CMSAF Gary R. Pfingston
Gary R. Pfingston was born on 2 January 1940 in Evansville, Indiana. In the mid-1950s, his parents moved west to southern California, looking for better job opportunities. Pfingston quickly adapted. He became an avid athlete, competing in football, baseball, and wrestling. He graduated from Torrance High School in 1958, and later enrolled in El Camino College.
He was a young man with big plans. He worked for the Redondo Beach Recreation Department, delivered papers for the Los Angeles Times, married his sweetheart, Marsha A. Hunt, and was scheduled to attend Long Beach State University. But on Christmas Eve 1961, a month after his marriage, the plan changed. He received a draft notice with a scheduled physical date of 2 January 1962. It would be his 22nd birthday.
After his physical, Pfingston considered his options. A draft deferment was not a possibility, as he was not a full-time student, and even though he was married, he did not have a child to support. Knowing military service was in his future, he decided to enlist in the Air Force. He packed his bags and left for Lackland AFB, Texas, in February 1962. Following basic training, the Air Force selected Pfingston to serve as an aircraft mechanic. He moved to Amarillo, Texas, where he attended technical training, while his wife lived off base with a friend. He then received his young family’s first assignment: Castle AFB, California.
At Castle AFB, Pfingston began to enjoy and adapt to the military lifestyle. He worked as a crew chief on B-52 Stratofortress long-range bombers and played a role in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He played fast-pitch softball during his down time and later attended the NCO Preparatory School. As his initial enlistment came to an end, the Air Force offered him a bonus to reenlist. He had no problem taking the money and continuing to serve.
“I thought, hey, this is a pretty damn good deal,” said Pfingston, reflecting on the decision years later. “Why get out? Because there was a limited amount of money in the bonus program, people had to reenlist quickly or the money might be gone. I think I got $1,800, and that was a lot of money at that time.”
Two years later, the Pfingstons moved to Plattsburgh AFB, New York, where he continued to work as a crew chief on B-52s and KC- 135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft. He was later assigned as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge (NCOIC) of the aircraft records, documentation, and debriefing sections and was promoted to technical sergeant. In 1972 he was assigned to U-Tapao Royal Thai AB, Thailand, for one year.
Pfingston’s career took a turn when he returned from Thailand in 1973. He was stationed at Lackland AFB and assigned as a military training instructor. Although he was initially hesitant to embrace a role he felt was not his type of work, Pfingston found he “just absolutely loved it.” It was a three-year tour, but in 1981, eight-and-a-half years after arriving at Lackland, Pfingston, now senior master sergeant, was finishing his last of five year-long extensions.
Pfingston and his family then moved to Anderson AFB, Guam, but shortly after arriving, Pfingston broke his back while working on a C-141 Starlifter. He was airlifted to Wilford Hall in San Antonio, Texas, where he spent 147 days receiving treatment for a fractured vertebra, herniated disks, and sciatic nerve damage.
When he returned to Guam, he assumed the role of first sergeant and quickly grew to understand the importance of caring for Airmen and the critical role of families. He made chief master sergeant and was then assigned to George AFB, California, where he began his service as a senior enlisted leader. He was selected as the senior enlisted adviser for the 831st Air Division at George AFB, then hired by Lt Gen Merrill A. McPeak as the 12th Air Force senior enlisted adviser. McPeak later tapped Pfingston to serve in the same role for Pacific Air Forces, which he did until the summer of 1990.
In August 1990, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Michael J. Dugan selected Pfingston to serve as the 10th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). He knew immediately that the job would be tough. The Air Force would continue to draw down—when Pfingston became the CMSAF in August 1990, the Air Force had 535,2334 active duty Airmen, but by 1994 that number had dropped to 422,3205—the budget would continue to decrease, and the Air Force was prepping for, at that time, a possible air war in the Middle East.
Despite the challenges, Pfingston continued to move the enlisted force forward. He focused on quality of life issues such as housing, pay, and medical benefits and continued to move toward a one-plus-one dormitory standard. He helped inaugurate the Year of Training initiative that resulted in, among other things, career field education and training plans, threelevel and seven-level technical schools for all career fields, and mandatory in-residence professional military education (PME) for all Airmen. He also eliminated the E-4 “buck” sergeant rank, and made significant changes to the uniform, including moving the master sergeant stripe from the bottom of the chevron to the top.
Pfingston retired in 1994 but remained active in Air Force events until he died of cancer on 23 June 2007. Before his passing, Pfingston did not sit down for a long-form oral history interview. However, many of his thoughts and words were captured in print at various points during his 30-plus years of service. The following are quotes and perspectives that Pfingston shared as he reflected on his Air Force career.
