CMSAF Sam E. Parish
Sam Parish left home at age 14 and quite literally never looked back. He joined the Air Force at 17 and a few months later, in August 1955, found himself at Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany. For a young man raised in “the backwoods of north Florida,” it was an entirely different world.
Parish quickly made a name for himself as a weather operator. He was one of the first to receive a dual specialty code following a merger; he graduated top of his class in seven-level school, becoming the youngest seven-level in his career field and later became the only enlisted Airman developing weather systems in the System Program Office.
Thanks to great leadership during his first assignment, he learned the importance of tenacity and resolve and reached the rank of senior master sergeant in just 12 years. In 1973 he attended the pilot class of the Senior NCO Academy with two other future Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force (CMSAF): Thomas Barnes and Jim McCoy. He later became the senior enlisted leader for both the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and the Strategic Air Command (SAC), where he improved the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program and established the First Sergeant of the Year award.
In 1986 Gen Charles Gabriel selected Parish to be the 8th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Parish immediately improved recognition programs across the force, establishing the Levitow Award in Professional Military Education and an Air Forcewide First Sergeant of the Year award. He also moved promotion to senior airman to a fixed point in a career, ensuring Airmen had a chance to compete for promotion to staff sergeant during their first enlistment. Parish retired in 1986 but continues to participate in a wide variety of Air Force activities, speaking at different engagements, including the Senior NCO Academy.
In May 2015 Parish sat down for an interview to discuss his Air Force career and his tenure as the CMSAF. During the interview, Parish highlighted the impact of his early leadership, why he got involved in the community, and how he established the First Sergeant of the Year program. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Chief, thank you for doing this. You came in, it was 1954. You were 17 years old. Of course at that time the Korean War had just wrapped up; the Cold War was building. Did that play a role into why you decided to join?
I have no idea why I joined the Air Force. I had a good job. I was in Fort Myers, Florida. I left home when I was very young. And I went down and was walking past, and I saw this thing. It said United States Army recruiter. So, I go in and he said, “How old are you?” I said 17. He said, “Come back when you’re 18, and we’ll talk.” Well, I walked out. I had never heard of the US Air Force, but I looked up and there was a sign that said US Air Force. I thought, “What’s that?” And I walked in, and there was a young staff sergeant sitting there. And I said, “What’s this Air Force all about?” He said, “Here, take a test.” I took the test. And he said, “Fill out this form.” I filled out the form, and he said, “Come back in a month.” I went back in a month and he said, “Congratulations, you’re going in the Air Force on the 7th of December.”
Two years later, I found out my mother had to sign for me to join the Air Force, but I didn’t know that. When I went to get married, my commander called me in and said, “Hey, you’ve got to have my permission to get married. You’re not an NCO [noncommissioned officer].” I said “Oh, okay. Do I have your permission?” “Oh, yeah, we like your supposed wife very much.” And then he said, “By the way, your mother has to give you permission too. You’re not 21.” I said, “My mom doesn’t even know where I am?” He pulled out a stack of letters, hands them to me and said, “Okay, read them all.” He had been communicating with her the whole time I was in the squadron.
Did you communicate with her before you joined or did you just...
No. No, I left home. When I left home, I left home. Very young, very, very young. I left home when I was 14. The next time my mother saw me I was in the Air Force and heading for an overseas assignment. After that, the next time she saw me I was married and had a child.
How about that. Was she proud of you?
Oh, yeah, very proud. And I was very proud of my mom. It wasn’t her. I had a stepfather that was impossible, but we solved all those problems. So, why did I join the Air Force? Still have no idea. But once I got in I found something.
You came in, you went to basic training and I think it was 12 weeks at that time.
Yeah, it sure was, 12 weeks.
What was that experience like for you?
Well, number one, my first airplane flight was from Miami, Florida, to San Antonio, Texas. I guess I was apprehensive, but I wasn’t apprehensive enough to not think that once I got my orders I needed to start reading them. Before I got to Lackland, [AFB, Texas,] I had memorized my serial number. Not a social security number—a serial number. I still remember it to this day. And I got there, and I guess I could say that I went through 12 weeks of basic training, and I’m not even sure one of my MTIs [military training instructors] ever knew my name.
Just a number?
Well, not even a number, because there was a whole ton of us in the flight. And, you know, upper bunk, lower bunk, open bay barracks. I mean really barracks. I went into the service being raised in a rural area from the South. I knew how to say “Yes, sir; no, ma’am.” So, if you did that and you didn’t rebel, I found that basic training was no problem. We still had to do the PT [physical training], but hell, as young kids you can just about ace that if you want to.
So, I enjoyed basic, but we did some things then that we wouldn’t dare do now. You know, we didn’t take our qualification test until we got to basic training. Our sixth week of training was when we took them. Once we took those tests, then they started deciding what you were going to do in the Air Force.
Did they have people fail those tests?
AQE [Airman Qualifying Examination] scores is what we got then.1 I think I had a 90 in general, but the rest of them—well, they got you out of grammar school. We were never told the importance of them, because we sat there and took the sound test and shot spit balls at each other. But it was an experience, and I had a couple of people I still followed for years afterwards.
I was the only person in my entire flight that went into weather. I didn’t know what it was, but there was another flight; there were four of us that went from Lackland to Chanute [AFB, Illinois]. They put us on the train, and the three that I was with were all reenlistees, and here I am, 17 years old. It was a two-day train trip to Chanute, Illinois. I swear those guys spent the whole time in the bar. I didn’t drink, so I had trouble finding meal tickets and everything else because the ranking person got the tickets. So, it was an experience. I had no trouble with it, I enjoyed it. I started learning about the Air Force.
