Building a Stronger Air Force Community
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley
Remarks to Air Force Sergeants Association, Atlanta, Aug. 18, 2010
I'm much honored to be here this evening and grateful for the work the Air Force Sergeants Association does for our enlisted force and their families, and for the supreme service our Airmen give to our great nation--some of the very best of whom we honor tonight. I'm confident that the award recipients would agree that the competition for these honors is indeed stiff, and that we should be extremely proud of and grateful for the tremendous contributions that all of our Airmen are making around the world this night.
As Secretary of the Air Force, I have the distinct privilege of attending events like this one. What makes my job most enjoyable is the opportunity to meet and thank the truly remarkable men and women of our Air Force who distinguish themselves through selfless service, extraordinary performance, and exceptional leadership--like those here this evening.
Beyond tonight's award recipients, a few others in the audience come to mind. I would like to recognize seven Airmen who epitomize courageous leadership in our enlisted corps, and are with us tonight: Six former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force:
Chief Robert Gaylor and his wife Selma
Chief James McCoy and his wife Kathy
Chief Sam Parish and his wife Inga
Chief James Binnicker and his wife Jan
Chief Eric Benken and his wife Johnne
Chief Gerald Murray and his wife Sherri
And last, but certainly not least, our current Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Jim Roy and his wife, Paula. Chief and Paula, you follow in the shadow of some real giants, but then you are giants yourself--thank you for your leadership. We thank you all for your commitment to our Airmen and their families. Your patriotism and lasting commitment to the Air Force mission is as legendary as the Air Force's commitment to caring for our Airmen.
Last year at this venue, we announced July 2009 to July 2010 as the "Year of the Air Force Family," as our plan to focus an even greater level of attention on our Airmen and their families. During these 12 months, we focused our attention on Air Force families to address their hardships and needs to determine what we could do to make Air Force life more compatible with family life, and how we could build a greater sense of community across our force. Before getting into the results of last year's work, however, I thought I might first summarize the ongoing work to address our other priorities.
Prevailing in the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has remained job one alongside our Joint and Coalition partners. This past year has seen a transition from operations in Iraq, to surge operations in Afghanistan. At the end of 2009 we had 9,800 Airmen in Iraq and 7,600 in Afghanistan. Today, Iraq is already down to 7,300 Airmen and dropping while nearly 10,000 Airmen are on the ground in Afghanistan.
Over the past two decades, our Air Force has been continuously deployed and engaged in overseas contingency operations. As we gather today, nearly 40,000 of our Airmen are deployed in 135 countries around the world. And, given our continuing global commitments, we expect this trend to continue. Also, many more--approximately 130,000 Airmen--are engaged in support to the Combatant Commanders from home on any given day, and this too comes with unique challenges for our Airmen.
Simply put, we are an expeditionary Air Force and deployments are now part of our culture. While we have made great progress in enhancing our support to families for this expeditionary paradigm, we must continue to refine our efforts and continue to recognize that an Airman's deployment is really a family's deployment. So, whether we're discussing air, space or cyber operations, our Airmen are engaged in today's conflicts. And as an Air Force with global reach and power, our Airmen are also engaged in shaping the perspectives of others and preventing conflicts through deterrence.
A top priority for the Air Force in the past year has been to continue to strengthen the nuclear enterprise. In addition to our programs to sustain and modernize our existing ICBM and bomber fleets, we've created Air Force Global Strike Command and added more rigor to the nuclear inspection process to provide more focused oversight, and have made important progress in strengthening the culture of rigor and discipline appropriate to this tremendous responsibility. General Schwartz and I presented a two-year nuclear update to Secretary Gates last month and I'm pleased to report that it was very-well received.
And, of course while prevailing in today's fight and preventing conflict where able, we continue to prepare for tomorrow's fight in the event that deterrence should fail. We are organizing, training, equipping and posturing our Air Force for success across the full spectrum of conflict as a hedge against uncertainty; and strategic balance is a strong theme. We are investing in enabling capabilities on which the entire Joint force depends at any level of conflict, capabilities like C4, mobility and air refueling, and ISR, to name a few. Balance also reflects the need for a broad range of capabilities.
For example, while we are currently reinforcing our counter-insurgency capabilities, we're also building the Joint Strike Fighter. While working on command and control for missile defense, we're pursuing the Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance and Light Air Support aircraft to more effectively train nascent Air Forces.
While planning for the recapitalization of the tanker fleet, we're strengthening space situational awareness and cyber defense. And, while building up language and cultural competency, we continue to advance research on directed energy weapons and other future capabilities.