On his role and preparation during the Cuban missile crisis:
I went to work one day with a pack of cigarettes and two dollars and didn’t get to go home for 30 days. We were locked on base. We upgraded all the airplanes and put them on alert. We had to stay with our airplane. We lived there. But, we were prepared for such occurrences. The training program in those days was much different than it is today. You had schools that you went to for every skill level, and they were mandatory. Another difference is the SKT [Specialty Knowledge Test] you take today as part of your WAPS [Weighted Airman Promotion System]. You had to take the SKT and pass it with a certain percentile score to get your three level, five level, and seven level. And you had to complete a formalized training program prior to testing.
On pay and benefits during his early career:
There weren’t very many people who stayed and made careers out of the Air Force because of pay and entitlements, or benefits. There weren’t any. Back then, unless you were an E-4 with four years of service, your spouse received no benefits or entitlements—you couldn’t ship household goods, spouses didn’t get travel pay. You couldn’t even live in base housing— you had to be an E-4 [with] over four [years in] to...get on the list. Every Airman in the Air Force lived off base...Most of the first-term Airmen in the Air Force, that I was aware of, were there to [avoid being] drafted in [to] the Army.
On his experience during his one-year assignment in Thailand in 1972:
I started in aircraft maintenance again, B-52s and tankers, and then I moved into the DCM [deputy commander for maintenance] maintenance control area. We had a lot of planes on the base. There was a lot of reconfiguring of airplanes—what was called the “iron belly” modifications so B-52s could carry conventional bombs. Up until that time, B-52s were designed to exclusively carry nuclear weapons. That’s when we first started using B-52s in a conventional war. We modified them to carry 500-pound bombs and put external bomb racks on them, also.
A big difference between a war deployment then and now is the communication process. The only ways we could communicate with our families...[were] by mail or the MARS [Military Affiliate Radio System]. MARS was run by volunteer radio operators. Once a month, I would sit in a MARS station for probably eight to ten hours waiting for my turn. The radio operators would relay conversations sentence-by-sentence. I know in Desert Storm we had AT&T commercial telephones, and I understand in Bosnia they communicated on the Internet, on computers.
On his experience at Lackland AFB in the mid to late 1970s:
The biggest thing we went through, I guess, was the change from the draft to an all-volunteer force. Even today, I think it was a great thing to do. The quality of the Airmen didn’t change. As a matter of fact, it might have gotten better because we had more people [entering] the Air Force for the right reasons. They were volunteering to come in—not coming in to avoid the draft.
We started to do a lot of integration of males and females—male instructors with female flights and female instructors with male flights. We were bringing in more women, and more of them were attaining NCO status, and a lot of our young men were leaving basic training and going to work for female supervisors. Not long after that, we integrated squadrons to include male and female flights.
Overall, these years were not good years, as I recall, for the Air Force. Those were what were referred to as the hollow forces of the ’70s. Being a young senior NCO at the time, I can say it was not very good. We went for a long time without a pay raise. Our reenlistment rates were low, and we were drawing down from the Vietnam years. We got so small, so fast. All of a sudden a base would become 50 to 60 percent manned, with no money, and you couldn’t do your job. We were killing people, working them to death. We couldn’t fix airplanes because we didn’t have money to buy parts. We didn’t have money to fly them if they were fixed. So flight crews were not getting proper training. We learned from that experience and did things differently when we had to do the drawdowns of the ’90s.
Personally, two things of great professional importance happened to me while at Lackland. First, I started getting involved in supervision of people and leadership roles. I truly believe that my experience as a TI [training instructor] is the reason I ultimately succeeded as a chief. Being a TI is probably the best training ground in the Air Force for people programs. Second, I met CMSgt Bob Beilke. He became my role model. He saw that, as a technical sergeant, I wasn’t doing everything I could do to improve myself or the Air Force. Don’t get me wrong, I was good—I was selected instructor of the year. Chief Beilke sat me down and told me to either ‘Get all the way in or get out of my Air Force.’ His guidance inspired me to attain the grade of senior master sergeant before leaving Lackland in 1981.
On the drawdown during his tenure as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force:
We have to be smart on how we manage our people so we can avoid those situations [where Airmen are unable to do their job due to manning]. We have to draw down the structure and force size in a systematic, programmatic way. We can’t have a smaller force doing the job designed for a larger force. We need to strike a balance between the number of people we’ll have and the number of locations where they’ll be stationed. We have to draw down the end strength and force structure to prevent the ‘hollow’ force of the 1970s. If we make this draw down smartly, we can ease some of the pain of getting smaller. But we can be smaller and better at the same time.
