CMSAF James A. Roy
James Roy was born on 18 May 1964 in the small town of Monroe, Michigan, just a short drive south from Detroit. In the early ’80s, the local economy did not offer a great opportunity for Roy and his newlywed spouse, Ms. Paula, so he decided to raise his right hand and join the Air Force. Not long after, they both knew the Air Force was the life for them.
Roy entered the Air Force as a heavy equipment operator and quickly learned to appreciate the busy lifestyle of a civil engineer. After his first assignment to MacDill AFB, Florida, he spent much of his early Air Force years in the Pacific—at both Osan and Kunsan Air Bases, South Korea, and Andersen AFB, Guam. Throughout his career, he gained a unique understanding of the joint force, working and training alongside Soldiers, Marines, and Sailors. The joint perspective developed into a passion for joint and combined operations that stuck with him through his years as an Air Force command chief and his tenure as the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Pacific Command.
In June 2009 Gen Norton Schwartz selected Roy as the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF), the first time a CMSAF was selected from a combatant command. Roy focused his efforts in three key areas: building and working within joint and coalition teams, deliberate development, and resiliency of our Airmen and families. He led the Air Force through the drawdown of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the push to build the next generation of enlisted professional military education (PME), and the greater focus on the joint force. He retired from the Air Force on 24 January 2013 after 30 years of service.
In December 2015 Roy sat down in his home for an interview to discuss his Air Force career and tenure as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. During the interview he talked about his passion for the joint and combined force, the concerns and challenges following the departure from Iraq in 2011, and the importance of deliberately developing enlisted Airmen. The following are edited experts from the conversation.
Chief, you joined our Air Force out of Monroe, Michigan. What pushed you toward the Air Force when you joined?
The reason I joined the Air Force in 1982 out of Monroe, Michigan, was simple. There wasn’t a lot going on in Monroe, around Detroit. There wasn’t a lot economy-wise and quite frankly, Ms. Paula and I had decided we were going to marry and this was the way to get a better education, get training, and possibly go back to Monroe, Michigan. As we all know, that never happened, but that was the primary reason.
A lot was driven by the economy, but it didn’t take us long once we joined the Air Force and got in with the team to decide that, you know what, this is a good thing. This provides adequately for us—the training, the education, the whole concept of the team. We had never been associated with that before; so, for us we just wanted to be a part of this outstanding team, and we still want to be a part of the team, and obviously are. But yeah, little Monroe, Michigan...
Little Monroe, Michigan, that’s cool. When you first got to basic military training (BMT), you and Ms. Paula were married—
We were. We got married in August and entered the Air Force on the 13th of September 1982.
You did get a honeymoon first, right?
We did, in Tennessee. Shortly after we married, I went off to basic training, you know, six weeks of absolute joy.
What was that like in the early ’80s, compared to what it’s like today?
Obviously, having gone back to Lackland AFB [Texas] many, many times—wow, has it really changed, and I would say for the good. I think it’s more the caliber of people—the caliber of our Airmen that are NCOs [noncommissioned officers] that lead and train those Airmen, I think, has really increased.
To me, going there in 1982, it was all a new world to me. I had never been out of Monroe, Michigan, except a little bit in Ohio. So, off I went to the big city of San Antonio [Texas]. You got in there and you had to follow directions, follow orders, and quite frankly, I had no problems with that. It was always fairly easy for me.
I think I had a great TI [training instructor] at the time. I made a couple of friends along the way through basic training, but obviously, after basic training, you parted ways to tech school. It was a little different than what it is today. I think people are seeking a different opportunity, if you will. For us, it was a matter of a better opportunity. I think there is a lot of opportunity out there today in the civilian sector, and I think at that particular time, there probably wasn’t quite as much; so, we felt we needed this—and it grew on you.
You got there and got in the swing of the routine, the battle rhythm of basic training, and it was one of those things you don’t ever forget. I’ve told others that basic training is the foundation. Regardless if you joined in 1982 or 2015, basic training is the foundation of that Airmanship.
The facility is a little different obviously. The type of training is a little different. Quite honestly, the training at that particular time, it was training, but I would say it wasn’t the same level of precision or the same level of experience.
I often give the example of when we got ready to go out to shoot our weapon—the one and only time we went out to shoot our weapon. It was raining that day; so, we certainly couldn’t go out and shoot our weapon in the rain (Laughter). We had to forego that; so, the first time I shot a weapon in the military was later at my first duty station. You know, same thing with the obstacle course. What that was then versus what it is today, with the week that we have down there with Airmen in the field. The fact that we provide them a weapon within the first week, the whole idea of “warrior” is instilled in those Airmen from day one. I think it is just absolutely tremendous. We didn’t get that; it was a little bit different of an experience.
