CMSAF Rodney J. McKinley
Rodney McKinley joined the Air Force twice. He enlisted with his high school buddies in 1974 and served as a medic for a little over three years before choosing to separate and pursue outside opportunities and an education. Four and a half years later, in 1982, he realized he missed the Air Force and enlisted again, this time as a crew chief.
Born and raised in southwestern Ohio, McKinley knew when he came in the second time that he would be committed. He put his best foot forward and vowed to be the best Airman he could be. His positive attitude led to a successful stint as a crew chief. Then, following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, McKinley became a first sergeant. He wore the diamond for the next 10 years, calling it the best job he had in his Air Force career.
In June 2006 Gen. Michael Mosely selected McKinley to be the 15th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). During his tenure, the Air Force was involved in two wars. He faced a significant drawdown of nearly 40,000 Airmen, improved the physical training (PT) program, and strengthened the focus on our heritage—implementing the Walk of Heroes at basic military training (BMT), establishing the Airman’s Creed, and dedicating the Air Force Memorial. McKinley retired from active duty in June 2009.
In November 2015 McKinley sat down in his home for an interview to discuss his Air Force career and tenure as the CMSAF. During the interview, he talked about his two enlistments and the challenges he faced outside the service. He also shared the background behind the Airman’s Creed and reflected on the day both the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force were relieved of duty following nuclear mishaps in 2008. The following are edited experts from the conversation.
Alright Chief, thank you for sitting down with us this morning. Can you tell me a little bit about the first time you joined the Air Force in 1974? What led you toward the Air Force?
I grew up in southwestern Ohio, in a small town—farmland country. My sixth-grade class visited the museum in Dayton, Ohio, Wright-Patterson AFB. It was a great experience going to visit that museum, and it kind of gave several of us an introduction to the Air Force; we were just enamored with it. After high school, I didn’t have the funds to go to college. I played football, but I wasn’t getting college scholarships or anything; so, me and a couple buddies decided to look into the Air Force.
In November of 1973, we went and visited the recruiter in Batavia, Ohio, and we decided to sign up on the Buddy Plan. Three of us signed up for the Delayed Enlistment Program, and we went to basic training on 1 July, ’74, I think it was.
We finished basic training together. One went off to California to learn Vietnamese, because we were still in the drawdown of the Vietnam War. One went off to Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and I went to Seymour Johnson AFB, in North Carolina. So, that was the end of our Buddy Plan right there.
You never crossed paths again?
Never crossed paths again in the Air Force, and they both got out after four years. I was a medic. I started off in obstetrics. I worked there for nine months and then went to work in the emergency room. I absolutely loved it. I loved being a medic, there were a lot of great experiences, and I learned to work under pressure.
As a matter of fact, later on in life, as a first sergeant and command chief, people would ask, “Well, Chief, how do you stay calm under pressure?” And I would say, “Well, you know, I worked in the emergency room, and we had life-and-death situations where people die on a table.” A performance report or a decoration being late is not exactly life or death. So, having been through that, as a medic, it helped me keep things in perspective. I was able to slow down, stay calm, and not get too excited over what would really stress some other people out.
After your first enlistment you decided that was it, and separated. What led you in that direction?
In 1977 we were drawing down big time after the Vietnam War, and they were offering early outs. Even though I loved my job, my nextdoor neighbor was opening a brand new restaurant right outside the gate at Seymour Johnson. He said, “Hey, if you get out, you can be my assistant manager.” And I thought, “Wow, that is cool. I can be an assistant manager. I can grow my hair; I can grow a beard.” So, I said yes. I jumped at the chance to get out, and two weeks later, I was gone. I sold my leave, and I was out.
There was nobody telling me, “Hey, you need to make sure you are making the right decision before you get out.” I was married, and I just got out. When I was working at the restaurant, I was working the night shift, six days a week. I was putting in 65 hours a week, and I didn’t have any benefits—no medical, no dental, nothing.
I didn’t have the rights to play on the golf course anymore, or go to the gym; so, it was vastly different. I thought, “Well, I’m out, and I’ve got to deal with it.” So, I did it for a while, then moved to Texas and managed Mr. Gatti’s Pizza. I did that for a couple years, then I decided to move back to Ohio and go back to school. I ended up going back to work—I took my old APRs [Airman Performance Report] to the local hospital, and I showed them my training, and they hired me to run the emergency room at nights.
At what point did you decide to enlist again?
Well, I was working in the emergency room for a couple of years. I had reconstructive knee surgery, and then I got really sick. I was going to college full time and working nights. I came down with meningitis, and I was in the hospital for a while. After that I said, “You know, I’m not going to kill myself anymore. I want to go back in the Air Force. I miss the Air Force.”
Was it fairly easy to get back in?
I went and saw a recruiter, and the recruiter said, “Yes, man, we’d love to have you back in.” The plan was for me to come back in as a medic, but just before I was due to come back in, the recruiter told me, “There are no medical jobs available. The prior-service jobs are really dwindling. If you want to come back in, you need to do weapons or crew chief, but don’t worry about it, you can cross-train into medical once you are in.”