Over the years, we’ve evolved our basic training. It went from 12 weeks down to six and one-half weeks. now we have eight and one-half, which includes the Airmen’s Week capstone at the end. How important would you say it is to evolve with the times and make sure we’re still focused in the right direction with basic training?
Well, I think some of the things we’re doing in basic training I question a little bit. However, I’m not on active duty and haven’t been on active duty for 29 years. I think you almost have to evolve because you’re getting a different kind of Airman there than I was when I was an Airman—completely different. You keep up with the times, and I think it’s unbelievably important to do what we do in basic, because what you actually do is remake a human being. When our people leave basic military training, in my day—and I still talk to people that have graduated today, some local Airmen—they feel when they leave Lackland AFB, that if you cut them they would bleed blue. Parents cannot believe what we have done to their son or daughter in such a short span.
I still remember in 1978 when I was there for a graduation. I was the USAFE senior enlisted leader, and one of the parents said to me—because we had just started getting parents to attend, relatives, anybody—one of them said to me, “What have you done to my Johnny?” I thought it was derogatory; so, I said, “Ma’am, I apologize.” And she said, “No, no, we want to know the secret.” I said, “I can’t tell you; it’s classified.” She had seen so much of a change in her son that she couldn’t even hardly recognize him. I think that’s unbelievably important.
After that, we have a tendency to carry this on into tech school. I’m not sure we do such a good job with that. I’m not talking about the technical training or the following training, but the way we do it. The young person gets there and guess what—when they left Lackland the Air Force was their first love. And they get there, and the first thing they hear from one of the instructors is that they have the most important job in the US Air Force, and we don’t just take anybody in this career field. They start changing them from love of Air Force to love of job. Then they get out in the field, and the first thing they hear when they get there is you got the most important job in the Air Force, and we just don’t allow everybody to be a crew chief. All of a sudden, at five or six years in service, they make staff or tech sergeant and we tell them, I’m sorry, we don’t need you as a security forces person anymore at that grade, we need you over here. And they won’t change because of love of job: “If I can’t be a crew chief, to hell with it. I’ll get out of the Air Force.” I heard that from an Airman. I told him, “They don’t have crew chiefs outside; what are you going to do when you retire?” Well, come to find out all he wanted to do was be on the flight line. So, he went to another job on the flight line. And he made tech sergeant the next cycle, master, senior, and he’s now a chief in our Air Force; happy as hell. But he would have gotten out of the Air Force because he couldn’t be a crew chief.
So you see we teach love of job, and that’s what we do there after basic. We kind of dilute the basic training importance of love of Air Force. If you love the Air Force, you don’t care what you’re doing so long as you can do it.
Your tech school, as you mentioned, was weather. You graduated and you were sent to Wiesbaden, Germany. I’m curious, what was that experience like, just entering a new country?
Well, number one, I grew up so far in the backwoods of north Florida that I hardly thought there was another language in the world. When I got ready to go to Germany, I took leave and went home and visited my brothers and sisters, and then took a Greyhound from Marianna, Florida, to New York City, Grand Central Station. At Grand Central Station I had to go to a place called Manhattan Air Force Station. I had never heard of it in my life. Nobody else had either—it was new. So, I finally got there and I checked in, and they said you’re going to be here two weeks and you’re going to be doing KP [kitchen patrol] and details until we get a flight to ship you out on. I said, “Flight? They told me I was going by ship.” “Nope, this is the Air Force, we’re experimenting.” So, they gave me a bunk and said they would ding me in the morning at 5 o’clock. Well, 11 o’clock at night they came and said, “Are you Parish?” I said, “I am.” “Are you going to Germany?” “I am.” “Get up and pack, your plane is going to leave. We’re going to Idlewild [Airport, now John F. Kennedy International Airport] and you’re going to fly out of there to Germany.”
Well, I went to Paris, France. The flight ended in Paris, it was a contract flight, and they said we’ll let you know when there’s a flight going to Germany. I’m staying at the Hotel Litre on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Six weeks later they said you’re going to Germany today. Well, the flight was less than an hour. So six weeks I sat there and waited. What did I do? That was the most boring time of my entire life.
Mm-hmm. Couldn’t speak the language and everything. I got to Germany at 10 o’clock at night. And thank heavens for—postwar I guess you would say. They were still running shuttle buses to the base, and the 11 o’clock run was for the people that were in the entertainment places. I asked some guy, “Does this bus go to the base?” “Which base?” I didn’t even know there was but one in Wiesbaden. “What do you do?” I said, “I’m in weather.” “Oh, you’re going out to Wiesbaden Air Base; this bus here will take you.” So I got to Wiesbaden Air Base at midnight and checked in.
About the time I got there and started my OJT [on-the-job training] they decided they needed to change AFSCs [Air Force specialty codes]. We had one, two, three, four, five AFSCs in weather. They were going to take three of those and put them into one if we could do it. And so they said I was the guinea pig, and I was going to sit in an office and read the book and then they would test me. So they did. I tested, and I passed. So they said, “Okay, if Parish can do it, anybody can do it.”
They would not send the people in those other AFSCs back to Chanute for training as a ground weather observer. So, we all did it by OJT. So, I finished that course and then there was a young captain there that was in weather communications in the headquarters, and he said, “I want you to work for me.” I said, “Doing what?” “Weather communication.” “What’s that?” He didn’t know. And he said, “We’ll learn.” And that was probably one of the most beneficial things I’ve ever done in my entire life because he taught me so much and allowed me to do things as a young Airman that I would never have been able to experience anywhere else.
Was that Capt Eugene Blanton?