The main thing I’m concerned about is the continuing drawdown, making sure we do that in as smooth and orderly a fashion as we possibly can, knowing we’re already now targeting in FY [fiscal year] ’94 about 4,500 additional separations. Those are numbers in addition to how many normally separate from the Air Force. I want to make sure we do everything smoothly so we can continue to be as fair to our people as they are to us. But unfortunately that’s the deck of cards we have been dealt, so we have to play ’em.
I’m pretty excited and pleased that we have been able to manage this for three years now through a voluntary mode, when you understand what the alternatives are (involuntary separations). So the No. 1 thing on my agenda for ’94 is to continue with that process, then obviously await anxiously what we think is going to be required for ’95. We work that six months to a year out, so we had to start making initial decisions on what we think the end strength numbers are going to look like in FY 95. I just hope we can continue to manage it as well as we have in the past.
[General McPeak] and I talked and decided that we were going to do everything voluntarily, as best we could. We were not going to do involuntary separations until it was absolutely the last resort. And that’s why we worked so hard to get the VSI [voluntary separation incentive] and SSB [special separation bonus] programs. Probably well over half of my efforts during ’91 and ’92 and into ’93 were spent working the drawdown. The personnel enlisted leaders played a major role in these programs. Chiefs like Dale Reed, Jimmy Tanner, and Josh Krebbs helped plan and organize our efforts, under the direction of General [Billy J.] Boles. We got out in front and took a big gamble in ’92—we decided to do two years’ worth of drawdowns in one year.
On the drawdown’s effect on promotions:
If we continue to manage (the drawdown) in all areas to keep the force structure in balance the right number of first termers, second-termers, career NCOs and senior NCOs—promotions should stay basically what we’ve known for a couple years, as well as assignments and career opportunities, and so forth. But, if we don’t keep it in balance and we don’t get the right numbers in all of these different areas of the 20- or 30-year career, then it could affect those things.
People need to remember, especially in the promotion system, we promote to vacancies. Where there are vacancies there will continue to be promotions. And when there are no vacancies then you don’t promote anybody.
I think we will keep the promotion opportunities about the same. I don’t see them changing much, maybe a point or two up or down. That’s pretty much been the track record for the last three or four years. When you promote the same percentage of a smaller, eligible pool, then fewer people get promoted.
So, just because you see a shorter list doesn’t always mean the promotion opportunities are going down, it just means 10 percent of 100 is more people than 10 percent of 10. That will happen. There will be shorter promotion lists because of a smaller eligible pool. My priority is to try to do everything we can to keep the whole process balanced so it doesn’t affect these kinds of things. We can pretty much keep all the tidal waves out of the water. There may be some ripples, but no tidal waves to wash us overboard.
On the one-to-one dorm standard initiative, then referred to as VISION 2020:
We’ve been working on that for several years. There again, it’s a vision, exactly like the title says. But you have to do that. I think you have to look into the future a long time before you arrive, otherwise you find out, hey, all of a sudden we’re there and we hadn’t prepared for it.
I guess we kind of had a vision for 1990 in 1960. In 1960 we didn’t have a whole lot of problems with dorm rooms because we didn’t have any. And then when we got rooms, we didn’t have a whole lot of square-footage problems because we didn’t have a whole lot in the rooms. That was before the high-tech, big-screen TVs, stereos, stereo speakers, and what not. When we finally got rooms in the ‘60s and ‘70s, about all we had in the rooms were metal bunk beds, a desk, two chairs and a wall locker—if we were lucky. About the only electronic stuff we owned were these little cigarette pack-sized transistor radios.
Without a doubt, the most important thing we need to do is work on dormitory privacy. I really think it’s a crime to take somebody, the best of the best that we can recruit, bring them in the Air Force and say, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to have a roommate.” I just can’t understand that mentality. I raised two sons in the United States Air Force. Both of them are well into their 20s now, but when they were 10 or 12 years old living in base housing, they were authorized their own bedrooms. If they were in the Air Force, they would have to have a roommate. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think it’s a great program, and I think it’s an example of the senior leadership of the Air Force, the chief of staff, signing up to this and saying this is important. For many years we’ve given dormitory privacy a lot of lip service. Now we have something on paper, and we have signatures from senior leaders saying this is what they will step up to and work toward for the future.
For the Airmen of 2010 and 2020, it’s going to be a great thing. And we need to do a better job of articulating the fact that we have Airmen who wear the uniform today who can wear this uniform in the year 2020 or 2023.
