Is the quality of our Airmen declining?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Giovanni Catanese
  • 366th Logistics Readiness Squadron
I've heard in recent years, and still do hear occasionally, from people not familiar with our Air Force or, "old timers," that the quality of our Airmen is not what it used to be. They say, "too many Airmen go bad."

I can clearly say these people are profoundly wrong.

Yes, in my almost 28 years of service I've seen many changes. The only constant thing is the remarkable commitment and dedication of our Airmen, who, in spite of changes and ongoing war operations, continue to keep the mission going.

The Airmen coming in the service today, even in the past several years, are the best our society could produce. They're more educated, smarter and more aware of what's going on in the world, thanks to the Internet and other media. After 9/11, they're more patriotic and willing to take a stand to protect our way of life.

Some come in for the education benefits, travel and job security the Air Force offers; others to become part of a great institution and to serve their country. While it's true a very small percentage of our Airmen go "bad," in many cases, we leaders are culpable because we fail to continue the "blueing" process started in basic training.

A few months ago, I attended a supply chiefs conference at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Chief Master Sgt. Steve Sargent, the Basic Military Training School superintendent, briefed us on what's new at basic training and spoke of the ongoing initiatives to produce the high quality Airmen our country needs. He also took us around the same barracks and drilling pads I used to march on so many years ago.

In spite of the very outdated facilities, the level of instruction and commitment in preparing the young recruits is absolutely extraordinary. I saw the same pride, dedication, and esprit de corps my Flight 25 exhibited back in '79.

Of course I went through memory lanes, and it seemed like yesterday when we were standing in line and at the dining hall waiting to eat as fast as possible and then back to the drill pad. The training and the curricula new troops go through now is way more extensive and harder than when I was in basic. These recruits know full well they could be deployed as early as upon completion of tech school. Earning their Airman's Coin is a very emotional and lasting milestone; a thing we old timers did not experience.

Airmen, both enlisted and officers, have performed brilliantly since 9/11, and it's not a fluke our Air Force is the best in the world. It's not so much for the "fancy" hardware we possess, but for the quality of our people.

It's well known other countries envy our people's professionalism and technical expertise, notably in the enlisted ranks. I personally witnessed this during my 25-year overseas stint. The former Warsaw Pact military envied our superb NCO corps - the backbone of our military - and our Airmen have had a profound impact on our military's successes since Operation Desert Storm.

I saw this first-hand again when I was at Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, where I worked with military personnel from 19 North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries in support of the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System mission. NATO militaries had, and still have, a great deal of respect for our Airmen's capabilities, professionalism and level of responsibility. Most of NATO NCOs, senior NCOs and officers were performing jobs our enlisted Airmen did.

It was almost funny to see Senior NCOs from Turkey, Greece and Portugal guarding the base gates - a task our airmen 1st class or senior airmen performed. Where on Earth do you have a military that gives a two to three striper awesome responsibility such as gun truck commander or convoy commander, among others? Also for several years senior NCOs and lieutenants have been doing jobs formerly performed by field grade officers. These examples truly reflect the quality of our Airmen's professional competence.

So what must we do to retain the high-quality Airmen we now possess and acquire those for the future? Here are the suggestions:

- First, promote a positive Air Force image to our society, which will lead to recruiting the very best. Start Airmen right by assigning or being a great sponsor when newcomers are forecasted to your unit. Meet them at the airport in uniform to acknowledge their professional status (casual clothing may negate a positive first impression). Brag about the unit's achievements. Help them get settled into the new environment. Most importantly, display genuine enthusiasm and pride - your behavior will become contagious.

- Set your Airmen up for success; ensure they understand their role in the unit and how they fit into the unit's mission from the start. Be visible and afford them the opportunity to come to you if they have problems. Surround them with energetic, enthusiastic peers and superiors alike. Continue to lead by example and live up to the roles and responsibilities of our grades.

- Also, help them understand that we are Airmen 24/7/365, and that means 100 percent compliance with standards at all times. We must not dishonor those who came before us by our improper conduct. Rather, we must keep alive a long tradition of excellence.

- Finally, continually and systematically nurture them, providing the right tools, training, and moral support necessary to keep our Air Force the most powerful in the world long after we're gone.

The quality of our Airmen depends proportionally on the effort we put forth in doing what's right. Are you up to the challenge?