We had already made plans to come back in; so, I decided to be a crew chief. I went to Sheppard [AFB, Texas], to learn to be a crew chief in April of 1982, and it was like I was never out. I mean, I never really missed anything; I still was up to standards. The only thing I had a problem with is now senior NCOs were wearing shoulder boards. I came back as a senior airman, and I was walking around saluting senior NCOs. I wasn’t used to shoulder boards.
Was it frustrating for you to have to go the crew chief route? You were clearly passionate about the medical field and had worked there both in the Air Force and out.
No, it’s like when the Air Force taps you on the shoulder and says they need you to go do something else. I never got upset. I thought, “Okay, well, this is a new direction.”
When Gen. Moseley interviewed me for Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, he only asked one question. He said, “Chief, what do you think?” I sat back and thought, “What kind of a question is that?” I thought for a second and I said, “Well, sir, first off, I’ve got to tell you that my goal has never been to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. My goals in the Air Force have always been very simple: whatever job the Air Force gives me, I’m going to do the very best I can.
“I’m always going to treat people with dignity and respect, and I’m going to do the other things I should be doing as an Airman—that’s my professional military education, my dress and appearance, my physical fitness—the things I should be doing in my squadron and on my base and in my local community. I’ve always trusted that if do I those things, my leadership would take care of me.”
And he said, “Well, Chief, that’s a damn good answer; I didn’t want to be Chief of Staff either.”
That’s really been my basic philosophy. Whatever job the Air Force gives you, do your best. If you’re asked to go out and dig a ditch, dig that ditch the best you can so that no one has to come back and do it over. If you’re working in the dining facility and you’re cooking an omelet, take pride and make sure you make that omelet the best you can. Every job is important. Every AFSC [Air Force Specialty Code] is important. That was just my simple philosophy. I never got upset at the Air Force because they asked me to go do something else.
What did you think about crew chief duty— was it what you expected?
When I came back in, I decided I was going to be the best crew chief I could be. We got stationed at Myrtle Beach [AFB, South Carolina], and I began working on A-10s. I learned a lot. I was dedicated, so I’d take the books home, and I’d study everything about the A-10. I progressed, and they put me in quality assurance. I became NCOIC [noncommissioned officer in charge] of FCF weight and balance—that’s functional check flights, and weight and balance.
I did very well there. I made staff first time out, and tech second time out. Then I got an assignment to [Clark AB] the Philippines. We had F-4s in the Philippines, and so, I was a crew chief on the flight line, as a new technical sergeant. Then, out of the blue, the chief in quality assurance pulled me off the flight line and said, “We want your experience here in quality assurance.” So, I went back to quality assurance and back to being the NCOIC of functional check flight and weight and balance. I also ended up being the chief inspector.
So, I really enjoyed working on the F-4 and the experiences over there in the Philippines, until the volcano came.
The volcano actually pushed you into first sergeant duty, is that correct?
Well, I made master sergeant right before the volcano. After the volcano, they closed the base, and I was notified by Classification and Training that I needed to either cross-train, do a consecutive overseas tour, or separate. And I thought, “I don’t want to cross-train.”
They told me we were doing away with the A-10—this is 1991—and the F-4, and there was no aircraft SEI [special experience identifier] for me stateside, so I had to find another job.
I looked at all the jobs out there and decided to be a first sergeant. In quality assurance, I made sure people followed guidelines, standards, and discipline. Then my medical background—I was very much a people person; so, I thought first sergeant would be great.
From that point on, I was on the first sergeant track. I did that for 10 years, and it was my favorite job in my Air Force career. It was actually helping people. You could have such a positive effect on so many people when you were down in the unit level. I loved it. I made senior and chief as a first sergeant, and it was great.
At that point, I imagine you had decided to make the Air Force a career. You had mentioned before that when you came in, the second time, you were going to commit to it 100 percent. Why was that?
When I came back in the Air Force after being out for four-and-a-half years, I knew it was going to be a career. I look at my first time in the Air Force; I was young. I came in at 18, and I was a typical one, two, three striper. I liked having fun. I was a really good medic. I think I did a fantastic job, but I was kind of your typical young guy, living in the barracks, until I got married.
But when I came back in the second time, I was committed. I mean, I was really committed. I knew that I was going to make it a career, and I knew it was important that, whatever I did, I did my best. So, I had a different mind-set by far when I came back in the second time.
If you would have asked me, the first time, if I was going to make it a career, I would have been like, “What, are you crazy?” It was just a four-year stint. That was the plan, and then get out. But when I came in the second time, I was going to make it at least 20 years, and hopefully make master sergeant and make it a good career.
Is there a certain reason why you made that decision right off the bat?
To come in?
Just to make it a career.
No. I just knew I loved the military—I loved the mind-set; I loved the camaraderie of being around other people with the same mind-set. I just knew that was going to be it for me. Plus, I liked the other things that you don’t think about—you know, playing sports against the other squadrons, the security for the family, the medical, the dental, and the long-term retirement benefit. I knew I was going stay when I came back in; so, I knew I needed to put my best foot forward.
I’d like to go back to your time in the Philippines...you mentioned you were there when Mount Pinatubo erupted.