I think we all ended up good Airmen, but that was one of the reasons we changed it. Obviously, myself, along with many of the other former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force changed it because we felt there needed to be a sense of Warriorship—a sense of Airmanship—instilled within basic training.
Yeah, you can certainly see that now over the years, especially recently.
It’s different now.
Absolutely. You graduated BMT and went through tech school—you entered the Air Force as a heavy equipment operator. What was your first impression of Airmen?
Well, it was at the beginning of my career that I really got exposed to this idea of jointness. I went off to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, as a heavy equipment operator, and you know, getting that training with Soldiers—the Marines had just left, the Sailors had just left, but we certainly trained with Soldiers every day—we got to understand a little bit more about the other services. In a large degree, you appreciate the service you join; in other ways, you appreciate what your joint partners bring to the fight.
What I always found about the Air Force is that we expect a lot of our Airmen. When I talk with Soldiers, I always talk about the fact that I grew up in the 62 model, if you will. The 62 Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Juliet—those are all areas I grew up in in the Air Force. The Air Force trained you in all of those, and they expected you to take that to your first duty station, whether that was deployed or somewhere else, and know how to operate those pieces of equipment. I think learning what the Army required was kind of an eye-opener to us. It wasn’t combined as much as it is in the Air Force.
We bring great people in our military, in our Air Force. I have seen and I grew up with great Airmen that I still stay in touch with today. And that’s really what it’s about—the attachment you make with people while you’re serving. Some of those friends I made, a few of them have gone off to do other things, even while I was still in the military. A lot have retrained, a couple went off to get their commission, a couple are in the reserves, one in the Guard, and so you got to see it from all angles. For me, going to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, was my very first exposure to a joint community and, in large part even, our total force because we had Reserve and Guard Airmen in our class and we got to know and understand them a little better.
You talked about the Air Force as a family, when did that first dawn on you? Was it at tech school, at basic training, or was it at your first assignment?
Well, as far as the team is concerned, I think you realize that right from the get go, when you get to basic training. You know, it’s kind of the Airmen, the trainees against the TI—in a positive way, because that’s who is training you. You want to work together as a team to accomplish the goals the TI has for you. Then when you get to technical school, it’s kind of the same way. The idea is to learn as much as you can in that team concept. Yeah, you can be a good operator, you can be a good technician, but the whole team has to succeed.
For me and Ms. Paula, the idea of family began when we got to MacDill AFB as the first duty station. We realized, “Wow, this is pretty nice.” She was working at the local credit union there, and I was obviously very busy. The family idea kind of got its first gen there, but I think during subsequent assignments, we really began to understand the whole idea of the entire family.
To go back to the idea of being an airman basic. It’s somewhat comical; we used to park across the street from the shop, and it would be dark. It was the fall or winter season, and I would walk across the road. I had no stripes; so, about three or four times, walking across the street, I would get saluted, and I couldn’t understand why. Then I’d get to the shop, and they would say, “Oh, it’s Roy. I wish you would hurry up and make a stripe because we’re thinking you’re a lieutenant.” It was somewhat comical, but I became very close friends with some of those folks at that shop. We used to work on cars, and go to car shows; so, that really taught us what it was to be part of a team, a winning team, and to be part of a family.
I often talk about my very first supervisor, TSgt Nathan Heard. He was a staff sergeant at the time, and I have the deepest appreciation for Nathan Heard. He was a person I looked up to. When he told me that I had 30 days to do my CDCs [career development course], it didn’t matter if it was January or February, you had 30 days, and he expected those to be done. He held you to that. But also, when Ms. Paula and I got there, he was the one that showed us where we might want to consider living, where we didn’t. It taught me my leadership foundation—it’s more about taking care of the Airmen than just what you do at the duty section every day. Tech Sergeant Heard, you know, he’s my hero. I have lost contact with him, but as a technical sergeant, I have the deepest appreciation for him. He taught me a lot, and I will always be in debt to Nate Heard.
Yeah, it’s definitely good to have those leaders right off the bat. You spent quite a few years in civil engineering, I think 17 years total. How did that experience shape you as a leader, a chief, and eventually the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
When you’re a civil engineer, you always have something to do. There is always a mission; you’ll never be caught up. For me, going back to my first duty station, we always had that sense of mission. The aircraft wasn’t going to take off unless we first went out there and swept up the flight line and the runway. So, they relied on us, and we had that sense of mission.
