I had, or lane I tried to stay within, was a balancing act. I traveled extensively to connect with Airmen. I represented the Air Force, as appropriate, to the American public and to leaders in all levels of government. I coordinated policy recommendations when asked and typically commented on virtually anything affecting our enlisted force.
We didn’t call it the EBOD [Enlisted Board of Directors] then, but I worked with the MAJCOM command chiefs to set the tone and direction for our enlisted force. We also created some deliberate development initiatives as part of the “Developing Aerospace Leaders” program that set the foundation for today’s “Enlisted Force Development” focus.
Whenever I was in Washington, DC, it seemed my dance card was always full with boards, meetings, or office calls. I tried to spend about eight days in the Pentagon each month. Too many days and the force might feel I was disconnected. Too few and my ability to help work issues affecting Airmen would be limited since staffers would just go around me without input.
The Air Force had already transitioned to e-mails and were beginning to process all staff work electronically. Consequently, I was expected to coordinate daily on staff packages for policy issues en route to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and Secretary of the Air Force. If I was out on a base visit, the staff work began after my last event of the day. The good news is we had electronic records of virtually everything; so, we pretty much solved the decades-old concern about no written history of enlisted contributions.
The protocol status for the CMSAF and sister-service equivalents changed from DV-8 to DV-4 status in the middle of my tour. My sister-service colleagues and I had mentioned in a meeting with the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] chairman that there was a disparity between how the various services treated us at joint events. However, we were collectively unaware of any OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] initiative to change our protocol status until after the policy change was announced.
I believe the pace of operations and some of the challenges are more demanding today. I was exposed to electronic staff work, but I didn’t have to deal with social media issues. My big challenge was to ignore disparaging e-mail traffic and dispel rumors shared by those with only part of the facts. Today, Airmen have instant access to information on smart phones. They freely share their views on virtually everything via Twitter and Facebook. There are others with an axe to grind who seem to twist the narrative for every policy decision. Unfortunately, access to information doesn’t always make life easier. It’s more challenging to identify fact from fiction. And, the leadership must adapt to new communication methods with Airmen and their families.
Final question, if you were looking at Airmen and you had to start a sentence with “I believe,” what would you say?
I believe making a positive difference for our Air Force requires us to understand we are part of something bigger than ourselves. The roles we play are truthfully never about us. We each have specific assignments for a relatively short period. We owe it to the organization to train our replacement beginning our first day on the job and every day after that. The goal isn’t to make ourselves irreplaceable but to help ensure long-term success by making things better for the people who will replace us along the journey.
I also believe people will continue to meet high expectations provided we give them important work to do, allow them to have a reasonable quality of life, and sincerely appreciate the sacrifices they and their families make daily.