Yes. We were there, and we had the warnings. The year before we had a huge earthquake; it was like a 7.8. Many people died in that earthquake in the Philippines, and it caused a seismic shift that created the conditions for Mount Pinatubo, which had been dormant for 600 years, to erupt in 1991.
We knew it was coming, because working on the flight line you could smell the sulfur in the air. Then, one day, they told us it was pretty imminent, and that we should watch the news that night for any new information. We watched it, and they said, “Get up early in the morning and watch again at 5 o’clock.” We got up early, watched it, and they basically said, “Get out of here.”
So, there was a mass exodus from Clark AB to [Naval Base] Subic Bay. We basically just took a suitcase with us, that’s it; then, a few days later, they took a couple buses of us back to Clark so we could go back into our house and get more stuff.
I went back into the house and was trying to get more stuff, and I heard all kinds of commotion. I went out to the street where my house was on the base, and the volcano had just erupted. There was this huge mushroom cloud going over my head. The bus came by, and we had to hop in the bus and leave. We were escorted back to Subic Bay, and we stayed there for several days.
With all the volcanic ash, it was dark in the daytime. I was working at the club to help organize and keep people together. Then they decided we needed to get out of there, and we couldn’t get out through airlift; so, we all went through the South China Sea on naval ships. We went on a naval ship to Cebu [the Philippines], then we flew out of Cebu to Guam, to Hickam [AFB, Hawaii], and then to McChord [AFB, California], and then onto the next duty assignment from there.
And your family was with you?
That must have been quite the experience for them.
It was an experience. It was one of those life experiences.
And as we mentioned before, that was a transition point for you. You left Clark and began first sergeant duty, which you did for 10 years and was it five squadrons?
I think I had seven squadrons total.
Seven squadrons. What was it that makes you say first sergeant duty was the best experience in your Air Force career?
I think being a first sergeant was incredible. Every first sergeant will have an effect on the unit. It’s either going to be positive or negative, but they will have an effect. So, I really tried to have a positive effect on people’s lives. I’ve always said, my greatest accomplishments in my Air Force career were people. To have someone who is having a tough time in the Air Force, with life or the job, or whatever, and you grab that person and have a positive effect on them, then they go off and have a successful Air Force career, what gets better than that? I have hundreds of stories I could tell about people whose lives I was able to have a positive effect on—that was really inspiring to me. And I’ve stayed in contact with many of them, and it’s pretty neat.
You do have some negative experiences. You have some people that are just not cut out to be in the Air Force. Sometimes the best thing for them is to go, and you’ve got to do that side of it, too. But I always try to do the positive thing. I try to point people in the right direction and hope they can come out of any challenge with a positive attitude. I just found that very rewarding.
Originally, it was tough to get promoted, because the first sergeant career field was so tough, but somehow it worked out; I did okay. I’m very thankful for my 10 years as a first sergeant and how it helped groom me, really, to be a command chief and then Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
You’ve mentioned before that when we talk about people, they are not troops. They are Airmen. Can you explain that one?
Yes. When I was the PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] command chief, my boss, Gen. [Paul V.] Hester was just a fantastic gentleman, a great general. As a first sergeant, I always said troops, and he called me in his office one day and said, “Chief, they are not troops, they are Airmen. They go to basic training; we tell them they are an Airman. They go to OTS; we tell them they are Airmen. At the Air Force Academy, they are Airmen. They are not troops.” I said, “I’ve got it, sir. They are not kids either,” because he always said kids. He goes, “Touché.”
We still stay in touch. We talk about it, and both of us have always been on this thing to call our Airmen, “Airmen,” instead of troops because, in basic training they have the coin ceremony, and they get that first coin. Up until then, they’ve always been a trainee, but on that moment, for the first time, they are called an Airman. It’s a very special day. A lot of them have tears in their eyes. We call them Airmen; so, why do we go back later and say our troops this, and our troops that. No, they are Airmen. You would never call a Marine a troop—they are Marines. They love being called a Marine. I like to see that esprit de corps in our Airmen, that pride to be an Airman. That’s always stuck with me, and I make it a point to talk about it.
Makes perfect sense. So you became a command chief in 2001, prior to the September 11 attacks.
When the attacks happened, and you saw, maybe, the future—where we might be heading as an Air Force. What were your major thoughts or concerns then?
Well, on 9/11 I was actually flying across the Atlantic Ocean on my way to the First Sergeant Academy graduation. The announcement came over the intercom about the first plane going into the tower, and I thought, well this is not a humorous thing to be talking about. It sounded like the pilot was joking. And then they came back and said another plane had hit, and then Washington—the Pentagon.
Our plane got diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and we landed at 1:30 in the afternoon. We sat in that plane until 4:30 in the morning. We were on the ramp, because there were so many planes; they didn’t have anywhere for us to go. I remember we watched Shrek three times while we were sitting there. Finally, they brought a school bus to pick us up at 4:30 in the morning. They took us to a hotel, and they had sheets and a pillow on the floor for us to lie on. We hadn’t seen any footage yet; so, we were all out in the hallways watching the TV.