Yeah, Eugene T. Blanton. He just passed away, and I got an e-mail from his wife. I got a phone call first. She said to me, Sam—we had never lost contact; he was in California—she said, “Sam, the old goat’s gone.” And I said, “You’re kidding me.” Nope. So, she sent me an e-mail, and it was a whole bunch of clippings that he had kept through the years of me serving in the Air Force. So, that kind of made, you know, goosebumps appear on you.
Yeah. So what example did he set for you, and then what can most Airmen today take from that?
Well, you know, he laid out some ground rules when I went to work for him. He said, “You have to be the best of anybody of your grade in this squadron if you’re going to work for me. Whatever you do, you have to be bright at it, and you have to be good. If you make a mistake, and if you make the mistake for the right reason, you’ll be okay. It doesn’t mean I won’t chew you out. That doesn’t mean I will not tell you to get out of this office, I don’t ever want to see you again. But if I say that to you, and you take it literally and you leave, I’ll charge you with AWOL [absent without leave], okay?”
So, he even taught me how to drink martinis. I had never drank in my entire life. We were sitting in Paris on a TDY [temporary duty]—I went TDY all over Europe with him—and he said, “What do you want to drink?” I said, “Coca-Cola is fine.” He said, “You ever have a martini?” I said, “What’s that?” And I tasted it, and it tasted like drinking pure kerosene. He told me I’d develop a taste for it and not to worry about it.
He made me do things that I knew I couldn’t do as a young Airman. He would not take over. He’d just tell me, “Redo it. I don’t like this portion of it; I don’t like that.” And the hardest thing was writing and learning the circuitry and learning where the weather came from, from North Africa to, you name it. We collected all this data, and it was radioed in; and then we’d break it down, and we’d distribute it. It was him allowing me as a young Airman to do things that nobody else in the squadron did, period. I guess that stood well with me for the rest of my life.
Our operations officer there, Col. Don Moore, was just a super, super ops officer. He was a lieutenant colonel. I went to seven-level school at Chanute as a young staff sergeant. It was 26-weeks long. You had to go to seven-level school before you could get a seven-level. Then you had to take OJT for one year, and then you had to take the SKT [Specialty Knowledge Test] and pass it. When I graduated from seven-level school, I was waiting for my assignment because I was raring to go, and they put a hold on me for four months. Nobody knew why. All of a sudden an assignment flowed to 433L System Program Office in Waltham, Massachusetts. That was my next assignment, and they were holding me because they were establishing a job for me to do in the development of weather systems. Col. Don Moore was the operations officer of the System Program Office. I got there, and I was the only enlisted Airman. There were a ton of people in the System Program Office. There were three full colonels, two lieutenant colonels, a major, and Staff Sgt. Parish. The rest were engineers, GS-11s, 12s, and above.
I wanted to ask you again about Captain Blanton. Taking what you’ve learned from him, would you offer any advice to the Airmen that are supervising now, whether that’s a young staff sergeant or maybe a...
Well, it doesn’t matter. See, he didn’t do it as an officer. I had all the respect in the world for him as an officer, but he was my supervisor first and foremost. We would travel, and it was always Capt. Blanton. I never used his name, Eugene, in my entire life—other than Capt. Eugene T. Blanton. It was the easiest thing in the world to do. I had no problem with it because, like I say, I grew up in an environment where it was yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am, to everybody. If you didn’t, you’d get smacked by mom or dad. So, he taught me the value of being able to do things. He gave me the leeway and guided me, but he did not steer me. He allowed me to make mistakes, so long as they weren’t criminal. And I never did that, thank heavens. He never fired me from a job, and he really never, ever yelled at me. Sometimes I think in my later life I preferred the yelling rather than, you know, that arm on the shoulder. That’s the worst, when he put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Airman Parish, you don’t know how disappointed I am in you. I never believed that you would do something so dumb.” But I had done it for the right reason, and I didn’t bother asking. When I reached that point, I didn’t ask; I just stepped on ahead. In the long run it was the right thing to do, but it was the wrong timing, and I didn’t do the right thing. I didn’t ask him, and he was blindsided.
That’s never good, to blindside the boss, right?
Well, supervision to me is, you know—we discipline our children because we love them. Well, you should discipline your Airmen or your NCOs because you love them. It’s a different kind of love. It’s the love of service and country. If you don’t do that, guess what—you’ll allow them to stray off of the beaten path. Then when you try to correct it, it’s too late because they never saw it coming. With Capt. Blanton, he taught me those values very, very early. You know, I guess—well, ain’t no guess about it, I was a master sergeant before I was a supervisor for the first time because I was at Hanscom [AFB, Massachusetts] for so long. I made tech, master, and, six months after I left there, I made senior when I got to Germany.
You were at Hanscom for six years?
Six years, yes.
Based on what I’ve read you were pretty heavily involved in the community.
Oh, unbelievable, yeah, yeah.
Why did you feel that was important?
Well, I didn’t look at it as being important. I was out there on the end of the line. I didn’t work at Hanscom. I worked in a research lab in downtown Waltham, Massachusetts. When I first got there, I wasn’t even allowed to live in base housing because I wasn’t assigned to the unit. I lived 45 miles away from my job. Just to go to the gym or do anything was a major chore, because getting to work was a long enough drive. Then I passed within four miles of Hanscom, and that’s where we did our commissary shopping and things of that nature. You know, I was kind of looking for that camaraderie with enlisted people. A person that had a tremendous impact on my life happened to be a tech sergeant and ran the gym at Hanscom, and his name is George Price. He opened the door for me to go to the gym because I could never get there before the gym closed at 6 o’clock, and it was closed on the weekends in those days because they didn’t have the funding to run it.