On the 1992 Year of Training Initiative—
There have been a lot of gray areas and misunderstandings over who does functional training and when, and who does education and when. It was a hit-and-miss operation, trying to design an enlisted curriculum that serviced staffs, techs, and masters in the same class. Who did you focus on and who did you teach, and what did you teach them? The concept of PME is to prepare people for positions of greater responsibility, so having said that, were we preparing staffs to be techs? Were we preparing techs to be masters? Or, were we just catching up with the masters and teaching them something we should have given them 10 years ago?
So this ‘Year of Training’ fits right in with the Quality Air Force. It’s an opportunity to build enlisted career paths, where every Airman coming in the door at Lackland can take a clean sheet of paper, write down the grades on one side and the corresponding requirements for each grade on the other. It just flows naturally in this streamlined, focused, Quality Air Force concept.
It should encourage people, because they’re going to be given everything that they need and probably more than they’ve ever been given before. So, it should enhance their career opportunities.
On Airmen in Operation Desert Storm:
Their performance in Operation Desert Storm illustrates that the quality of our enlisted force is unsurpassed by any nation. In large part due to [Congress’s] past efforts, we fielded a superbly trained, highly motivated fighting force that won the respect of people worldwide. I was fortunate enough to visit our troops in the Persian Gulf in January of . I was prouder and more enthusiastic than at any time during my 29 years in the military to be associated with the fighting men and women of today’s Air Force. They were ready and it showed. Superior training tactics, equipment, and operational art proved to be the edge.
Airmen in the Persian Gulf are representative of our Airmen everywhere. As I travel around the world talking to the men and women in the Air Force, it is evident that we are continuing to recruit the best and provide them top-notch training.
In recent months, we have asked our people to make immense sacrifices on behalf of their nation. The casualties of war—killed, wounded, and missing—have already given far in excess of what we could ever repay. Military service will always require the willingness to make these sacrifices and our warriors realize this. They served honorably in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and Operation Just Cause in Panama. The world watched as they served with pride and distinction in Operation Desert Storm.
These actions have provided us with the most valuable resource possible for our armed forces—battle-tested and trained warriors. These are experienced people we need to meet future threats to our country and to train tomorrow’s Airmen. We have a moral obligation to appropriately care for the men and women who volunteer to shoulder our country’s military burden.
I was impressed with what I saw. While there, I noticed how smoothly the operations were running, and it doesn’t surprise me because of how good the men and women of the Air Force are at what they do. This is also testimony to how good the preparation and training necessary to conduct such a large-scale operation was. What surprised me is that we have people who never knew each other before who are working, living and socializing so well together.
The thing that is most on their minds is the health and well-being of their loved ones’ back home. Ironically, the thing most on the minds of the loved ones’ back home is the health and well-being of those deployed. That speaks well for our Air Force, the American way of life and our society. Whether you have a family or not, there’s still a feeling of family and togetherness.
On the Role of NCOs:
I see the role of NCOs becoming possibly more dynamic—NCOs playing a bigger role in the management decision-making processes in the Air Force. We live in a very high-tech world because of what we do, because of what we are all about. I’m continually amazed as I travel around the Air Force and see some of the incredibly high-tech roles that enlisted people play in their day-to-day operations.
Those roles will change directly proportionate to the new organization. We will continue to be the number one Air Force in the number one country in the world. The size of our force will be driven by all the outside influences. But, flattening of the layers of management and command will take place. I see jobs that will be great positions with a tremendous amount of responsibility and authority in not only management but in leadership and decision making in our day-to-day activities as well. There will be an awful lot of great jobs that people will want to have, and jobs that we need to fill with dedicated professionals. The positions will be taskings of high priority and require incredibly top-notch people.
On phasing out the E-4 “Buck” Sergeant Rank:
It was a balancing issue. We found ourselves out of balance in the NCO percentages of the total enlisted structure. Over three-quarters of the enlisted force were NCOs and it would have been 80 percent without the change.
Becoming an NCO requires that you be placed in a position in which responsibility is commensurate with the title. There was no competition for E-4 sergeant promotion seemingly became an automatic appointment process. This was due to downsizing and restructuring—it created an imbalance. We had to make the move—it was a pay-me-now or pay-me-later issue. It’s difficult to do whenever you do it, but it was a move that would be more difficult later.
On advice for Airmen:
Be the best you can be in your chosen field and in your particular responsibility that you have at a particular time. Sometimes, being anxious about tomorrow (causes) you not to (focus) on today. Most of the time tomorrow will take care of itself if you are truly focused on today.