This balanced approach provides a path for modernization in each of our Air Force core functions; it ensures our Air Force will have the capabilities we need to address potential threats across the spectrum of conflict; and will enable Joint and coalition forces to rapidly collect, communicate, and move information whether in support of humanitarian relief or strike operations. This approach supports truly global capabilities, and serves as a hedge against uncertainty--but our truest hedge and asset remains our Airmen.
Developing and caring for Airmen and their families remains a high priority for our Air Force, and now more than ever perhaps we need to keep our eyes on the target. Beyond the strains of deployments, military children and spouses face challenges that few civilian counterparts will ever know or experience. Our school-age children move an average of six to nine times before their high school graduation. Due to these same moves, our spouses often have difficulty in realizing their own career aspirations, so although over 50 percent already work outside the home, another 27 percent would like to find meaningful employment.
Yet, while Air Force families face several hardships, we must also remember that over 40 percent of our force is single and face their own special challenges. Many are still teenagers, with close ties to hometown friends and worried parents. And when these Airmen deploy, they often have no one at home to help manage their personal affairs. Clearly, it was time to reinvigorate our efforts to care for our Airmen--and, their families.
Therefore, a year ago at this very forum--which I consider particularly appropriate--General Schwartz, Chief Roy and I kicked off the Year of the Air Force Family.
The purpose of Year of the Air Force Family was to examine our services to Airmen and their families to look for ways to evolve and expand them to meet their changing needs and expectations. We were fortunate to have a comprehensive Quality of Life survey from the prior year, and a very useful Caring for People Forum of helping professionals which served as powerful starting points to expand our efforts for the year. From the 2008 survey, four broad categories of services important to our Airmen and their families emerged and served as the pillars for this year's effort:
· Health and Wellness
· Airman and Family Support
· Education and Development
· And finally, Housing and Communities. We took a look at family housing, to include privatized housing, dorms for our single airmen, and dining facilities.
With these broad areas of examination before us, the Year of the Air Force Family included several avenues of approach to gain a better understanding where gaps in service might be, and begin to narrow those gaps:
· First, members of the Headquarters, Air Force staff kicked off the year with 23 initial base visits to discuss up front with base populations what the focus of the year would be and to get some upfront feedback as well.
· Next, we commissioned a RAND Study focused on issues of concern to military spouses and many Air Force Families, particularly with our expeditionary lifestyle. Child care, spouse education and employment topped the list.
· As already mentioned, the Caring for People Forum existed prior to the Year of the Air Force Family. But given the new focus, we ramped up to 250 helping professionals to support this work. The forum convened in 2009 and 2010 and provided teams to conduct Focus Groups at the local level.
· Sixty-two focus groups were held on bases to concentrate on issues such as child care, housing, health care, fitness centers, dining facilities and service availability.
· Last, but certainly not least, we formed the first-ever Single Airman Working Group to focus on the needs of single Airmen.
These efforts resulted in qualitative data that when accompanied by the 2008 survey paint a valid picture of where need lies, and informed our next steps. The bottom line is that there are many, many programs and initiatives under way to improve life for our families both institutionally and locally, but this evening I'd like to offer to you some of the major findings and our response in each category.
In the Health and Wellness category, health care access and quality was a concern for families--specifically, difficulty getting appointments, in some areas limited access to medical care and access to medical records needed improvement. There is a Family Health Initiative to address this gap, already implemented in 33 treatment facilities in this calendar year, and building up through the final 42 facilities planned by March of 2012. There are similar initiatives to address a gap in Airmen resiliency, for which we have built a Deployment Transition Center at Ramstein for returning Airmen, and we'll spend over $2 million the next fiscal year in programs, like marriage care retreats and enhanced social connections, which provide balance and support for our families.
Closely related, initiatives to support families of deployed personnel continue to emphasize youth sports and child care at a reduced cost basis or free of charge. Finally, improved fitness centers and better operating hours are important to our Air Force families. We're spending over $140 million over the next couple of years to improve both facilities and equipment. Operating hours of fitness centers is an example of an issue that's location specific, and is the local commander's responsibility to address.
Under the Airmen and Family Support pillar of emphasis, child care is one of the greatest concerns of our families--needing longer hours and additional support. We've already expanded child care through several programs, like the Extended Duty Program and Home Community Care. Additionally, we continue to reduce our child care space deficit through new construction and estimate elimination by the end of fiscal year 2012. We're also looking for ways to address concerns regarding hours of operation with base-wide services and improving communications through social media.
