Love Being an Airman, Hate Being in the USAF

USAF Airmen

By John Q. Public

It’s a common theme, and one with echoes from history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US Army hollowed to a point of near collapse. There were widespread morale problems, pervasive drug use, institutionalized racism, normalized disobedience of orders, and basically a fundamental breakdown of good order and discipline.

That breakdown is commonly blamed on Vietnam and institutional exhaustion, and this is at least partially accurate. But there were other structural and systemic factors that had to do with organizational design, inertia, and bureaucratic pathology. The Army was weighed down by endless administrative bullshit and volumes upon volumes of rule books by which unskilled, unthinking leadership figures enforced it. The eventual effect was a loss of respect for rules generally.

A common saying in that Army was “love being a soldier, hate being in the Army.”

Today’s Air Force exhibits many of the same pathologies that gripped the Vietnam-era Army, and some highly evolved techniques and doctrines for clinging to them. Most observers and even many if not most participants agree it is headed for institutional collapse. Airmen are losing faith in their leaders, and not without justification.

Here’s one airman’s meditation on the matter, cross-posted from a Reddit subgroup that discusses Air Force topics. It hits this group of ideas squarely, offering a useful glimpse from the street level. Because it comes from Reddit, it is unverifiable and there’s not a lot of context, but it nonetheless communicates an essential truth worthy of review.

I offer it without further analysis for your enjoyment and comment.

I joined the Air Force a few years ago. I’ve always had the urge to serve my community and my country. I was a firefighter before I enlisted. It made me proud to know that every call I ran, every car accident, every fire, was helping my community. I thrived off of it. I spent more time at the firehouse than at home. We were a big family. I wanted a career that would give me that same sense of family and care that I had doing that.

After a few years of different types of jobs, I decided to join the Air Force. I wanted to serve my country. In the days after 9/11, the kid I was at the time desired to do SOMETHING. I craved involvement, wanting to get justice for the men and women who died on that day.

I shipped off to basic. From day 1, I was scared, of course, but proud to know that in 8 weeks, I would be an Airman. I pushed myself each and every day. I had fellow wingmen help me with PT, which was my weak link. The brotherhood we had as a flight, and the guidance from my MTI, made me even more proud to be serving my nation. Every time I recited the Airman’s creed, I felt strengthened, driving my will to keep pushing. The day I graduated basic, I was very proud of myself. Being told that I’d never survive in the military by almost everyone around me, I had proven them I could make it. I took for word, each thing we did. I took pride in the Airman’s creed, for example. I was excited where my career would take me.

After arriving at my first duty station, what I expected to do as an Airman, was suddenly flipped on it’s head. Volunteering was more important than doing the job. The Airman’s creed, which I was lead to believe was a time honored tradition, was only implemented in the previous few years.

I decided early on, I was not going to play the game. I signed up to do a job, and that job was to do my mission. I went from knowing absolutely nothing about my job, to becoming an expert in my job in time. I’ve come in early, stayed late, to make improvements to my mission. I did this not to gain the attention of my chain, but because these things needed done.

I spend hours learning new skills to help implement the changes to our job. I was, and am, still willing to bend over backwards to get the mission done, and make it better.

What I personally hate about myself right now, is how jaded I have become in the few years I have been in. I get ridiculed when I explain why I severely dislike the “Whole Airman Concept.” I’ve turned down volunteer events that my leadership wanted me to attend, because to me, they were meaningless. Turning silly activities into these eloquently crafted bullets made me sick to my stomach.

But to “meet standards”, I volunteered for something I am very passionate about. What I did involved taking away my free time after work mostly. There were a few occasions I needed to do this during work hours, but only after I ensured my work was done. I made differences in lives. But what I did, was difficult to capture in a bullet. I didn’t care, because I stood by my principles, and did things I wanted to do, not what someone told me to do.

Before the Air Force, I never thought I would have a college degree. Now I’m close to having finished my Bachelor’s. Why? Not to meet 2618’s requirements, but to do better for myself, because I had the resources and opportunity to do so.

Now I sit here, jaded. I have, and will continue to give, everything I have into my mission. Because it’s what I signed up to do. I’m here to do a job, and I will be excellent at it, because that’s what SHOULD be required. I’ve seen it, and many others here, who watch the volunteer Airmen do everything BUT their job. I cannot stand it. It’s disgusting.

I also learned early on, thanks to some extremely important mentors I had, that I did not need to be lead blindly by my leadership. I learned that I had rights: that I CAN say no, that I can disagree with leadership, that if I ever questioned anything I was told to do, that I do have grounds to stand on, if I read the right AFI, or consulted with the right people. These lessons I’ve learned, have prevented me from falling into the trap that a good portion of our leadership has set for us. I hate seeing new Airmen get lead down the wrong road, hand in hand, with those that prioritize everything but the mission.

From my few short years, I have learned many things. I’ve taken advice from those many, many years my senior. They have shown me that what I am seeing, is not a recent problem, but one that has grown, and will grow with time. This, is scary. At some point in the future, or it may have happened already, we will go super critical. People will die, because we fostered an environment, where volunteering performance exceeds job performance by a certain factor. Tired out Airman will forget to tighten a bolt right, or mislabel something dangerous, to mishandling classified information, all because they were “forced” to set everything else above the mission.

This is unacceptable. I watch and read, about how our CSAF is negating the Constitution. How people on this board treat Airmen reaching out for some answers, who blindly follow the rules of a broken system of leadership, from the CSAF, all the way down to our NCO’s. Who refuse to take a stand for what is right.

Your job, the one you took an oath for, is to protect the United States Constitution and the country itself. This supersedes EVERYTHING else. YOU must set the example for those above and below you. LEAD our Airmen to success, not the failure that is the U.S. Air Force. The system MUST change. The state of our branch is resting on the edge of a cliff. It will fall over, if nothing changes.

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