The other part is a sense of mission accomplishment. I could go home every night knowing I completed what I started that day. The complete project may not be done, but the part I was working on that particular day had to be done before we went home. So, for me, maybe somewhat of a bad lesson, you don’t go home until it’s finished. That’s a good thing sometimes—most of the time—but it can be a bad thing at times as well.
I think it taught me to overcome adversity. When you’re in a duty section like that and you have more work than you can possibly ever do, you have to prioritize. Part of being the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is prioritizing what the force needs at the particular time. I went back to my roots of, “Okay, prioritize this, and then how do you accomplish it?”
When Ms. Paula and I first stepped into the office, the first thing we did was sit down with the team. We sat with a mediator to help us define what it is we were going to focus on, and those are those three priorities. Using the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Air Force’s priorities, we were able to gain those objectives that were required of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force; the whole team was focused on those. That’s one of the things you realize as an engineer. You can’t do it all yourself. There is a lot of work that goes into a project, and you’re not going to complete it yourself. You have to rely on your teammates.
The other thing it taught me was, again, the early exposure to the joint team. I went right back to Fort Leonard Wood after a remote assignment, and I was standing out on the field, teaching Soldiers and Airmen how to operate the equipment. I understood that culture, and I still today understand that culture. I certainly don’t understand it as much as I do the Airmen culture, but I understand that culture. I understand what they bring to the fight.
I was exposed to a lot of Marines when I was deployed to Okinawa [Japan]. One story I share was that we were remodeling the NCO Academy at Kadena [Japan], and my particular job was all the driveways, the curbs, the sidewalks. That was my job, and quite frankly we didn’t have enough equipment to do the job. I went over to one of the Marine Corps bases and asked, “Hey, can I use some of your equipment to do this job?” For them, they didn’t have that type of work when they were in garrison. They trained, trained, and trained, but they didn’t have that real world experience. So, the agreement was, “Yeah, you can have the equipment, but you have to train some of our Marines.” So, again, I was exposed to our joint war fighters. It’s one of those things that, just by virtue of being a civil engineer, I was allowed the opportunity to see and work with our joint partners at that very tactical level.
You mentioned Okinawa. In the ’90s you spent quite a bit of time in the Pacific Theater. If you look back at the history of the Air Force in the ’90s, you hear a lot about operations in Europe, in places like Bosnia, Libya, Turkey, or Iraq. Can you tell us a little about what the Pacific was like during that time?
Absolutely. Obviously, the focus was in Europe, but we still had some foes in the Pacific. North Korea was the biggest focus, and regardless if I was down in Okinawa, TDY [temporary duty], deployed, or there on the Korean Peninsula, the focus remained on North Korea. I have seen the grandfather, the father, and now the son in leadership power during my tenure. So, I somewhat understand what they’re going to do next, in some cases. It was different than what it is today. Having served as a US Pacific Command senior enlisted leader, I will tell you it’s still focused on North Korea, but there are other focuses as well. We are focused on many other countries that quite honestly are great partners; some others are a bit challenging.
During my tenure at the Pacific Command, I was able to travel to many of those locations and really work with our coalition partners. In fact, ADM [Timothy J.] Keating charged me to be the advocate and champion for the enlisted development of our coalition partners in theater. It allowed me an opportunity to get to know a lot of them at different levels and be able to share what we have as the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense on growth and development.
One of the other ideas while we were in the office (of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force) was this whole idea of deliberate development. We have Airmanship—that we understand. We have always understood Airmanship like no other country; we are somewhat the epitome of Airmanship. But it was the other factors I really thought we needed to focus on—working with our joint partners, working with our coalition partners. That’s why we took on this whole idea of deliberate development—the experience, education, and training.
I look back at it now, and I think to myself, “My goodness.” When I first stepped in the office, we played okay. A lot of areas played very well with joint, but what we were trying to do is get the force at large to understand and appreciate the whole idea of what a joint partner means. How we can work together, what capabilities they bring, and what capabilities we can provide to that war fighter—also, what the coalition forces can bring, and what we can offer them.
When I would work with some of our allies, our joint partners and our coalition partners, it was easy for me to explain to them this idea of professionalism and the idea of mutual respect. In some cases, a country has a caste system of sorts and has a conscript force, where everybody serves versus our all-volunteer force; it’s a little bit different environment to work in. The idea that we can take the model we have as far as education, training, and experience and present that to our coalition partners and help them continue to develop—in some cases, helping them even start to develop—was a huge, huge asset to the Pacific Command commander, and it continues today.
As I look back on my time as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, we were able to get a couple of our senior NCOs into the New Zealand senior leader course, and they got full credit for the US Air Force Senior NCO Academy. I think that says a lot about the level of professionalism of our force. Number one, our Airmen, they’re absolutely up for it. Number two, our Air Force is open to the idea that this is a good thing and this can be beneficial to the Airman, certainly the organization, and the commander when they call upon us.