He told me one day, “Sarge, you like to come to the gym?” I liked to play badminton and stuff like this, so I said sure. And he said to me, “Here’s a key to the gym. If you ever, ever do anything in this gym that I find out you shouldn’t have done, I will collar you and you don’t know what I’ll do to you.” So he trusted me enough to give me a key to his workshop, if you will. He also introduced me to the game of fast pitch softball, which I already knew from Germany. He asked me if I would manage the team. I was a young staff sergeant, and I said, “Manage a base team? Are you kidding me?”
So, getting involved in military community activities was a way for me to associate with fellow enlisted Airmen, because my whole life was spent with engineers and officers—and it was a business relationship. I got so tired of going to my captain’s house for Thanksgiving with six children. And it was the involvement that gave me a feeling of belonging to something other than my job. We weren’t very sociable living 35 miles from the base. We moved three or four times while we were there, and it was always getting closer to the base.
I finally made tech sergeant, and they called my wife the next day after I pinned on tech sergeant and said, “We have a house for you on base, do you want it?” It was one of the greatest things to ever happen in our life. So that’s why I got involved in the community. It was a sense of belonging—a sense of feeling.
Some of that has changed today in the sense that there is a lot more for young Airmen to do off base. Movie theaters, for example, and sports teams...Airmen don’t necessarily have to go on base to find things to do. What are your thoughts on that evolution?
Well, it’s not a matter of finding other things to do. They have the means to do other things. You know, when I was in Germany, I was the only person in the entire barracks that had a car. I didn’t drink, so guess what—I made a small fortune hauling drunks back to the base at midnight, if you want to pardon the expression. Cheaper than a taxi. Today you go into the dorm area and you see automobiles the likes of which, if they don’t have a letter of the alphabet in the title, you know, you don’t have a car. So, they have the means to get out there.
It doesn’t have to be the local bowling alley, or it doesn’t have to be the club. It’s getting out into the community and getting involved. That’s an unbelievable thing. I’m not sure they’re getting involved in the local community for the same reason that I did for the military community, for my comradeship. It’s for them to I guess participate in something they enjoy doing. And many times their supervisors may not even know they’re doing it.
So, I think it’s important to participate in community activities. And, you know, that’s what we’re all about. We don’t need the thoughts of the public that we’ve had in the past in many cases, especially during Vietnam and things of that nature. Today it’s enjoyable to go through an airport and see GIs coming back from the desert with the DCUs [desert camouflage uniforms], or BDUs [battle dress uniforms], or ABUs [Airman battle uniform], whatever the hell you all call them, and people saying to them, “Thank you for serving.” It probably gets old to the people, to you guys. But I see the thanks, and it’s so good of a feeling because the community feels that way. And then when we have somebody that does something to tarnish the name in the community, that bothers the heck out of me.
You mentioned Vietnam and the different level of respect for the service members today compared to Vietnam. Do you think that damaged the morale or the sense of pride among Airmen?
You know, I don’t know. I look at that and I don’t think it damaged the morale so much as it gave us the feeling that the public is completely ignorant about what we do. The Air Force wasn’t treated as badly as the Army and the Marine Corps. For example, during Vietnam, the latter parts of Vietnam, we weren’t allowed to wear our uniforms in public, period. If you came back from Vietnam and you came into San Francisco or Los Angeles, wherever, you changed out of your uniform and put on civilian clothes before you left the airport. There was a time when even going to the Pentagon, they discouraged wearing your uniform to the Pentagon.
Was that for the member’s safety?
Safety. Because people would pour blood on you and everything. That continued on until—well, I was Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and we still had demonstrations on the Capital Mall. It was a horrible, horrible experience and feeling because mothers and fathers of America blamed their sons and daughters for what was going on in Vietnam. And it was a totally misplaced, misguided public that allowed that to occur. They blamed their sons and daughters. They’d throw blood on you. Everything, it was horrible.
You coupled that with the racial unrest that we had in the late ’60s, and a large portion of it was generated because of the discontent with the war. Now you walk down the street and guess what? Or you go through an airport and everybody wears their uniform. It was against Air Force regulations for you to wear your fatigues off base and stop in any store on your way home, unless it was a drive thru.
So why, for those who didn’t have to, why did they continue to serve?
Love of service, love of your job. I still think that most people—do they serve because of the money? I don’t believe so, because I guarantee you that there’s not a single NCO today that could come within $500 of telling me how much they make in a year, cash. And I’m willing to bet with them. So, money is not the driving force behind serving. Now is it something that I’m going to do because I’m patriotic? I don’t think so. I think the majority of our people, after they get in and get their feet on the ground, enjoy what they’re doing, and they enjoy the people they’re doing it with. And we’re paying them enough for them to have a life of their own and it’s halfway decent. It’s not scrounge and scrabble for everything, unless you’re trying to live and keep up with somebody that you shouldn’t be keeping up with. So, I think it’s love of job and it’s enjoying the people that you’re doing it with. Nowhere in life, including the aftermath of your retirement, will you find the same camaraderie in an office environment as you find in the military. Now, does that mean that if you go into corporate life, as many of us do, you won’t find the same dedication and discipline among the most senior leadership there as we do in our US Air Force? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying at five o’clock you cease to exist as far as the corporation is concerned, as long as you show up the next morning at eight. And, you know, as long as you follow the rules, the dress codes, and don’t violate company policy, you’re in good shape, as long as you produce.
But the Air Force, we expect more, don’t we?
You’ve got to look the part, act the part, and then you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk at the same time. And if you don’t, then you have a miserable, miserable life, and you won’t stay in. And the reason our people get out today, I don’t believe it’s the money, I think it’s something in the leadership, the supervision, or the structure of the job performance that they’re having to do that just says, “I don’t need this anymore.”