Additionally, we're ensuring adequate care to over 16,000 Airmen with special need family members. The Exceptional Family Member Program ensures Airmen and their family members receive timely, accurate information, streamlined assignment coordination, adequate care and respite services within newly-established AF-wide standards. We've also appointed a single point of contact for Exceptional Family Member Program issues and standardized the Key Spouse program at each base. Next quarter we'll begin to evaluate how we can assist with our Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard families as well. Last, the Single Airmen Working Group has identified three overarching gaps to work on: communications and technology, social and recreational opportunities, and single Airmen development--with considerable funding programmed for the next two fiscal years.
Within the third pillar, Education and Development, school transition for military children, and communication with schools more generally, was considered an area needing improvement. The Air Force continues to support an Interstate Compact, which 35 states have currently joined, to ease the transition for military kids who have to move and we are encouraged by the progress here. Also, however, to improve transitional support and communications, we are planning to nearly triple the number of Liaison Officers in the next two years to advocate for our transitioning Air Force children.
Spouse employment and education were also noted by families in this category. Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA, is a DoD program which offers financial benefits for education to some spouses, and as many of you are aware this program will resume in October of this year, and the Caring for People Forum has a focus group exploring ways to better promote employment assistance programs.
The final pillar of emphasis for the Year of the Air Force Family was Housing and Communities. The top three concerns in this category were single family housing, condition of dormitories, and Airmen's dining facilities. Families have consistently identified the need for more safe, contemporary, affordable housing. We will have built or renovated 23,000 privatized homes by the end of this fiscal year. One of the biggest complaints has been that routine and emergency service call response times were inadequate, and we are working hard to reduce the response times and monitor satisfaction on a continual basis. Similarly, there are many dorms worthy of update...we have programmed over $250 million dollars over the next two years toward improvements, and importantly have in place a Dorm Master Plan, which is now continuously updated. For our single Airmen, right behind housing is food. Airmen have expressed the need to improve dining facilities. As a result, we implemented a Food Transformation Initiative focused on Airmen's needs, lifestyle, and preferences. Also, four AFMC dining facilities that were scheduled for closure will now remain open based on feedback of Airmen.
The bottom line is that we need to provide for the physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual well-being of our Airmen and their families, and addressing all of these concerns is to those ends--and, since our Airmen are the means of mission accomplishment, each initiative has real impact on the mission. And, of course, the needs of Airmen and their families, however changing they may be, are enduring and we must continue to understand their needs and respond.
The Community Action Information Board, or the CAIB, is now chaired by the Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force. This oversight is key to institutionalizing an enduring commitment to the Air Force family. In addition to oversight, we will be deploying the Caring for People survey at the end of this calendar year so that we may continue to monitor satisfaction and look for trends. At the end of the day, however, local leadership is often in the best position to realize and respond to need--where policy gets in the way of progress, Air Force leadership needs to be informed so we can continue to seek AF-wide solutions.
In summary, the Year of the Air Force Family has been a very successful effort to determine where we need to invest time, effort, and dollars. We have already moved out in several areas; and collectively we better appreciate what needs to be done. But in the larger sense, we know this work will never be truly finished.
While the Year of the Air Force Family officially comes to a close, we understand that so long as the Air Force has missions to accomplish, missions that put duty ahead of personal comfort, and missions that put extraordinary strains on family life, every year must be a year of the Air Force Family. The work of strengthening the Air Force family and building a stronger Air Force community will continue. It will always be a priority for me, for General Schwartz, Chief Roy, and Air Force leaders at all levels; and it will always be a priority for those leaders who will follow after us. It is a priority because it is the right thing to do for our Airmen and the smart thing to do for our Air Force.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to begin closing tonight the way I began--thank you for your service, leading our Airmen and their families toward mission accomplishment. The Air Force has long been recognized as the Service for exceptional commitment to families. This reputation is well deserved, but will continue only through the dedicated effort and focus of our senior leaders.
Enhancing our service to families and fostering a greater sense of community increases our mission effectiveness--both at home and while deployed. Our missions are demanding, and our Airmen perform to their highest potential if they are unencumbered by worries about their families and personal affairs.
Just like any other wide-ranging effort, we need your help to make the continuation of our efforts for Airmen and their families a success. As I look across the room tonight, I see so many of our Air Force leaders...certainly many command chiefs and other senior enlisted leaders serving at base, MAJCOM, or headquarters level. I ask that you make this a priority, from whatever your vantage point. Air Force families live on Air Force and Joint installations, far from the beltway of Washington, D.C., and it is base-level leadership that often has best visibility into local needs, and can most efficiently and effectively meet those needs. Please let us know what we can do institutionally to clear the way for you to do a better job at serving our Airmen, and therefore our Air Force. Thank you again for inviting me to join you this evening. It is an honor to serve with you in the world's finest Air Force.