I look back at those opportunities, and what we did with IAAFA (Inter-American Air Forces Academy) down in San Antonio. I visited there one time, a couple of times, but one time in particular, I went there and I asked the NCOs, “Why is it that we send our NCOs to Colombia or these other places in the Americas—South America, Mid America—we send our Airmen there, we teach the course, and we bring them to us to teach, but why don’t we attend the course with them?” The last time I visited, it was very gratifying to see and hear that they had done that. Our Airmen were able to go down range and go to school with their Colombian partners. They are going to be war fighters together and learn side by side. Then the fact that we can send some of our Spanish-speaking Airmen from across the Air Force back to IAAFA to sit with all these other nations and attend the exact same course, particularly the NCO Academy—that to me, I think, highlights the level of professionalism of our Airmen, and it certainly shows that the institution is open to that and sees value in what it does for our Airmen and the combatant commander.
If you go back to when you were initially in the Pacific, and you compare it to what it is now when it comes to the partnership aspect—it’s probably night and day, would you say?
Oh, it’s completely night and day. You know, I was there as a young senior airman. I was stationed at Osan and traveled around the entire peninsula. I was TDY to a lot of those locations for extended periods of time doing different projects. We knew that those were Korean air bases, but we never even knew the Koreans. We never associated. I look back at that now and I think, “Wow, how much more potent of a force could we have been if we could have just done that?”
I went back four years later. I went down to Kunsan and there were a lot of Republic of Korea Air Force [ROKAF] airmen at Kunsan, and we associated with them. We would have times where we could actually talk to them. They always had needs, and we always tried to help them. Of course, we needed their understanding of the peninsula, and they were able to share that with us. Fast-forward to 2007, now as the Pacific Command senior enlisted leader, it was completely different across the entire Pacific theatre of operation.
When you have a partner country that is going through a complete defense reform, and they ask you, as the United States, for assistance, that says an awful lot about our military. In particular, for us, it says an awful lot about the US Air Force and its ability to help those countries go through a reform—a defense reform—to raise their level of professionalism.
The whole idea behind this is, why is it that the US Airmen, the US Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen are always first to the fight? Why shouldn’t it be the home team, whatever country that is? They should be the first defense. They should be first in the game. That was the idea, to raise their level of professionalism. As I look back at my tenure as the Pacific Command senior enlisted leader—and as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force—it wasn’t just about the Pacific; we did it in Europe as well. It was about working with our partners.
I think the other piece of this, the missing piece—it always came out in the end but it was never noticed up front—was how much our Airmen grow from being around coalition partners, how much our Airmen grow from being around our joint partners, and they do. You can see a complete difference. Those are the things we have got to continue to do if we are going to be of value to our combatant commanders that fight the wars.
While I was in the position of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, we did focus a lot on the coalition—but also the joint piece. We sent our Airmen back into the US Army Sergeant Major Academy, the senior enlisted course for the Navy, working with the Navy and the Coast Guard. Then, we did some work to actually bring Marines for the first time into the Senior NCO Academy, and we sent our Airmen to their courses as well. That says an awful lot about our Airmen. I think it solidifies this whole idea of a strong Department of Defense, because it’s not about one service. It’s not about what individually you can bring. It’s about collectively as a group, what you bring to the fight. And what that team is able to produce with all of those assets.
Looking back on Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the roles that Airmen played in those operations, in those wars—
Yeah, these are nontraditional roles for Airmen; let’s look back at those. Let’s look back at the roles that our Airmen took on during Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. These are nontraditional Air Force roles and how did our Airmen produce? Tremendously.
On the ground, every time I would show up somewhere, I would have a sergeant major or a commander of some sort—typically a brigade commander—that would always stop me and say, “Chief, how do I get more of them? How do I get more Airmen like the Airmen I have here today?”
I remember we used to spend a lot of time going out to these PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams] outside the wire. I always thought it was valuable, because quite frankly, number one, I needed to understand what it was our Airmen faced, what challenges they faced. If you’re going to provide the training for those Airmen to go into harm’s way—outside the wire every single day—you better understand it fully. If you don’t understand it fully, how can you advocate? How can you champion their training? You simply can’t. So, I always found it very valuable to go out and visit the far reaches of where we had Airmen. We may have had two or three Airmen on a base, on an installation that was primarily Soldiers or Marines, but it made a difference to those Airmen because they understood that somebody was interested.