The Vietnam War, besides the feeling from the public, it was just a long war. Well, it wasn’t only that. We operated in Vietnam just like we operated in the United States of America. You know, we didn’t deploy teams over there except for the mobile teams that we sent over there, but they went over TDY also. We didn’t send the whole unit. And once we got over there, you know, our security forces, they didn’t defend our bases—they defended the interior of the base. Army took care of the exterior. If our security was breached and people started coming on the base, that’s where the security forces took over, to defend the interior.
Things changed drastically in Iraq, didn’t it? There were no boundaries, and all of the sudden, our defenders that were defending the interior of the base also became the defenders of the exterior. Our Airmen operated outside the wire. There’s not a job we have in the Air Force that at one time or another, over in Afghanistan and Iraq, they didn’t go outside the wire. So we changed the way we do business. From Da Nang Air Base [Vietnam] to Tan Son Nhut [Vietnam], when those planes went there and they took off to fly a mission, whether it was a [C-]130 or F-4 or whatever was taking off, I guarantee you that plane had been loaded there, it had been serviced there, and the men and women that did it saluted when they took off and hoped and prayed that they come back. They came back and tried to land at the same place. And that’s how we operated from the States. We changed that in Iraq. Most of the aircraft were not based in the country, they were in further areas that they could reach very quickly. They had some there, but not all.
Sure. That’s interesting.
We changed the way we do business, completely and totally. And is it bad? Hey, I’m not on active duty, you know. I can’t say one way or the other. But if we’re a better Air Force because of it, that’s what it’s all about, because we serve a nation not an Air Force.
Sure. I think it was in 1969 when you made chief master sergeant?
Well, I made chief master sergeant on November the 15th in 1968, when I was notified by my commander at one second after midnight that I had been promoted to chief.
That was right before we moved to the new promotion system.
Well, that was the last of the good days as I call it, from promotion standpoint because the last—by that I mean I had a line number. The Weighted Airman Promotion System [WAPS] had not been born yet, and I had the last damn line number in the entire promotion cycle.
I waited, and I waited, and I waited. And finally, I believe it was mid-1970 when they said you’re a chief today. Thank you very much. And I sewed them on my uniform, or Inge did, and I went work, and that was the extent of it. I got a date of rank of 1 December 1969. But I made it November of ’68, and I had to wait because that was the first year for a line number system that they started in the Air Force.
What was the promotion system like back then? I guess from your experience before WAPS?
Well, it was not very good—it was not very well done. And I have to be very critical of that because we got into this “have and have nots.” World War II ended and a lot of the people out of World War II, some rift officers, all came out as master sergeants. Korea, the same thing. So master sergeant was the highest grade you could get in those early days, and all those slots were filled. So, if you couldn’t make master sergeant, well, then the highest you could go is technical sergeant. They promoted based on essential vacancies, and if there were no vacancies, nobody got promoted. And those that did get promoted had to be in a critical AFSC, generally aircraft maintenance and the like.
Weather was in the ops arena, and I made tech in ’62 and I was the first person I ever saw make tech sergeant. The average retiree in the early ’60s was a staff sergeant with 20 years in service. Congress was getting flooded with letters from enlisted Airmen in our Air Force about the promotion system and not being able to get promoted. It was an invisible system. You didn’t know what it took to get promoted, and we didn’t have any debriefs on it or anything else. You made staff at the squadron level, and at the tech sergeant level you moved to base and MAJCOM [major command] level. I made senior in ’67, and that was the first time I competed centrally for promotion. All you knew is you either got promoted or you didn’t get promoted. If the promotion board met, you walked outside and looked at the daily bulletin. If you didn’t see your name on the list, you said, “Well, I didn’t get promoted.” There was nobody that could brief you on how you came up short or anything.
So, the Weighted Airman Promotion System was a godsend and a lifesaver for the US Air Force.
Do you think it has met its intent over the years?
I think it probably not only met its intent but it exceeded the intended purpose. The problem is we didn’t follow up, because WAPS promoted as an equal opportunity system, and every AFSC got promoted in the same promotion percentage. Some may differ because if you got two eligible and can only promote one, that’s 50 percent. However, the percentage throughout the Air Force might have been only 30 percent or 20 or 10. But they had a follow on to it, and it was called over-promoted and big AFSCs. Maintenance was the largest AFSC in the Air Force at the time. And once you became the crew chief or the engine prop person, or whoever, and you liked what you were doing, it was awfully hard for you to go and say, “Well I want you to go be a medic,” or “I want you to be something else,” when the person had been working with their hands the whole time.
We didn’t have the system where, if there were too many people in this specialty at the grade of tech sergeant or master sergeant, either some would retrain or nobody would get promoted. That’s what we should have done, something that drastic. We offered opportunities over and over again. We went out and solicited people, begged them, gave them AFSCs of their choice in many cases. We still couldn’t get them out of the career field they were entrenched in and were comfortable in. They didn’t want to throw that away and say, “I’m going into this unknown, dark, grey area.”
One of the things you got to do was attend the first Senior NCO Academy class. What was that experience like for you?
Well, it was really, really, really unique because I had been in solo positions my whole career, from the time I went to the 7th Weather Squadron from Hanscom until I was selected for the senior academy. I went down there as a senior chief because I already had four years’ time in grade and I still didn’t have 20 years in service. I’m going in with some chiefs that had 26 years in service. I was in a class that had the likes of [CMSAF #6] Jim McCoy, [CMSAF #4] Tom Barnes—we were all classmates. I wasn’t in awe, because there are very few things in life that has awed me, but to see these people operate and to watch Tom Barnes in his calm way, be in a seminar and sit there and have this violent discussion basically, and have him so calmly never get ruffled, you can’t help but have part of that rub off on you to a certain extent. So I wasn’t in awe, but I sure as hell developed a much, much greater respect for most senior NCOs and the environment they operate in—and where they came from too.
