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After nearly 32 years, it is time to say goodbye to the Air Force that I love

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Harold "Layton" Clark
  • 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Command Chief Master Sergeant
Time has flown by! After raising my hand to my first enlistment as an Ohio Air National Guardsman on March 27, 1980, and then returning to full active-duty on Nov. 1, 1982, spending almost 32 years of training, deploying, and working in the team colors of the United States Air Force, I find myself faced with retirement and some sense of joy at the prospect of not having to get up so early to go "PT" before going into work each morning. Although I have enjoyed everywhere the Air Force has led me to serve, I am also happy that I will be able to wake up in the morning and hear nothing but the sound of my feet hitting the floor and the smell of fresh brewed coffee in the morning at our house in Virginia.

Still, I can't help but feel a sense of trepidation at the prospect of leaving what I have known for so long, the long time friends I have made and the people who are what I consider to be the core of our country's current and future leadership capacity. Airmen are the muscle ensuring blessings of liberty, and the ultimate freedom from fear and terror to our citizens. A friend once told me, "you are going to hate leaving because you are institutionalized by the Air Force." Well, I can't think of a nicer compliment and I know I am leaving the institution of warriors in the hands of the great people who have made it what it is ... the most capable and feared Air Force the world has ever known.

So, what can I share? Well, I am going to leave you with five over-arching and inclusive points that I hope you will find useful:

First, I often hear leaders saying that Airmen today are different - they aren't like we were. Well, they are right because the Airmen of today are better skilled, more educated, committed to service and capable of so much more than we were. All they seek is to know that their work and effort has meaning to the objectives that once known and bought into - they have demonstrated (at least to me) the persistence of a bulldog. It becomes essential that all leaders at all levels connect the Airman to the mission - ALL Airmen. Every Airman contributes to ultimately putting warheads on foreheads when the time comes.

Second, every leader should have a philosophy. My primary one was to lead by example - not by exception. Do not ask your warriors to do things you can't do. Let's take physical fitness for example, if you want your warriors to be fit - then be fit yourself. Workout with your subordinates and strive for excellence. Another philosophy is that leaders should be visible both when things are going good and when things are not going so good. Visibility demonstrates caring and approachability. The presence of the leader on the shop floor, on the ramp during pre-dawn first-go, or on post checks at 2 o'clock in the morning cannot be overstated in importance.

Third, we live in a digital world where our life gets sucked away easily by hours behind a computer desk answering e-mails or sitting in an endless parade of meetings. This causes Airmen of today to be overwhelmed by e-mail and digital input as well. They don't always pay attention or pick out on their own what is important. They want leaders who will engage them and stand in front of them with some credibility and deliver the mission, priorities, and objectives of the organization. But one caution - leaders must be analog AND digital. We have several avenues of communication for guiding, influencing, mentoring, directing, and interceding with social media and other digital outlets Bottom-line being a "friend" or "poking" someone on Facebook is different in the mind and language of the Airman these days. If you aren't there - remember, THEY ARE. Leaders have got to mentor and be engaged in all mediums to keep the force healthy.

Fourth, never assume that in order for something to be critical to the mission that it has to be connected to the weapon station of an aircraft. Things such as fixing facility issues in the latrines of an Aircraft Maintenance Unit, replacing the peeling walls, windows, and floors of a Munitions Maintenance Facility, painting dormitory exteriors, expanding and updating kennels, and remediating mold and renovating an Airman Leadership School will go a long way with your Airmen. I believe efforts such as these let Airmen know that we care about the conditions they live and work in, even when money is tight - we need to continually push to get these on the Projects Listings and the "spend" plans.

Fifth, the only way to avert high suicide rates or destructive behavior, and identify and respond to Airmen in crisis is to be good wingmen and instill a culture of Comprehensive Airman Fitness (CAF). Ensuring the physical, social, professional, spiritual, and mental preparedness and readiness of each Airman and family member is essential BEFORE a tough situation or event comes up. The installation of Master Resiliency Trainers and Resiliency Training Assistants at our bases is part of this culture. In the end, the training should be provided to all Airmen, AF Civilians and our family members. This is to be supported by leaders and wingmen who are able to Prepare (get to know their people), Recognize (when a team member is dealing with relationship, legal, financial, or professional problems), Engage (intervene and ask tough questions), Send (to appropriate agencies and involve command if you believe they are going to hurt themselves), and Sustain (Follow-up until problem is resolved). PRESS is the framework for helping Airmen in Crisis - CAF seeks to prevent the crisis. The culture will be complete when it's embraced by all and when seeking help is seen as a sign of strength and that anyone on our team or in our family will feel like they can get help (not judgment) if they seek it from someone wearing the Air Force team colors. In my opinion, using suicide rates as a gauge is using a lagging indicator. The team radar should be on and alert for leading indicators such as the Central Registry Board complaints, the Chaplain's rate of counseling requests, substance abuse, driving under the influence, or underage drinking rates going up or trending high locally.

In closing, there is no way to describe our warriors and our Air Force today without saying they are the GREATEST and MOST feared Air Force that the world has ever known. We got this way through the efforts of people - not by relying on machines and weapon systems. I'm so very proud of our men and women in uniform, and I know that I will leave the Air Force in the capable hands of the greatest people I have and will ever come to know.

Take care of each other.

Chief C.
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