I remember visiting Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, and we had just visited the hospital there—just tremendous work our medics were doing, just absolutely tremendous. The helicopter was there and I got ready to leave, and they came to me and said, “Chief, you need to hold off for a little bit. Sergeant major is on his way back from the front line and he wants to see you.” I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s great, I’ll hold off for him.” So, I held off. He was the sergeant major responsible for the entire combat operations in the south. When he came to me, he said, “Chief, listen, I want you to know, and I want you to relay to every Airman, how much harder my Marines will fight when they know they have the support of combat medics like we have here in Camp Leatherneck.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” I mean, I just got chills. I tried to share that with every combat medic I knew. And it’s not just the combat medics, it’s every single AFSC [Air Force specialty code], it’s every single Airman we had out in those locations.
By the way, that Marine was a gentleman by the name of Mike Barrett. You may know him as Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, who became the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps while I was the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. So, needless to say, we had a very strong team. It just tells the value that our joint commanders, joint leaders, sergeant majors, and master chief petty officers see in our Airmen. It goes to the heart of who we are. We are American first. We will do whatever America needs of its Department of Defense. Sure, we have Airmen skills, and those Airmen skills will be exposed, but our Airmen—starting with basic training, where the foundation starts—build Airmen skills that lead all the way through to when we’re actually in combat operations.
You mentioned going out and identifying challenges Airmen faced in these outer regions. What did you find to be the challenges Airmen faced out there, or even at home station, or in a typical deployed environment during Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom?
Anytime you go speak with Airmen in these types of locations, there’s going to be some challenges. One of the things I realized when speaking with a lot of Airmen in those deployed locations was, number one, they missed their family. They were out there for what? To defend our nation—defend America’s interest. Whether it be an Airman out in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan working in a PRT, a combat medic down range, or a civil engineer building a new taxiway or ramp, they do it because of the US interest, our national interest. And if you talked to them at any length, you realized it was really about their family. They saw that interest as being their family. That’s really what drove it home; they saw value in it.
Going back to when Ms. Paula and I first joined the Air Force, I told you we didn’t join the Air Force because we had a sense of patriotism. We just had to join the Air Force and serve, but it didn’t take us long to change our mind-set about why we serve—and that continues today. It’s a lifelong commitment; it’s a lifelong obligation. It’s about the national interest, and when you drill into that, it’s about the families.
Now sure, there were other things our Airmen were certainly concerned about. One of the areas I found they were always concerned about was the training and how they were equipped. These are typical things that we do, but we don’t often put a lot of thought to them sometimes. When they were able to take their experience back and interject it into the next Airmen deployment, it made a big difference.
Another thing about the equipment is that we would have deploying Airmen go to an Army location for the training, and the Army would issue them another two or three bags of equipment. They weren’t going back to their home duty station before they deployed; so, they were dragging whatever bags they took, two to three bags themselves, plus the two to three the Army issued them that they couldn’t give back. Then they’d get to Afghanistan and they’d be shoving these bags underneath their bunks. They said, “Chief, I never use this stuff? What do I do with this?”
Lt. Gen. [Loren M.] Reno [USAF] and I were able to team together and really define what it was our Airmen needed to take. We were able to find a way so they didn’t have to carry too much with them, because if you don’t hit the sweet spot, you just bog them down with a lot more equipment. They needed equipment for that particular location, but we didn’t want to bog the system down.
You mentioned the joint operations and the Total Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have obviously played a large role, and have since 9/11. Can you comment on the contribution they played throughout?
Yeah, it’s easy. The only way and reason we can say “mission accomplished” is because of our Total Force. That’s it, plain and simple.
Yeah, it’s easy. The only way and reason we can say “mission accomplished” is because of our Total Force. That’s it, plain and simple.
The other dynamic that our Total Force partners bring is their other careers. They bring in another skill set that a lot of active duty Airmen don’t see. I think we’ve accomplished a lot with our Total Force partners. The idea that we send young enlisted Airmen today, right out of technical school, to a Reserve unit or a Guard unit to be trained by Guardsmen says an awful lot about where we came from. It wasn’t like that when I first joined in 1982.
I was just talking with an Airman the other day, and he was telling me, “Oh yeah, I’ve got an assignment. I am going to go to a Guard base, and I am going to do these things.” He was a maintainer, and he was so excited about that, and I said, “Why are you so excited about it?” He said, “Number one, it’s a brand new experience for me; so, obviously, that’s exciting.” Then I started asking him a few more questions. “Do you realize you’re going to be trained by some of the most skilled technicians in the Air Force? And you’re going to learn a lot more than just your primary AFSC. You’re going to learn an awful lot more about the Air Force and what else we do.” It was different when I first came in. You didn’t see the blending that we have today. It just wasn’t like that, and quite honestly, it was somewhat polarizing.