I had to call my wife, Paula, because she didn’t know where I was. All she knew was I was going to Gunter [AFB, Alabama], but she didn’t know I was in Halifax, or where I was; so, I finally got to tell her I was okay.
We stayed there for a couple days, until we were able to get out of there and get our luggage. They cancelled the First Sergeant Academy graduation; so, I went back to Ramstein [AB, Germany]. As soon as I got back there, life changed—life changed forever. We were checking all the vehicles coming through the gates, we had the barriers put up, and we had several white powder incidents that we knew we needed to check out.
So, we had all kinds of scary stuff going on. I knew things had changed forever. Afghanistan came shortly after that—and here we are today. That day changed us all and changed our military forever. Security on bases will never be like it was prior to 9/11 again.
You were right there at the center when Operation Iraqi Freedom started; you were actually the command chief for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
Yes. I was the command chief at the 379th when we kicked off the war in March 2003. I got there in January to help set the base up. We had so many aircraft and personnel coming from different locations, to include Australia and Great Britain; so, we really built tent city up very big. When I arrived, I think our base population was around 1,800. By the time the war started, we were up to 6,700. Then we kicked off Iraqi Freedom from right there at the 379th, on that very first night of shock and awe.
We were flying tremendous missions nonstop. We had about 150 fighter jets on the ground, and they were just going nonstop. We had Airmen there working around the clock, doing a fantastic job. You go to war, and it’s amazing to see people come together and turn an aircraft so fast and just do a great job. So, it was a great experience for me. I’m very fortunate that I was chosen to go there and be the command chief at a location that was so important when we kicked the war off.
You answered it briefly, but what are your thoughts on the quality of the Airmen you were leading at that time?
I never had any problems with any Airmen there. We didn’t have any incidents, as I recall, of Airmen doing stupid stuff. We had some very strict guidelines we followed, as far as drinking and other things, and we followed the guidelines. I met with all our first sergeants on a regular basis, as well as our chiefs, and I met and had breakfast every morning with the top people from the British and the Australian air forces, just to make sure we were all in sync. You know, it’s all about relationships—success is about relationships and how you treat people, how you talk to them. So, I worked really hard on those relationships, to take care of our people and keep them out of trouble, because we were at war, and I didn’t want anybody getting in trouble.
We started a recognition program there. We had formal retreats. We only had a little, tiny, dinky flag, so I put some big flags up—to include the British, the Australian, and Qatari flags—just to get us all together working as one team. I thought it was really important to keep people focused, because we were part of history, and it would be a shame for someone to be sent back home for doing something really stupid. I was really thankful for the leadership we had there. It was a great experience.
If you could talk about the Airmen then, compared to the Airmen that served when you came in or in the ’80s, what would you say would be a difference?
There is a huge difference. When I came in, in 1974, we still had a lot of people in the Air Force that possibly came in the Air Force because they didn’t necessarily want to be in another service. We had probably 700,000 people in the Air Force. There were probably, 5,500 chief master sergeants in 1974—only 12 were female.
We were in the middle of what we called race relations. We had race riots on an Air Force base, and the civilian community didn’t like the military; it was not popular to be in uniform. As young Airmen, we mowed the yards, we took out the trash, we cleaned everybody’s cigarette butts at the end of the day, off of their desks. We were doing things then that, thank God, Airmen don’t have to do today.
We had so many people. In the dorms, my first sergeant was living in the room next to me. He was a master sergeant, and he lived right next door. He was a great first sergeant, but he lived in the dorms. We had a lot of NCOs living in the dorms. Nowadays, you will not find NCOs living in the same dorms as our most junior Airmen; we stopped that a long time ago.
I think the quality of Airmen we have serving today, the quality of the education that we have today, is fantastic.
One thing I do miss...I think we had more camaraderie back then. We did more things together, as far as the sports. We had a recreation center on base, and we’d always go there and play pool and ping pong; we did a lot of things together as a unit. The clubs were always packed full.
It’s a different Air Force, and I say, thank God. An Airman today, when they finish their job, they want to go home to their families. It’s a more professional corps today. In our Professional Development Guide there used to be an entire chapter debating whether or not enlisted Airmen are professional. I took that chapter out. I don’t even want people debating whether or not enlisted Airmen are professional. We are professionals. Every Airman should be proud to be an Airman and proud of what they bring to the fight.
Absolutely. You quickly moved up to the ranks, if you will, through the levels of command as a command chief, and then became the 15th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in 2006. What went through your mind when General Moseley called you and said, “Hey, you’re it”?
Well, as I said before, I never expected to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. When General Hester said, “Hey, Chief, number 14 is retiring.” I said, “Yes, sir. I know that,” and he said, “Well, you need to be number 15.” I said, “Sir, I’m busy. I’ve got a lot of things going on in the Pacific. I just want to stay focused on what I’m doing here.” He said, “Well, Chief, that’s all great, but I’m putting you in anyway.”
