We are all Airmen

  • Published
  • By Col. Jennifer L. Graham
  • 71st Mission Support Group
Several years ago, while serving my squadron command tour, I wrote a base newspaper article on using the term "Airmen."

The article started out, "I've been curious for some time now why we can't seem to call ourselves Airmen."

You may recall some five to seven years ago, we were just introducing this term to the Air Force and frankly, it was getting some very mixed reviews.

The term "troops" seemed to be the more common word used to describe ourselves, and it also seemed to be the extreme generalization. I was frankly amazed at the frequency with which I heard my contemporaries, other Airmen, refer to our people as "the troops" instead of "our Airmen." When I listen to the other services, I hear them talking about soldiers, sailors or Marines ... and they do so with obvious pride. In the halls of the Pentagon, when one Marine passes another, regardless if they actually know each other, they exchange a greeting, "Good Morning (or afternoon) Marine." Why would it seem oddly uncomfortable for us to say "Good Morning Airman?"

I spent the academic year of 2004-2005 at the National War College in the midst of my civilian and sister-service counterparts. It was a year when service culture and identity was, rightfully so, amplified and scrutinized. I regret to report, our Air Force did not measure up well at all. My Air Force classmates and I failed to present an overarching, inclusive Air Force. Instead, we presented a range of functional, impressive capabilities lacking a unifying theme. If we have no common picture of what the Air Force is, no wonder we struggle with who we are.

Why are we more likely to say, "take care of the troops" than we are to say, "take care of your Airmen"?

From the war college I went to the Office of the Secretary of Defense so I've been out of the main stream Air Force for several years. When I returned to base level last summer I was pleasantly surprised to find we are making significant progress in understanding who we are.

The Airman's Creed, in my opinion, is a masterful articulation of what it means to be an Airman. I applaud the Air Force and our wing leadership for including this creed in every aspect of our professional lives.

Another difference I've observed upon returning to the base level Air Force is the war. Airmen from all career fields, across all ranks, officers, enlisted personnel and civilian employees are deploying and making real-time contributions. As an Air Force, we are beginning to better understand and articulate the unique contributions Airmen bring to the fight ... and we are learning to be proud of ourselves.

While progress is apparent, we still have a way to go. Recently, a distinguished senior NCO on base shared with me frustration with the term ... claiming it would never take hold and be universally used because "Airman" is a rank.

Why do we continue to resist a common identity?

One argument is that we are young. Some 60 years of history pale in comparison to our Marine, soldier and sailor counterparts. As such, we have yet to fully comprehend, define and/or dwell on our unique identity.

Yet, I believe we collectively agree the Air Force's reason for being springs from the unique contribution brought to the military equation by Airmen just as our marine, army and navy counterparts bring their unique, service developed and refined capabilities. Perhaps if we can better define our unique contribution we will feel more comfortable with the term Airman. I offer ... born of technology, we are committed to helping America win her wars by imposing her will while placing fewer American sons and daughters directly in harms way.

Others argue, our problem is that not everyone flies ... creating, instead, too many subcultures that we can't be united. Some others say the only thing we have in common is that we are not marines, soldiers or sailors. My experience suggests this argument typically comes from fliers, who maybe haven't taken the time to embrace the rest of the men and women wearing blue. It is a fact that every other part of the Air Force was born of the flying culture. (In 1947, 87 percent of the Air Force were fliers ... today fliers represent 13 percent of the Air Force). We are all inspired by the contributions and opportunity of air, space and cyber power. We are all proud of the flying men and women and connect to their unique skill, daily courage and extraordinary professionalism. I was recently reminded of this when I sat with my NCOs to discuss the progress of the war. I was amazed at the range of articulate dialogue surrounding the air contribution to the war and the frustration they feel in our under representation in the media. These NCOs are Airmen.

I've had the opportunity in my career to travel widely across our Air Force ... from acquisition program offices to stressed flightline operations to classified space activities to the bowels of bureaucratic support activities ... I can guarantee you, we are more alike than many may think.

We are gifted and intelligent. We've all voluntarily chosen to serve in the Air Force. We embrace continual improvement (can you find anything we are doing in the Air Force today that we did the same way 10 years ago?) Our tempo is fast, our attention span is short, our decision loop is tight and we reward this kind of behavior (we've learned this from our fliers.) We expect and require self-motivation. We need those in the enlisted force who stay with us for a career ... and, as a result, we have the best in the world. We generally don't like to camp out in muddy or dusty places. We require details, facts and analysis to convince us a decision is sound. We embrace a culture of honest feedback regardless of rank (born from the "debrief").

We are all Airmen!

Gen. Bob Dixon, now deceased and a former Commander of Tactical Air Command, used to tell this story. He was on a post visit at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. The commanding general was driving General Dixon around the post when General Dixon noticed a mass of young soldiers spread out in an overgrown field. He asked what they were doing.

The commanding general said, "The field is overgrown, they are cutting it back."

General Dixon asked, "What are they using to cut it back?"

"We found some old machetes in the warehouse," the commanding general said.

General Dixon replied, "Airmen would have figured out a way to employ a riding lawn mower."

So I ask that we take some time to reflect upon our unique contributions to America's security and ask the question, "Who are we?"

Let's continue to feel more comfortable calling ourselves Airmen.