When I speak over here [Charleston] at the ALS [Airman Leadership School], I always ask them, “Okay, so who’s in the class?” They always tell me, “I have two Reservists in here. I have 20 active duty.” I always ask, “What about joint partners?” “Well, we don’t have any of those Chief; we’re working on that.” But you really can’t tell. You get up and you talk to the class, you take questions from the class, and you can’t tell. They’re such professionals, and they bring so much to the fight. I know our current leadership wouldn’t even think of going into combat without our Total Force partners.
I would also add, we often talk about Total Force being our active duty, Reserve, and Guard. It’s larger than that. What about our Department of Air Force civilians? Quite honestly, a lot of my training at the first duty station came from the civilian workforce. A gentleman by the name of Jack Hood taught me how to operate a TD25 dozer. I had no idea, but Jack knew the dozer. He taught me everything. He taught me how to respect the dozer. I will tell you, going and taking that experience that Jack taught me about operating a dozer led to me being a much more valuable member on a rapid runway repair [RRR] team, as we prepared and continued to stay ready in Korea. I can attribute that back to our civilian workforce. Early exposure led me to a deeper appreciation for my idea of Total Force, that being active duty, Guard, Reserve, and our Department of the Air Force civilians.
In 2009 you became the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. For you it was a little different as you were a combatant command senior enlisted leader at the time. Can you describe the experience and why it was a bit different?
Yeah, the experience of being selected as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is one of both excitement and a bit of anxiety. What have I gotten myself into? Am I ready? Am I prepared for this? And also, I’m ready to get it started. I applaud Gen. Schwartz and how he went about this. Not because he selected me, but because he opened the slate up to our joint team, our Air Force senior enlisted leaders that were in those joint billets. To my knowledge, that hasn’t been done before. There were a couple of us from the joint community, and the Chief of Staff saw value in that and was able to bring that talent back to the Pentagon.
Then to be selected, coming from a joint position. In fact, I remember the day I was appointed. The outgoing commander, typically the MAJCOM [major command] commander, is there with the Chief of Staff, and the MAJCOM commander would take the old hat, and then the Chief of Staff would put on the jacket with the new stripes. It’s somewhat tradition. If you look at the pictures of the appointment of the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, what you’ll see in that picture is a four star with whites on. It seems a little different because it’s never been done before. General Schwartz being a joint war fighter himself, coming out of US Transportation Command, certainly understood the value of jointness. The idea that Admiral Keating would be asked to be a part of the ceremony appointing the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, I think is outstanding.
Gen. Schwartz being the absolute professional he is, I remember him telling Admiral Keating, “No, you put that jacket on.” That to me says an awful lot about where we are as a joint force, that we can have a very senior Airman in our US Air Force working in a joint community, and bring them back to be the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. It says an awful lot about us as a profession.
From the time you became the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, you led us through the last stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2011 we pulled out of Iraq, what do you remember about the last stages of that war? Was that a difficult transition?
It was. It was very difficult. Just like any separation, leaving a mission — It was. It was very difficult. Just like any separation, leaving a mission, you ask yourself, “Did I do everything I could have done? Are the partners that we’re leaving there fully capable? Are they capable of defending themselves, defending their nation?” We obviously provided them the adequate equipment. We certainly provided them with the knowledge, the skill, the education, and the experience working side by side with US Air Force Airmen, but there is always this question of, “Okay, but...did we do enough?” It’s always kind of a nagging thing because you could have always done a little more. But when we left, personally, I think we left a very capable force—educated, certainly equipped, and with adequate experience.
What happened after that, it will always be a nagging thing to us, because we obviously know what happened. For US Airmen, it’s something that will always be in the back of our mind. The fact that the US Air Force, US Airmen had been at war since the first Gulf War, we never went home per se. The US Air Force, as an institution, never went back to garrison. We had always been at war; so, I think that was the other thing. There’s a little bit of, “Wow, okay, time to relax a little bit.”
There is also a little angst with that. Our deployment rate, as high as it was, and as rapid as our dwell rate was sometimes—we had Airmen deploying back to back. We had Airmen with extended deployments. We had them on year-long deployments. My fear was that we’d bring them back to garrison and, quite honestly, they were going to get a little disinterested in a mission sense. The mission wasn’t going to be challenging enough for them because of what they had seen. Now, granted, that was 2011. I look back at it now and there have been other things that have drawn our attention and kept us involved.