I went back to work, and I was surprised that I was in the final five to be interviewed. Then we got notified that General Moseley was going to be making the phone calls. So, he called at 7:30 in the morning. I got on the phone with him, and he said, “Good morning, partner, how are you doing?” I said, “Sir, I’m doing great. Hopefully, you are doing well.” And he said, “Well, I need you to come to Washington, DC, and be my wingman.” I said, “Sir, I’m incredibly humbled. Thank you very much.” And he said, “Okay, goodbye,” and he hung up. I was thinking, “Dang, that was quick.”
Then, man, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I just sat back in my chair and thought, “Wow, I’m going to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. We are fighting two wars. We have Airmen in the fight every second of every day. We have Airmen being wounded, we have Airmen being killed, and I’m going to be their Chief.”
I called my wife and told her. We didn’t have a party to celebrate or anything. It was great being named the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force—and all the congratulations that come with it—but again, I was just thinking that we were at war. We have Airmen coming home killed in action, and this is serious.
There are some things maybe I would have thought about doing while I was the Chief, but the focus was on all the Airmen deploying, the Airmen in harm’s way. We needed to do everything we could to provide them the safety they needed, the equipment they needed, the training they needed, and the leadership they needed to come back.
We weren’t successful in that. We had many Airmen die, and that was the worst day in my Air Force career—every day I was notified that another Airman died, or another Airman was wounded, or another Airman committed suicide. I took every one of those personal.
It was an incredibly humbling experience being the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Every second of every day I was the Chief, we were in two wars; so, that was my focus. The whole time I was there, I was trying to take care of Airmen and their families and testifying before Congress to make sure the conditions were right for us to be successful.
It was definitely a challenging time. We had so much going on, on top of the two wars, and still, during your tenure there was quite a bit of change.
One of them being, despite the war going on, we had a bit of a drawdown with the Program Budget Decision (PBD). I’m sure that was a tough decision.
Yes, the PBD 720. That started while I was in PACAF and it was to drawdown 40,000 people. There were a tremendous number of meetings about how we would do it, and where all the bodies would come from, and that was a difficult thing.
As a matter of fact, when Secretary [Robert M.] Gates came on, I had a meeting with him and my peers from the other branches of service. He said, “Rod, what do you see as the number one issue in the Air Force right now?” Without hesitation I said, “The number one issue I see as I go visit Airmen is the downsizing we are going through.”
At that point in time, we were at about 324,000 Airmen, and we were on our way down to 314. I would go out and visit our maintenance units, and it was clear we were killing our maintainers. We didn’t have enough people. We were so shorthanded, and we were standing up [ Air Force Global Strike Command]; we were taking on cyber missions. We were building more missions but not getting more people, and we still had to go down another 10,000.
As soon as I left that meeting, I went to see General Moseley and told him what I had told Secretary Gates. I told him about the downsizing, and said I really think we should be at 330,000. He said, “That’s fantastic, Rod. Thanks.” After that, General Moseley, myself, and Secretary [of the Air Force Michael W.] Wynne signed a letter to the Secretary of Defense asking the Air Force to grow back to 330,000.
Later on, when the Secretary of Defense fired the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, at the end of one of his statements, he said, “I am also ordering the Air Force to go back to 330,000.”
The downsizing I saw as very tough, but you know, everything you do is about budget. When you go back to 330, it’s budget—it’s money. You’re always determining, what is the right number of Airmen that should be on active duty, Guard, Reserve, and how much of your budget are you willing to spend on personnel? I mean, that’s huge. All the senior leaders in the Air Force better understand budget very, very well, because that’s the driving force in everything we need to accomplish. Taking care of Airmen, recapitalizing our fleet—everything—you’ve got to be able to talk budget and spend your money wisely.
You mentioned that the Secretary and Chief of Staff were fired, and a lot of that was because the nuclear mishaps happening at that time. What do you recall about the B-52 incident and the moment the leadership was relieved?
Well, on the day that happened, I remember I stepped outside of my office into the hallway, and Gen. Moseley had stepped out of his office down the hallway. He yelled at me to come down there, so I went down there, and Gen. Moseley said, “You are not going to believe this. I just found out we flew a B-52 from Minot [AFB], North Dakota, to Barksdale [AFB, Louisiana]. It’s been sitting on the ramp for several hours, and they just figured out it has live nukes on it.”
I’m previous aircraft maintenance. I know the nuclear side of the house, and I could not fathom how that could have possibly happened. Then Gen. Moseley said, “Now I’m on my way to go tell President Bush.” And I said, “Well, tell him the truth. Tell him everything right up front.” He said, “I will,” and took off. That moment, I felt so bad for Gen. Moseley. He had to go tell the President of the United States that we just flew a B-52 from North to South with live nukes on it. It sat on a ramp, and the Air Force did not know it. It wasn’t his fault, but yet he had to take the heat for it.
That was not—in my opinion, that was not the reason he got fired. I think it was multiple disagreements between the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force [on one side] and the Secretary of Defense [on the other], and ultimately the Secretary [of Defense] pulling the trigger and saying, “You guys are out of here,” which was a very difficult day on all of us.
I was there when it happened. We were at Corona, and that was a very difficult time. Gen. Moseley hired me, and it was very emotional to see my boss go out like that. He loved the Air Force so much. I truly loved and respected Gen.Moseley.
What about the aftermath of that incident? How did the leadership look at keeping the Air Force motivated and moving forward?