Sure. I find it interesting that you were in the very first class, and I know you continue to go down there today. So you’ve seen it go from the beginning to where we are today. How do you think that class has evolved over the years?
Well, it’s evolved to the extent that I think we’re getting a lot more out of it than we ever dreamed we would get out of it. I know starting off it was awfully tough. We took only chiefs in there. And chiefs didn’t feel like they needed to do anything in the world because they already had it made. They didn’t need it for promotions. And we weren’t sending them there for promotions. We were sending them there to be better NCOs and to learn a little bit about the big picture, if you will. I’ve never seen the big picture, but we were teaching them those things they needed to know to be the most senior enlisted leadership.
Well, let me tell you what, by the time Jim McCoy became Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force he would get roasted going down there by the chiefs. Jim tolerated it to the extent that he could, and then we started thinking of change. [CMSAF #9] Jim Binnicker was the big changer in the Senior NCO Academy, because for the first time, we started sending master sergeants to the senior academy. Before, it was only senior master sergeants and chiefs. And now it’s awfully close to being virtually all masters with the new system. They do much of the core curriculum before they even get there. Now, they’re in there for six weeks, and they’re doing things for leadership, management, and supervision—the types of things they’re going to do as masters and seniors and chiefs. Chiefs virtually don’t go there anymore because they’ve all been.
So, I like what I see in the Senior NCO Academy, and I think it’s worth every dime we lay out there. Some changes I would like to see. I’d like to go back to a formal graduation. I think it was important to celebrate the ending of something that was almost spectacular at times. But that’s neither here nor there. You don’t go there for a graduation anyways; you go there to see how you stack up and learn against your fellow NCOs and Airmen.
You’ve been a big proponent for not just the Senior NCO Academy but for PME [professional military education]. When you were the CMSAF you started the NCO Preparatory Course. What kind of impact do you think PME has had on this force when you consider where we are today?
It’s awfully easy to answer, in my opinion. It’s the greatest single step taken for the development of our enlisted Airmen in the history of the US Air Force. I just wish like hell that I would have had the opportunity to attend what our E4s do today—management, supervision and leadership. What I got was what I observed and what I got out of my seven-level weather school, because they taught us management, leadership, and supervision. That was in 1960. The academies were just standing up, and we didn’t have the preparatory course and things of that nature. To get our young people at the very earliest stages and move them up and build on each step, the purpose of it, and what they’re experiencing as a senior airman, now as a staff sergeant and tech sergeant and a master sergeant in the NCO Academy. And then the senior academy, and now we’re fixing to start our chief’s course back up. So, you see you never ever get too old to learn. If you learn something, that’s valuable to our younger people—because they are going to lead our Air Force into this twenty-first century.
You created the First Sergeant of the Year Award when you were at USAFE. You did it again when you were at SAC, and then you did it for the Air Force. Why was that so important for you to get that recognition?
Well, you know, you need to go back into time and see where we were. We had different caliber of people to start with. First sergeants were—I guess you would say if there was any segment of our population that was brown shoe it would be the first sergeants. You know, disciplinarians, tough as nails. As a young Airman, I’d walk a block out of my way to keep from meeting a master sergeant on the street. If it was a first sergeant, I’d probably walk 10 blocks to keep from meeting him.
I had never been in a unit that had a first sergeant. We had about 300 people in the 7th Weather Squadron. I was the squadron chief observer, the first sergeant safety NCO, training NCO. I worked for the ops officer. I went there as a master sergeant, made senior, and when I made chief, they curtailed me and shipped me to Scott [AFB, Illinois]. The thing is, I was in essence a first sergeant for three years, with a commander that depended on me for discipline to everything else. I took all the correspondence courses they would allow me to take, to find out what was going on. When I went to Military Airlift Command and retrained it was the first time I ever had a first sergeant.
When I got to USAFE, the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program was one of the programs that I first attacked because we didn’t do anything except name them in name. We had first sergeant conferences that joined with us at the senior enlisted advisors’ conferences, and that’s where the determinations were made as to who was going to represent the bases at the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program. Well, I found there was never a first sergeant nominated. And I knew damn well they were doing a superb job.
At the first sergeants conference I asked them, “What’s going on guys? Don’t you all realize the importance of this job and the importance of being recognized?” They said, “Chief, if we do it, it’s self-serving, and we’re taking that slot away from one of our people that could be nominated.” So I went to Gen. John Pauly, and I said, “Sir, we need a new program.” He said, “Sam, you already got your Outstanding Airmen of the Year program. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want a First Sergeant of the Year program, because they don’t allow themselves to be nominated. The commanders can do the nominating, and then we’ll get a group of chiefs together and we’ll decide which commander’s got the best package.” He said, “Sounds good to me.” Well, let me tell you what, doing things for people doesn’t always work well, because the first sergeants absolutely refused to participate in it. Refused.
General Pauly told me he’d talk to them. So I got them all together; we had a hellish discussion on the First Sergeant of the Year program. Then he got up and talked and closed by saying, “I understand that you don’t feel that a First Sergeant of the Year program is needed. I’m telling you as your commander in chief that a First Sergeant of the Year program is going to work in the US Air Forces in Europe. And I’m here to tell you something else, if you don’t want to participate, and if you’re anti-First Sergeant of the Year program, leave your diamond at the door when you leave this damn conference. I enjoyed being with you, take care, good luck.” I didn’t find a diamond in the out basket anywhere.
