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Retired CMSAF shares lessons with airmen

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) -- The fifth chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Robert Gaylor, retired from the Air Force 24 years ago, but he is still on a mission for bluesuiters.

He said he spoke to about 500 people here recently with one goal in mind -- that the audience left feeling it was time well spent.

“I think most of us, if not all of us, took away quite a bit from his speech,” said Chief Master Sgt. Guy Smith, 53rd Wing acting command chief master sergeant. “I heard some rumblings of people not wanting to be there, but afterward, everything I heard was positive.”

Gaylor got the audience on his side by doing what he said he does best -- talking. He told stories of his 31 years in the Air Force, and when he wore the star and wreath within his stripes from 1977 to 1979. He said there were four main problems within the Air Force at that turbulent time: racism, integrating women into the workforce, drugs and an image problem following the Vietnam War.

The chief said he, too, carried some flaws at the time.

He recalled a briefing he had given in 1976 to a group of noncommissioned officers and junior officers at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., about leadership.

As the chief was preparing for that briefing, the crowd began to form. One of the first to arrive was a black female senior airman. She made her way to the front of the auditorium. The chief said he was confounded.

“I didn’t think she should be there,” Gaylor said. “I thought to myself, ‘This briefing is not for her,’ -- she was a senior airman, she was a woman, and she was black. She must be in the wrong place.”

His briefing was for the “leaders” of the unit, and he said he did not think she fit the bill because there were not many junior enlisted female black leaders during that time.

The chief said he did not ask her to leave because he did not want to embarrass her, but her presence during his briefing made him uncomfortable. After the briefing, many people gathered around him to ask questions or to offer their thanks, but above the crowd he saw an arm waving a folded piece of paper at him. He knew it was from her; he took the piece of paper, vowing not to read it, convinced it was full of ridicule and distaste for the briefing.

He said he struggled for hours on whether or not to read the letter. Finally, curiosity got the best of him, and he read it.

“I knew what it said before I read it,” Gaylor said. “Or, I thought I did.”

At the Eglin Theater, the chief reached into his briefcase and pulled out the 27-year-old letter, which he kept inside a plastic protector so the edges would not fray. He began reading, “30 March 1976 … Today you really inspired me.”

This young senior airman wrote that she had recently been put into a leadership position in her unit and had been looking for guidance -- which she found during his briefing.

The letter ended, “Thanks for being there when I needed my answer. Signed, Ruby J. Island.”

The chief said he was shocked and ashamed. He said he was guilty of racism, sexism and any other “‘isms” one could think of that day.

After reading the letter, Gaylor said he knew he had been guilty of many of the things he would soon be battling against as the Air Force's top enlisted leader. He said if he had not read the letter, he might have entered the top enlisted position with biases he did not know he had.

“The chief was very open with us,” Smith said. “He talked about his life freely and of one very important shortfall which disturbed him deeply.”

By being so open about his reactions to the senior airman, Gaylor made a point to the crowd, Smith said.

“He took action to overcome his shortfall and succeeded,” Smith said. “I think that opened our eyes to our own potential shortfalls. It definitely made me think. All too often we are too quick to point out faults in others when we should be looking to see how we can improve ourselves.”

In fact, Gaylor said he always has a reason for his stories.

“I think of myself as a modern day Aesop as I tell tales,” Gaylor said. “I never tell a story without a point.”

He also talked about attitude. Gaylor spent a year in South Korea in 1956, leaving behind his wife and three young children. His wife, Selma, had very little contact with her husband during that year, and zero contact with other airmen. There was no family support center back then, and as the chief pointed out, no e-mail either.

More than 40 years later, Selma attended a speech Gaylor gave to an airman leadership school class. After the chief introduced her, one student asked her how she got by while he was in Korea.

“I stood back -- I wanted to hear the answer, too,” Gaylor said. “I had never asked her that.”

When she answered, she spoke only of the good times they had and none of the struggles she faced alone.

Her answer that day taught him a valuable lesson.

“You get to choose what you remember,” Gaylor said. “Don’t fill your head full of the negative.” He also said that bluesuiters today enjoy many more amenities to help them remain positive.

“The chief pointed out some very large differences in the force of yesterday to that of today -- in pay, living arrangements, transportation and job assignments,” Smith said. “We need to be reminded of them so we can appreciate what we have today.”

Regardless of when a person began their military service, Gaylor said one thing remains the same: The Air Force is the most lethal in the world because of the unique talents each person brings to the ranks.

“If we take his talents and hers and put them all together and call it a unit or a squadron or a wing -- as an Air Force … we can move mountains.” (Courtesy of Air Combat Command News Service)

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