It’s the first time in our country’s history we’ve lost a Secretary and a Chief of Staff all at once. Right after that, there was so much commotion going on. I remember telling some senior leaders, “Hey, look, we’ve got to keep our heads up. We feel bad for Secretary Wynne and General Moseley, but we are still in two wars. We still have Airmen in harm’s way. We’ve got to lead.”
There were even questions about whether or not I should resign. I asked Gen. Moseley, and he said no. He said, “The Air Force needs you now more than ever.” So, with that, I decided I was going to lead. I tried to be the best leader I could through a tough situation, a transition from Gen. Moseley to the acting chief, Gen. [Duncan J.] McNabb, to the confirmation of Gen. [Norton A.] Schwartz.
That was a very, very tough time, but at the end of the day, we still had Airmen in harm’s way. We had to lead. We had to step up and make sure we were taking care of our Airmen.
Throughout your tenure, you said one of your guiding principles was our heritage. You were involved in a lot of changes that shaped our heritage, one of them being uniforms. We almost went back to an older service dress uniform. We started talking about it, but didn’t do it. Can you share some stories there?
Well, there was a big push to go back to a new heritage uniform. A lot of work and a lot of money went into that. Our senior leadership really liked the idea. After Gen. Moseley was out of the office, we had a meeting at Corona, and Gen. Schwartz decided he wanted to put it to bed or move forward with it.
We were at Corona with all the generals, and it was about a 50/50 split with the four stars who were there on whether or not they wanted the heritage uniform. Then they came to me, and Gen. Schwartz said, “Chief, what do the Airmen think?” I said, “Well, I have the uniform. I like the uniform, but I’ve probably visited more Airmen in the Air Force than anybody else, and I think I have a good feel for what the Airmen think.
“First off, we have ABUs [Airman battle uniform] that are too hot, and we need lighter-weight ABUs. We have PT gear that everybody hates; you can hear us coming 20 minutes away. We don’t have cold-weather gear for some cold-weather locations; so, we’ve got to get cold-weather gear to them. We have multiple boots; we need to figure out what type of boot we are going to wear with our uniforms. So the thought of Airmen out there is, before we go spend a lot of money on a new service dress, we need to fix our existing problems.”
I’ll stick with that as a very true statement; 98 percent of Airmen felt that way. With that, we no longer pursued the new service dress. Hopefully, we’ve fixed the other problems I mentioned. I know we’ve got a lighter ABU now; we changed the PT gear. Hopefully, we’ve gotten cold-weather gear, and I think we’ve got the boots fixed.
You mentioned the ABU. I know you were there when that was introduced.
Yes. I was part of the test for the new ABU. When we tested the ABU while I was the PACAF command chief, it was really light—it was very comfortable. I liked it a lot. It was almost like we were in pajamas. You could roll it up and take it out, but when they came out, they were much thicker. It was nothing like what I tested.
So I immediately said these ABUs are too hot. The typical answer right then was, cut the inside pockets out. Well, that’s not a good answer. When we spend a fortune buying these new ABUs, and they are too hot, the answer is to go cut the inside pockets out? I was on a journey from then on to try to get us new ABUs that were lighter. We are at war in the desert. Our Airmen that were deployed to the desert, they had to wear these very thick ABUs, and they were not finding them very good.
The uniform is always a very controversial subject. People either like them or hate them or—it’s a tough subject.
And still is.
Oh, yes. You cannot please everybody, that’s for sure. I’ve always been big on heritage. Before I became a command chief, I really liked the history and heritage of our Airmen, but who really shaped my thinking on enlisted heritage, was the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Paul Airey.
I was at Gunter, and we were having lunch at the club. I was the command chief at the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley [AFB, Virginia] at the time, and I said, “Chief, when can I get you to visit our Airmen at Langley?” And, man, just (finger snap) like that, Chief Airey got mad, he got angry. He goes, “Dammit, Rod, I’m never going to visit that place.” I was taken back, because Chief and I had a great relationship.
I said, “Chief, what’s up? Why are you so angry about this?” And he goes, “Well, because Langley published a book about the history of Langley, and they only mentioned an enlisted person one time—and that was an enlisted crew chief. They didn’t even put the name down. They have a lot of pilots’ names, a lot of history in this book, but nowhere in there did they talk about the enlisted contributions to Langley. I’m not going back there.” And he didn’t.
After that, I really started thinking about our heritage, and what we can do for our enlisted force to respect our heritage. When I was the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, we decided to go back to the circled collar brass insignia on the service dress uniform. That’s our enlisted heritage. If you go back and look at all the photos, the enlisted had a circled US insignia. That, and to put stripes back on the sleeves for SNCOs. Not because I was still saluting the senior enlisted, but we grew up as enlisted Airmen with our stripes on our sleeves.
Then, myself and my assistant, SMSgt. [Gerardo] Tapia, were riding around Lackland [AFB, Texas], doing a visit. I had just come back from visiting the Air Force Academy. At the Air Force Academy there’s a place where they have footprints in the concrete, and it symbolizes all of those that came before you. I thought that was neat, and it was for all the new cadets coming through there. You don’t know how many people have stepped in those footprints.