I went to SAC. One of the first things I did was attack the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year program and ask for a First Sergeant of the Year program. Gen Bennie Davis said to me, “What’s wrong with our Outstanding Airmen of the Year program now?” I said, “You bring them in, you wine them and dine them for one night, then you send them home.” “What do you want?” Well, he had an airplane, a KC-135, the most beautiful plane in the inventory. “I said I want CASEY 1 for a week.” He said, “Are you out of your mind?” I said, “No, sir.” “What are you going to do?” I said, “Well I’m going to show them what we do in SAC. I’m going to take them to Colorado Springs [Colorado],” because we had the missile business at the time. “I want to take them to Vandenberg [AFB, California], I want to take them to a northern-tier base and have a good time out there with them, bring them back here, have a banquet, announce who the recipients are, and send them home the next day. And while we’re gone, the chiefs are going to determine who the winners are. Nobody will know.” And he said, “Hmm, I like that.” So, he said, “Give me a disposition form.” That’s what we had, we didn’t have e-mails or nothing. So, he sent the form to the director of operations, who was a two-star general. He came down, and he got on the top of my desk with his golf shoes on, and he was doing a jitterbug, calling me every name in the book, and who did I think I was and everything. I looked at him and I said, “General, you’re in the wrong office. I don’t think I signed that memo.” “Yeah, but you’re the author of it.” I said, “Well go down and tell the general he’s wrong.” He didn’t have the nerve. We got CASEY 1 for a week, and the program kept going as long as Strategic Air Command was in existence.
The First Sergeant of the Year program got a lot of resistance initially, until they communicated with somebody that had been in USAFE—or somebody in USAFE had come to SAC—and they told them how it worked. When I became Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force that was one of the first three things I pursued after I met with the former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force. I picked their brains, and the Levitow Award was born—the First Sergeant of the Year program was born, things of that nature. I went to General [Charles A.] Gabriel with it when we were flying to Europe on a visit. He read the memo from the meeting while he was in his compartment on Speckled Trout. The aide came out and said, “The chief wants to see you.” So I went back, and he said, “I like it. When we get to USAFE release it to the world.” “Sir,” I said, “It ain’t been staffed. I’ll prepare a message for you to send to the Air Force announcing it.” He said, “Nope, it’s your program, sign it.” So, the First Sergeant of the Year program for the Air Force was born, approved on that airplane, and believe me, I suffered immensely from it—more ways than one. Because the promotion to senior airman was part of the memo.
Yeah. It was released that we were going to do it, but we didn’t have the idea yet how to do it. So, when I got back it had to be staffed and...it was not pretty. None of it was pretty.
I think one of the things that story highlights is the ability for the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force to influence the enlisted force and lead them in new directions. Can you describe—I guess just looking back—how that has been shaped over the years, that influence the enlisted force has now because of that position?
You know we had to claw for the things we got. We had to fight and claw not only the director of personnel, but the director of operations, or whatever you call them now: the A1s and the A2s and so forth. We had to do that battle, and it was always behind closed doors. Now, our senior NCOs have seen this development, and they’re picking up the ball. What I see happening as part of this is this tendency to aspire to a job rather than to serve the Air Force. You know, a senior airman asks me, “I want to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force one day.” When they start thinking of being the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force as a senior Airman, as I told one senior airman, “Son, you’ve got to make staff sergeant first.” I’d already asked him how much time in service he had, and he said, “Eight and a half years, Chief.” I looked at him and I said, “You know, if you don’t make staff sergeant in the next year and a half, they’re going to kick you out. Then how are you going to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?”
It hurt his feelings tremendously, but driving me back to my quarters, he said, “Chief, I appreciate you not saying that publicly.” I said, “I would never embarrass you like that, but there’s a message there.” And he said, “I got your message.” He made staff sergeant, he made tech the first time, master, senior, and now he’s a retired chief master sergeant. You see people get on that path though—the tunnel vision—where there’s nothing in the world except what’s at the end of that tunnel. They don’t see all the interference on the outside of that tunnel, and that’s why it’s important to continue to focus on the total person. I don’t want somebody to be a technical expert as a chief master sergeant. I want somebody that knows the technical aspects of the job and then to be a great leader and supervisor and to make changes that will benefit those that come behind, not those that are ahead.
That’s what I think the Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force have done. And I’m going to tell you something else, too. We could never, ever, ever have gotten here without a person named Paul Airey. Paul was the type of individual that had the patience of Jude but would eat you out in ways you never dreamed of being chewed out. He set the pace for us.
One of the similarities, comparing your tenure as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force to today is the fiscal environment. The drawdown of Airmen, looking at the retirement and asking how we can save money. I’m sure that brought a lot of uncertainty for Airmen who were serving then. What advice do you have for Airmen serving today who are facing those same challenges?
The things that we faced then...yes, we were faced with financial challenges. And if you think it has been tough with sequestration and all that, go back to 1978. In 1978 we had about 120 F4s at a squadron at Torrejón Air Base, Spain. On any given day, if we could have launched 20 airplanes we would have been unbelievably successful. Everything had been cannibalized just to keep some of them flying. The vice commander of USAFE had to personally approve every single TDY in the command except for General Pauly and myself. Wing commanders, Numbered Air Force commanders, everybody. That’s how hard up we were for funds. So, funding has been cyclical the whole time.