For us, as the United States, and US Airmen specifically, you can say you did your absolute best. There is no doubt that our Iraqi counterparts have the utmost respect for US Airmen. You did your absolute best, and that’s all we can ask of you.
TYou mentioned the constant deployments and the fact that we have been in that region for more than 25 years. One of the other consequences of that is just the resiliency of the force. You tackled a lot of that when you saw the introduction of Comprehensive Airman Fitness. Why was it so important to put a lot of effort toward that?
Comprehensive Airman Fitness, we borrowed that. It was actually Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. We borrowed it from the U.S. Army. If you see something that works very well, why reinvent it? We’re a joint team; so, why not try to use and take what our joint partners are using? Although they had different pillars, the four pillars we placed were what our Airmen needed.
It goes a little bit further than just the Airmen. It was also the families. Because of the dwell rates the way they were, the length of deployments, the speed turning of deployments, and the different types of locations our Airmen were deploying to, I thought it was important—as did Gen. Schwartz—that we help our Airmen through predeployment, deployment, and postdeployment. Everybody wanted to look at resiliency as a postdeployment thing; it was an action that happened after you were back.
For us, the A1 Gen. [Richard Y.] Newton, and then later Gen.[Darrell D.] Jones, and the A4/7 Gen. Reno, we were able to put this together in a way that I think really helped our Airmen. Not just after deployment, but from predeployment and then throughout. That was the idea behind Comprehensive Airman Fitness. That was the idea behind resiliency. I think that team—the Air Staff team—our idea was what’s best for our Airmen? We need them. We have a need for their services, whether that be a year from now or on a constant churn. We have a need for their services. How best do we help them go through that situation? How best do we help their families work through those situations? I think we found something in the Comprehensive Airman Fitness.
The other part that was a little bit alarming—and we had to do a little bit of policing up with this—was the whole idea of well, you’re an Airman and you deployed, but certainly you didn’t see those things you’re telling me, because you’re an Airman and you were behind the wire. Well, that’s not true. If you look at our force that we had deployed, and continued to deploy, it’s not just those Airmen behind the wire; it’s the Airmen that go outside the wire every single day. It’s the truck driver on a convoy. It’s the PRT, it’s the combat medics, and it’s our EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] members. It’s our civil engineers that are out there in the middle of a bare base building something up. It’s our defenders that are out there on the perimeter beyond the wire of the installation.
We had a very difficult time helping others understand that for our Airmen, if they tell you they’ve seen something, they’ve seen it. They have seen the destruction of war. They have seen the difficulty of war. They have seen that, and it was a little bit challenging to get some to understand. If an Airman is telling you what they saw while they were deployed, they saw it. They saw the death and destruction, and if they tell you they need help, they need help. So for us, providing them that sense of resiliency before they deployed, and certainly on that other end postdeployment, we saw much better-equipped Airmen—and for that matter, their families.
One of the areas that Ms. Paula was able to champion was this idea of key spouses. Why do we have key spouses? The idea behind key spouses was so our families, when deployment hits or TDY hits, or maybe they just need somebody to talk to, there is somebody in that organization they can talk to or at least go to for assistance. I have to applaud Ms. Paula for, in my opinion, institutionalizing the whole idea of key spouses.
Where do we get that from? Well, there’s this thing called the ombudsman program in the Navy. Why reinvent the wheel? Something that’s worked throughout history, why reinvent it? Obviously, it looks different. It operates a little bit differently; it operates as Airmen and their families need it. The key spouse program, to me, is so critical to the success of our mission, the success of our Airmen. I just can’t see us doing this without our key spouses. Whether that’s a young technical sergeant spouse that has a lot of energy and wants to do this, or the commander’s spouse, the chief’s spouse, the first sergeant’s spouse, it really doesn’t matter—somebody that can help our families deal with those situations as they come along and help them feel a part of the team.
Ms. Paula always talks about how it wasn’t until certain points in our career where she really felt she was attached to the mission. We have been in some units where you didn’t always feel a part of that, at least the family didn’t. But we’ve been in others where we still stay in touch with the squadron commander because they made us feel a part of that team. To me that is, and I hate to use the word key, but that’s the key to success. So Comprehensive Airman Fitness, resiliency, key spouses, they all go hand in hand. That is something we absolutely needed to do, something we absolutely need to carry on.
When you think about these programs, they arguably shifted our focus to where it needed to be. When you look at Airmen now, after these programs have been in place for a few years, what do you see as the difference when it comes to resilience?
I look at Comprehensive Airman Fitness, key spouses, and resiliency—I look at it as a whole. It’s the idea that an Airman not just tolerates the situation but actually grows out of the situation. That’s something we always talk about as Airmen. Use your experience to help you grow and help other Airmen grow.