So, I thought, what can we do on the enlisted side of the house? It needed to be at Lackland. That’s the Gateway to the Air Force for the enlisted force; so, it would be neat if we could do something on the parade ground.
I came up with the Enlisted Heroes Walk. We put a paver for each of our Medal of Honor recipients, Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, and so forth. We came up with that idea, and we talked to the leadership there at Lackland and they pushed it forward. Then in January of 2009, I did the dedication speech for it.
The idea is on BMT Graduation Day, as they take that column left, they are going to be walking across each one of those names. They still add more names, unfortunately, as we get more. It gives you a little lump in your throat when you think about what you are doing, and the names you are marching over. It kind of starts that thinking about heritage as you graduate basic training.
We dedicated the walk, and then a chief friend of mine that was in Vietnam wrote me a nice letter and said the Enlisted Heritage Walk was so special to him. He had a friend that died in Vietnam. He was a Silver Star recipient, and no one knew about him. It was like he was no longer in history, but yet, he has a paver now.
So, it’s just a way to honor those Airmen, and think a little bit more about our heritage, because it’s super special. Each branch of service has their own heritage, and our enlisted Airmen should really learn more about those that came before and be proud of where they come from.
You also did a couple other things that you could say reflect our heritage, specifically the Airman’s Creed and Air Force Memorial.
Yes. The Air Force Memorial, we dedicated that on 14 October 2006, and that was the most special day in my Air Force career. That was such a special event, to attend that with so many people from throughout Air Force history. We had about 40,000 people in the audience. We did speeches, and we had the flyovers of historical aircraft. President Bush spoke, as did the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and then me. To be a part of that event was just tremendous.
And your signature is one of the spires, is that right?
It is. General Moseley and I both signed the tip of the tallest spire. I have a picture of that. And it’s in permanent ink; so, our signatures are still up at the top today.
What about the Airman’s Creed? As I recall, you had a couple of different options there— some great, some quite humorous. Then you settled on one and brought it with you through Europe to test it out. How do that go, and how did the creed we know today become final?
Well, you’re right. I had a great trip to all the bases in Europe, and at the end of each of the All Calls, I recited the Airman’s Creed that we really liked, and I had a great response from it. When I got back to the Pentagon, I saw General Moseley in the hallway and told him what I had done and that the response was tremendous. I said, “I think it’s time to go with it.” He said, “Really?” I said, “Yes, sir, I do.” And he said, “Okay, I’m going to send you an e-mail this afternoon, give me a response, and tell me what you think.”
He sent me an e-mail that afternoon, a very concise e-mail about the new Airman’s Creed that replaces all other creeds, that this is the only creed, and so forth. I sent it back to him and said, “Sir, this is great. It all looks good.” He said, “Okay, meet me in my office tomorrow morning at 7:30, and we’ll talk about it.”
So, I met him at 7:30 the next morning. It was me, him, and a reporter, Bruce Rolfsen, from the Air Force Times. We talked about some other issues, then General Moseley said, “Rod, are we going to do this?” I said, “Yes, sir, let’s do this.” He said, “Okay, we are going to go for it. We have a new Airman’s Creed,” and he handed the paper to the reporter. He said, “I want you to print this in the next issue of the Air Force Times, as the official Airman’s Creed.”
With that, General Moseley went over to his computer and hit send on the message. So, the Airman’s Creed was born on that day. And if anybody asks me who wrote the Airman’s Creed, my response is Airmen wrote the Airman’s Creed. It took an effort from the whole Air Force to create the Airman’s Creed.
What do you remember about the initial response after the creed was announced? I mean from the Airmen across the Air Force, not just in Europe when you initially shared it, but just generally, what was the response?
Well, there was a lot of response, a lot of great response, and then some not good, because you had organizations that were hanging on to some of their old creeds. They thought those other creeds that were out there were official creeds. They weren’t; they were just made up, and they had used them for a long period of time. But there were no creeds for the Air Force—nothing that the Air Force had come out and said, this is our creed.
So, there was a negative response that came out, and there still is today, I’m sure. But you think about today, probably 60 to 70 percent of the Air Force today, the only creed they’ve ever had is this Airman’s Creed. I think the creed itself is something powerful. You read every word in there, and it’s special. There’s nothing in there that I think people could say, “Yeah, this is wrong, this is wrong.”
Several years ago, I was talking to a crowd, and I was taking questions from tech sergeants and staff sergeants at a lunch. A tech sergeant spoke up and said, “I’m communications. I’m not a warrior. This Airman’s Creed, and it says I’m warrior. I’m not a warrior.” I said, “You’re not?” And he said, “No.” So, I said, “You know, it’s amazing because, when we kicked a war off, we had people that were driving on base—transportation guys—and the next thing you know they are driving convoys in Iraq. And we’ve had different AFSCs that are now doing things that they never thought they would ever be doing before. So, you never know, whatever AFSC you are, what day will come that you will be at war. Plus, every single day you open your computer, you have a cyber war going on right there—every single day. So, no matter what AFSC you are, you are a warrior.”