We had shortages, and all of a sudden, you know, along came [Pres. Ronald] Reagan. He started looking at things, and President [Jimmy] Carter on his way out gave us the biggest pay raise we got in the history of the Air Force. President Reagan was given credit for it, but it happened during the [Carter] administration and he [Reagan] took office in January and it had already been approved. They started targeting the raises—17.4 percent pay raise for a chief. The next year, the year after, we got a 14.4 percent pay raise, again targeted, because we had developed a breaking point between E-1 and E-9 of about a 3:1 ratio. A chief made about three times as much as an Airman basic, but for the general and the lieutenant it was about 6:1 or more, about the same as it is today. This is what we harped on. It wasn’t that we were looking for anything for ourselves. We knew what happened in ’78 when we couldn’t launch airplanes because we didn’t have crew chiefs. They had all left. Let me tell you, they left for one reason: money. They couldn’t even afford to have a family.
That started solving itself, and now, we’re faced with shortages again, but this time it’s different—we’re drawing down the force. Just imagine what we did after Vietnam. It’s not the first drawdown that has ever occurred; it’s the third one during this generation of Airmen. In the early ’90s we had a drawdown, and then we had another drawdown in the mid-2000s, and now we’re having the other one. So Vietnam, we went from almost a million Airmen to 500,000 in about three years. We didn’t do it very nicely—used a butcher knife or a machete. And then in the early ’90s, we learned some things, but we still didn’t do that very well either—had a lot of discontent. And we’ve gotten better and better at drawing down the force. The doubt in people’s mind, however, we still haven’t resolved.
So when you find out that we’re going to have a new retirement system, you look back and see what the retirement system that was implemented—and I think it’s called three year...
High 3. And then now we have the High 3 with the REDUX.
Right, with the REDUX.
It’s an option.
But with the High 3 there was some turmoil. There was a lot of discussion, but nobody understood what it was all about. Then they started, you know, fairness. We don’t deal in fairness. If you joined the Air Force and this is the system we have when you join, and they didn’t make it retroactive to the old people that were serving, the High 3, then you’ve got nothing to complain about really.
The young people we have today, I’ve never seen any better in my entire Air Force life. Young people come in better educated than I was, and they have a distinct sense of purpose. A lot of them come in with two stripes. Damn, it took me two years to get my first two. And not only that, but they know the Air Force is going to be their career. And I never, ever, ever, ever made a conscious decision to make the Air Force a career. I enjoyed what I was doing, I enjoyed the people I was doing it with, and the most natural thing in the world was to raise the right hand again and say I do.
The point is, our people come in for reasons. Some do, some are looking for themselves. What was I looking for? I don’t know, but I must have been looking for something. It doesn’t matter why you join. It’s the oath of enlistment that we take, and we need to emphasize that. The young Airman that takes that oath in the MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station] station the first time, they have no concept of what they’re saying other than they’ve got to remember the words to repeat them. But after they’ve said it about four, five, or six times, it starts to dawn on them. You’re making an oath to defend the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. I’m here to tell you there are no “ands,” or there are no “ifs,” “buts,” or “however” in our oath of enlistment. It is absolute.
You mentioned the oath—how do you think the all-volunteer force has strengthened the Airmen or the Air Force?
Well, I’m not sure that it has strengthened it, to be very honest with you. You know, if you stop and you think about it, and I spent a lot of time with Chief Paul Airey, and he was a draft era and so was I. We didn’t draft people with a college degree into the Air Force. Now the Army might have tried to draft them with a college degree, but when they found out they could join the Air Force, they joined the Air Force. Having a draftee that is 30 years old next to an 18-year-old doing the same job, if you got the right draftee in there that’s educated, guess what? Some of that starts to rub off. Airey said, you know, in the trenches of World War II we had college degrees and high school graduates, and dropouts, like myself, and he said it was a great way to serve. Well, we probably will never go back to that, and I kind of hope we don’t.
What this has done though, it has driven up the cost of DOD [the Department of Defense]. It has also driven up the amount that each one of our Airmen make in each pay grade, and that’s been the greatest, greatest benefit right there. It has raised the standard of living in our military services. The other part that I see is that it has given us a young Airman the likes of which we have never gotten before in the US Air Force. People willing to come in for six years and get two stripes, or those that are ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], or have two years of college, or a college degree, that say I want to see something else in the world. And it’s not necessarily—as I tell our senior Airmen—I don’t believe that each one of you are so patriotic that you said I’m going to join to serve my country. And that’s okay, because once you get in, you’re going to get that patriotism if you serve—that’s all that counts. They come in for different reasons, and if it’s money that’s okay, too. Find a job? Don’t be ashamed to say it.
So I’m not concerned about why you join, it’s what you do once you take that oath and continue with your life. We’re getting a great quality of Airmen.
When you hear people talk about Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Sam Parish they say he’s a straight shooter. What is a straight shooter, and why is that important to you?
Well, I think a straight shooter is telling it like it is. When I retired from the Air Force, we didn’t even have cell phones and the Internet wasn’t invented. All of that stuff, it has changed the way that we think and do business. A straight shooter to me is absolutely telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. I guarantee you when your boss calls you in and says, “I need your opinion on this,” you know exactly what he or she’s looking to hear as a general rule. If you tell him what he wants to hear and you don’t really and truly believe that, you’re not a straight shooter.
I think we’ll wrap this up with one more question. I want to ask, if you look at our Air Force today, if you look at the Airmen that are serving today and you had to start your sentence with “I believe,” what would you say?
I believe we’re getting the greatest quality of dedicated, disciplined, and educated Airmen we could ever hope to get in our Air Force. I just hope and pray we have the Airmen in the NCO ranks and the officer ranks that will provide guidance, leadership, and supervision to them to make our Air Force even better in the future than we’ve been in the past.