We're not the same Air Force anymore

  • Published
  • By Capt. Samuel McClellan
  • 39th ABW

As a chaplain, I have had the tremendous privilege of providing invocations for our Airmen who have crossed the momentous finish line of retirement. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard a couple of them say, “You know, chaplain, it’s not the same Air Force anymore.” I hear what they’re saying, but I wonder what is underneath the statement.

My intuition feels the negativity of this declaration. I am going to modify the sentence, in order to re-frame the mindset: though change is hard, the only way to make progress is to adapt. From the platforms that apply deadly force, our diversity, and finally, to how we are taking care of the people who carry out these missions, I’m grateful we’re “not the same Air Force anymore.”

To give context, my Air Force experience began in 1993, after I entered Basic Military Training.

During this time, all I knew about the Air Force was that we were an aircraft focused military branch, zeroing into air superiority and global domination from the sky. I was an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief for slightly over 10 years, and the focal point for everything was having the pilots in the air. It wasn’t until I became a chaplain and saw outside of my fighter wing stovepipe that my aperture widened.

During my time in seminary, all I thought about was my dream of being a chaplain who brought refreshments and encouragement to the far reaches of the flightline until my retirement; I hoped to provide ministry to maintainers and pilots. However, God had different plans lined up for me.

Since becoming a chaplain in 2010, I have been everything but a flightline chaplain. I spent three years at a training wing, four years in Air Force Global Strike Command, two years in Air Force Space Command and now I’m at the 39th Air Base Wing in Turkey.

My understanding of the Air Force broadened during my first assignment as a chaplain where I was a part of the Intel student population. From there, I traveled the 9,600 square miles of missile field, and following this, experienced the grand capabilities of our space based infrared systems way up on the “high frontier.”

To call us merely an Air Force, limits the perspective that our strength is restricted to our atmosphere. We are an Air, Space, and Cyberspace Force. One of my favorite parts about being a chaplain is seeing how mission, medical, and operational support are all tied “into the machine” to make each wing more powerful, thus tying every part into the greater Air Force and making it even more combat-ready. Our largest concerns are no longer how we win a dogfight in the air, but how do we maintain superiority hundreds of thousands of miles from the face of the earth?

With aircraft no longer piloted by an aviator strapped to fixed wings, wars being fought through the digital realm, and now having recently stood up the United States Space Command, we are somehow able to maintain our end-strength in multi-domain command and control. How are we leading the way with less Airmen than before?

When I joined in 1993, our Regular Air Force was downsizing, but then we were approximately 440,000 Active Duty Air Force Members strong. In 2004 we took another cut in the force, which was actually a God-given opportunity for me to voluntarily separate under the Palace Chase program and begin my seminary education. In 2011 the Air Force started a “reduction in force” of even more of our warfighters. Now we sit at approximately 328,000. With budget constraints at every corner, how do we continue to remain lethal while staying true to our claim that we are the world’s greatest Air Force?

How? One word. Diversity. Diversity is our strength. Twenty-six years ago, our demographics were completely unlike today. As we approach the end of 2019, our diversity has propelled us to rely upon the strengths of different perspectives.

In 1993, there were approximately 440,000 people in the Air Force. During that time 85% were men, 15% were women, 15% were black, 3.5% were Hispanic and 4% were Asian.

Today out of the approximate 328,000, 78% are men, 22% are women, 35% are black, 16% Hispanic and 4% Asian. These numbers displays a wider array diversity than 26 years ago. We must draw from our diversity to define the new Air Force, which will empower us to face twenty first century challenges.

Along with broadening our Air Force’s diversity, our force has been reshaping how we look out for each other.

When I was an up and coming crew chief, we didn’t have a creed that proclaimed to “never leave an Airman behind.” The term wingman started to become a part of our vocabulary as significant suicide awareness programs developed. From a helping agency and community action team perspective, we are also on the forefront of education and outreach to help prevent self-harm and isolation that is so pervasive in our community.

We will never completely get rid of the stigma, but the stigma attached to Mental Health and “seeing the chaplain” is not nearly as powerful as it used to be. Leadership at all levels now highly encourage their people to go and visit a helping agency, and are willing to share their own story with the risk of appearing vulnerable. Chaplains and medical agencies are embedding operational support teams into their units to be more effective in their engagement with those who are suffering in silence.

I am grateful we’re “not the same Air Force anymore.” In an even more contested and complex globe, we could not be lethal if we weren’t more innovative, efficient and streamlined. We have broadened our fighting capabilities beyond the crew station of an aircraft. Educational opportunities through college and professional development are offered to our enlisted force more than in years previous.

Wingmanship and the encouragement to care for our mental and spiritual domains has been uplifted by our senior leadership. Commands at every level reflect the rich diversity of the members who serve in it, and I have seen this firsthand in my last two assignments. How did we get to this kind of progress in our Air Force Culture? By being “not the same Air Force anymore.”