Empowered Airmen accelerate change in Air Force training

  • Published
  • By Maj. Sadia Heil
  • Pacific Islander and Asian American Community Team

Last August, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force provided his marching orders: Airmen must be prepared to accelerate positive change and have the courage to question the status quo. Senior Airman Gabrielle DeQuire, 17th Operational Weather Squadron weather journeyman, was given an incredible opportunity to do so.

As part of annual Total Force Awareness Training, DeQuire took the Force Protection computer based training, and immediately felt something was not quite right. Of the 25 historical incidents in the course, the preponderance depicted examples of “Muslim extremists” and “Islamic terrorists.” The training alienated DeQuire—it reinforced biases about Muslims prompted after 9/11 and inhibited inclusivity.

She engaged with flight leadership, and her chain of command validated the concerns. DeQuire spoke with her squadron commander, Lt. Col. Sarah Zimmerman, and asked the hard question of “Why?” Why did the majority of historical incidents focus around one religious group? Why did the course seem to perpetuate dangerous biases?

The threat posed by terrorism has evolved significantly since 9/11. Per the March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, “terrorism and violent extremism, both domestic and international, remain significant threats.” In addition, more deaths were caused by domestic violent extremists than international terrorists in recent years.

Why does the training not accurately reflect today’s threats?

In response to DeQuire’s concerns, Zimmerman courageously responded with, “Why not?” As a squadron commander, Zimmerman sought to permeate diversity, inclusion, and belonging within her unit. She was proud of DeQuire and thought, “Why not empower my Airman so that she can accelerate positive change?”

Seeking a large group with diverse backgrounds and experiences, Zimmerman cast a net in the Department of the Air Force Women Officers Forum; she wanted to develop a solution. A team of Airmen, led by members of the Pacific Islander and Asian American Community Team, or PACT, one of the seven Department of the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Groups, or DAFBAWG, took the training issues for action.

They reached out to the course point of contact at the Air Force Security Forces Center. Since March, PACT members have collaborated and provided robust feedback to enhance the training.

To further accelerate communication within Headquarters Air Force staff, the PACT continued to lead the charge. Capt. Hanna Sparks, PACT co-lead, understood the significance of updating the course. “The intent of the DAFBAWGs is to empower Airmen at any level to come forward and make impactful policy change. Understanding the implications of unconscious bias, we knew it was imperative to support Senior Airman DeQuire’s concerns and take action swiftly. We spoke to the other DAFBAWG leads, who also provided their support and encouragement. It was amazing to work together to accomplish a common goal—accelerating change to take care of our Airmen.” The PACT then informed the Office of Diversity and Inclusion about concerns with the computer-based training and provided recommendations for improvement.

Consequently, course writers have since removed the biased portions of the training. Seemingly a simple fix—this update is also symbolic. What began as a concern for one Airman ended up transforming education and training across the Air Force. United States Air Force annual training must continue to accelerate change to prepare our Airmen for today and tomorrow’s real-world threats.

DeQuire’s courage to be bold and take the initiative has accelerated change in the United States Air Force. Her commander’s resolve to cultivate a culture and environment of excellence is exactly what the Chief of Staff of the Air Force has charged Air Force leaders to do: "When Airmen are empowered, nothing should stand in their way of making positive change.”