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Our enlisted heritage: A look back at how teamwork shaped the modern AF

Five former chief master sergeants of the Air Force took the stage to share perspectives and stories about how they have inspired and been inspired by the modern Air Force during the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in Washington D.C., Sept. 16. The former chiefs answered question from the audience that ranged from resilient Airmen, education, commissioning and encouraging your wingman. (Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Stanfield)

Five former chief master sergeants of the Air Force took the stage to share perspectives and stories about how they have inspired and been inspired by the modern Air Force during the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in Washington D.C., Sept. 16. The former chiefs answered question from the audience that ranged from resilient Airmen, education, commissioning and encouraging your wingman. (Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Stanfield)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- A wealth of knowledge filled the room when five former chief master sergeants of the Air Force took the stage to share perspectives and stories about how they have inspired and been inspired by the modern Air Force during the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition in Washington D.C., Sept. 16.

“Throughout the decades they’ve realized our capability better than any one person,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody. “It takes our entire force to continually do what these Airmen have done. No one person can do it alone. We each must show continual commitment to making our Air Force better.”

The session began with reflection, each chief agreeing today’s Air Force is superior to the Air Force they once knew. The chiefs credited better education and purposeful career development with much of the success of today’s enlisted force. However, they stopped short of taking credit for improvements personally, even laughing at some of the decisions they made in their tenure.

“I was the one that put shoulder boards on enlisted people,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. James M. McCoy. “There was a reason we did it at the time, but when they called to ask me about getting rid of the shoulder boards I said, ‘I can’t believe they lasted this long.’”

McCoy was the sixth chief master sergeant\ of the Air Force, and at age 85, the most senior member on the panel, making the first question a humorous moment.

“Chief McCoy,” asked the moderator, “Will we have a female chief master sergeant of the Air Force in your lifetime?”

After a few laughs, McCoy replied by saying the position should always be filled by the most qualified person no matter their demographic. He closed by saying he does hope to see the first female appointed in his lifetime.

The topics were both light-hearted and serious in nature, but one theme continued throughout -- taking care of each other.

“Success is not about what you do in a role today,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Jim Finch. “Success is how you set that position up for the person who’s going to replace you.”

Finch encouraged Airmen to focus on the future, making changes today that will improve the service for the Airmen of tomorrow.

“When I was in the seat in the Pentagon I was focused on the Air Force of the day, and the Air Force of the future,” Finch said . “I would encourage Airmen today to focus on the Air Force of 2030.”

Finch went on to say, transition should receive increased attention by currently serving Airmen, and the Air Force as an organization needs to be doing more to prepare Airmen for their eventual transition into civilian life.

Another question raised by the audience, was what advice the chiefs would have for Airmen wishing to commission. Each chief agreed they would never discourage a dedicated Airman from commissioning.

“People are going to ask you for career advice,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Eric W. Benken. “It’s very important what you tell them. You have an impact on people’s lives. Don’t take that for granted.”

He relayed a story of a young Airman he met at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, who had decided to get out of the service. The young security forces Airman at the time, was dissatisfied with his position and expressed that he thought separation was his best option. The two engaged in an early morning conversation along the dark desolate perimeter road of the base. Years later, the chief was approached by a first lieutenant who identified himself as the Airman, thanking the chief for his advice and encouragement so many years ago.

“I would hope there’s not a single person who would ever discourage another enlisted member from pursuing a commission, or whatever their goals may be,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Gerald R. Murray. “I hope that you would turn around and help them do that as well.”

Murray said he had been appalled by hearing stories of senior enlisted members discouraging their Airmen from commissioning, and hopes the current Air Force has moved past this behavior. He said he expects leaders to help Airmen who express an interest commission through the various available commissioning programs.

“It’s a matter of mutual respect,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. James A Roy. “I chose to stay enlisted, but I would not ever tell anyone that they shouldn’t commission. Our culture is a culture of respect that these gentlemen made possible.”

Murray encouraged Airmen to stay energized and optimistic, by focusing on the positives of what Benken called the “incredible, amazing Air Force today.”

“Don’t consider the negative,” Murray said. “Take the resources you have and do the very best you can with them. You have a lot. You have great gifts in individuals who have purpose.”

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