One of the other things that helped establish the warrior mind-set was physical fitness and the shift we made to become a more fit force. Can you talk about your experience with it?
During my whole Air Force career, I always was in athletics, and I always thought we should be physically fit, and for the most part, I think we were. We really tried to make sure our Airmen looked the part and were physically fit, and we had all kinds of different programs.
Then we went to that silly bicycle for a while, which I absolutely hated. But anyway, it got to the point when I was the chief where I was seeing a lot people that were obviously not even close to being fit. So, I went to our personnel team and I said, “Give me all the statistics on how many people were passing the PT test, and the statistics showed that, man, we were one absolutely fit Air Force.
This was the bike test?
No. This is our current, the first version of the PT test we had. This is well after the bike test; this is when I was the Chief.
So, the PT results showed that we were very fit. As a matter of fact, we probably had a better passing rate than the Marines, but I wasn’t seeing this with my first sergeant–calibrated eyes. I see a lot of Airmen on bases when I go visit that are obviously way overweight, and if they are saying they are passing their PT test, something is wrong here.
So, I asked the Air Force Audit Agency to audit the PT program. I said, “Just take the current AFI [Air Force instruction] we have and go out there and see if we, as Airmen, are following the AFI. If we are doing that, fine. Come back and tell me. If we are not, come back and give me some recommendations.”
So, they went out and visited two bases, and they came back and said, “Chief, we’ve got problems.” And I said, “I know we do; now go finish it.” So, they went to, I think around 15 or 16 different bases. It was a very extensive audit, at all locations—cold weather, altitude, you name it, overseas. And they came back with an Air Force audit that was ugly.
The thing that really bothered me about it was that a lot of it dealt with integrity. There were a lot of tests that were falsified. Waist measurements were off by as much as seven inches, and it was just ugly. It really reeked of not following one of our core values, which is integrity. So, I sent that audit to the Chief of Staff, A1, medical, and MAJCOM [major command] commanders and MAJCOM command chiefs. When they received the results of the audit, things happened very quickly.
In PACAF, Gen. [Carrol “Howie”] Chandler made some changes there immediately. He had different people that were doing the tests, and then later on, we went down the road and established a new PT program with integrity. With that, we started seeing Airmen getting out and getting more physically fit. We had more focus on better fitness centers.
I think the results we have now—you have a whole lot more Airmen fit. It helps them in the combat areas and is also going to decrease health issues. I was the DOD spokesperson for quit smoking, also; so, it’s a total health and fitness thing I was going after.
Why do you think it was difficult to really establish a fitness culture at first, when we stepped away from the bike test?
Well, Gen. [CSAF John P.] Jumper and Chief [CMSAF Gerald R.] Murray went to the new PT test during their tenure, and that was a good thing. When I got in there, and I started traveling around, I saw, in my opinion, integrity issues. People said they were passing the test, and I was looking and thinking, there is no way. Someone that obviously has a 46-inch waist is not going to pass the test, and why do we have someone in the Air Force with a 46-inch waist anyway?
Now the goal, as a leader, is not to kick everybody out, but as a leader, as a supervisor, is to keep your team physically fit. If you see a person starting to get out of standards, you keep them in standards. That’s why I said my greatest accomplishment in my Air Force career is people, because I would never let my Airmen get out of standards. You know, if I see my Airmen not wearing the uniform properly, or I see them gaining weight, my goal is to get them back into being the best Airman that they could be. How does an Airman get to the point where they are so far out of standards, and those supervisors just turn the eye, and look the other way? That’s not leadership. I think we had a lot of that going on.
When the new PT test came out, I think January of 2009, we gave everybody many months to get into standards. So, it’s not like, “Okay, here is the result, and you’ve got to have these new standards tomorrow.” You had nine months to get ready, or more. If someone can’t get ready in nine months, either there’s a medical condition, they don’t care, or they are so far out of standards that they can’t get there.
The goal was not to kick people out of the Air Force. If we have a program, it’s about integrity. We don’t pick and choose which AFI to follow. If this is what the standard is, if you meet that standard, good. If you don’t, you have to recognize that. Don’t fudge the numbers; don’t falsify records. We are an Air Force of integrity, and that disappointed me a lot, to see the audit results, and it obviously disappointed the MAJCOM commanders, command chiefs, and our senior leadership, because we knew we had to make changes.
I’m thankful they all stood up and did that. We are a much better Air Force today because of it. It also gives us a lot more respect from the other branches of service. We’ve all heard that thing before—the “chair force”—that hurts me to the core. I don’t want people to look at us and think we are the chair force. We are the mightiest Air Force that’s ever walked the face of the earth, or flown over it, so it’s a lot to be proud out.
One last question. When you look at Airmen today—when you look at the Air Force and see everything you’ve seen throughout your tenure with the Air Force, both before you retired and now after— if you had to say something about those Airmen, and had to begin the sentence with “I believe,” what would you say?
I believe serving our country is a tremendous honor that we should take to the grave. That we have had the opportunity to wear the uniform of our country, and serve and protect, is something we should be proud of, and our children and friends should be proud of. So, I believe wearing the uniform is the highest honor we can do for our country.