And I refuse to call it a program, because none of them are ever a program. It was really an institution; it was really an idea, a concept of being able to have Airmen, that when faced with adversity, can work through it, but just as important can grow through it and then teach others as well.
One of your other focus areas was deliberate development, and I know you touched on this a little bit; but, a big aspect of that was putting the right Airman in the right place at the right time. We heard that a lot, and enlisted development teams are a good example. Can you describe why that happened and why we needed that?
I think the reason we needed that focus at that particular time is because, if you look at the force today, we are continually going down in size. I always tell Airmen we are half the size we were when I first joined the Air Force, and it continues to go down. Our Airmen have to be knowledgeable. They have to have that education, experience, and exposure much broader than I had when I first came in the Air Force. So, for me, to focus on this whole idea of deliberate development, of making sure you have the right Airman at the right place at the right time, both for the institution and for their continued development, was so important.
This isn’t just a novel idea. It wasn’t something that was just my brain child. It was something our other formers [former CMSAFs] helped me with. They molded me with the understanding that we needed to get to this location. We always had a goal, but how do you get there? The concept of deliberate development was put into place well before my time as the 16th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, but I was able to carry it out.
I was able to publicize it in a way that we did and start the enlisted force development panels. We were able to institutionalize having an enlisted member in legislative affairs and in international affairs. Not just assigned there but to be an actual action officer, to go through the training, to go sit in one of the senators or congresswomen or congressmen’s office, be a valuable member to them, and then bring that back to this institution called the United States Air Force. That makes us better. That makes us better every single day.
As we continue to bring the force down, the idea of being multitasked, multiskilled, for me at least—and I think most agree with this—it lends itself to be much more professional, much more ready for whatever the combatant commander needs on the ground. So, it’s only going to make us better. It has made us better, and it will continue to make us better into the future.
One of the phrases that we all heard when you were in the position was PME Next. When you were establishing that, moving us in that direction, what did you see as the vision of PME in the future?
PME Next, let’s put it in context. Myself coming up with an idea just didn’t happen. These things had to be modeled, had to be tried. At that particular time, I had this gentleman at AETC [Air Education and Training Command] by the name of Jim Cody who was helping me model this idea of PME Next. The whole idea was that we need to make sure Airmen are getting the right PME at the right time.
I can tell you story after story of Airmen, I say Airmen in general terms, but say a master sergeant that goes to the Senior NCO Academy and retires in a year or retires in six months. What value does that have to the organization? PME Next, the idea was to provide the right training at the right time for the right person. That was the genesis of this.
And let’s put it in context. We had this little thing called sequestration that was starting, and it was budget cuts. We had this model on the shelf. Chief Cody and his team, along with us, had this on the shelf. We needed a nudge to get us there. For me, maybe a little nudge like, “Hey, I need some money from you.” You’re not going to have the exact money pool you had for PME, regardless of what it is.
It’s a concept I believe in. It’s a concept we had developed, and we needed a means to help us get it launched. Unfortunately, when you look at these kind of things, all too often people think, “Well I need some type of positive push in order to get this thing launched.” And for us, some would say we just did it because of the budget cuts. Well, we had it; we just needed something to get it launched. It just happened to come at the same time we were going through a budget situation, and we were going to have to cut some of the PME. It gave us that way ahead to provide the all-important enlisted PME to the right Airmen at the right time at the right place.
And the education is better.
Oh, absolutely. Again, PME Next, by doing that, we have increased the caliber of—certainly the caliber of Airmen—but we’ve increased the caliber of curriculum two- or threefold.
It’s much tougher now, they say.
Well that’s good. It makes you better. It makes you a better Airman. I hear the same thing. PME Next is tough. A lot of people thought it was just going to be a throwaway course that you can just do online and be done with it. It is an online course, that was the idea behind it, but it’s pretty tough. It’s challenging and that’s what we want. We want challenging, because if we train and educate the way we fight, we’re going to be much better warriors, much better Airmen.
Absolutely. I have one final question for you Chief, one we’ve asked all the chiefs. When you look at the Airmen serving today in 2016, and you had to start a sentence with “I believe,” what would you say?
I believe we have the absolute best-trained, best-equipped, best-led, all-volunteer, professional, combat-hardened Airmen we have ever had.
I absolutely sleep safe and sound knowing that our Airmen are on sentry. If we look at the legacy of all those that have gone before us, we have built it up to the point where the next generation is going to be even better. Not that I made it better, but I will tell you the next generation is absolutely better. I couldn’t be prouder than I am of the Airmen who serve today and the Airmen who will serve in the future.