Dear Boss, 2009 Version

(U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. William Greer)

The following is attributed to an unnamed Air Force officer and fighter pilot. It was written and widely circulated in 2009, striking a nerve with a broad subsection of airmen increasingly dismayed and emotionally divergent from the direction of the service.

It got some attention at the senior level, but in the end the official response amounted to nothing. Seven years later, the letter rings more true than ever, and the exodus of fighter pilots it foreshadowed has come to fruition … matched by talent drains across the force.

Dear Boss,

Well, I quit. I’ve finally run out of drive or devotion or rationalization or whatever it was that kept me in the Air Force this long. I used to believe that we were the finest organization in the world—that combat effectiveness was the only thing that really mattered, and that no one on earth was as effective at anything as we were at air combat. But I cannot keep faith any longer. The light at the end of my tunnel went out.

“Why?” you ask. Why leave flying jets and a “promising” career? Funny you should ask—mainly I’m resigning because I’m tired. Fourteen years and 2,300 hours in the fast jet business and all the time I’ve been doing more with less—and I’m tired of it. Fourteen years of 12-hour days and long deployments and it turns out that most people around here don’t actually care if we’re any good! They only care if we look good. And there is a difference.

I don’t mind the duty or the hours. That’s what I signed up for. I’ve been all around the world and been shot at by the bad guys. I’ve had buddies who died in fireballs and watched their widows and children cry their eyes out—I understand—it comes with the territory. I can do it. I did it. I can still do it—but I won’t. I’m too tired, not of the job, just the Air Force.

I’m tired of the poor leadership and micromanagement of our senior staffers and commanders. All those Masters and PME grads and not a true leadership trait in sight! Once you get past your squadron commander, people can’t even pronounce esprit de corps. Even a few squadron commanders stumble over it. And let me clue you in—in the fighter business, when you’re out of esprit, you’re out of corps. We’ve come to value political correctness and feel-good slogans above aggressiveness and warrior spirit. We’ve completely forgotten out roots and what traits made us good in the first place.

The Air Force is in a constant identity crisis. Since I first put on a uniform, we’re on our third Air Force emblem, third different flight suit, second battle dress uniform (third if you include the Velcro nametag debacle), and working on our fourth service dress! We’ve had so many mission statements, vision statements, and core values statements that I can’t keep up. Then we heard the Chief of Staff talk about how he wants to instill a sense of our heritage. What heritage? We don’t even have a uniform on long enough to become heritage! We are just a constantly changing set of buzzwords, clothes, and fads. After the last CSAF left, what was the very first thing the new boss did to supposedly re-focus us on the mission and instill some Air Force pride? He changed our clothes and made us wear blues. Talk about missing the mark!

It used to be that our pride came from simply being the best. I guess not anymore. And then there are the buzzwords. I can’t go to a commander’s call without hearing “wingmen,” “mutual support,” and “core values” awkwardly thrown around until I’m nauseous. Don’t get me wrong, they are fine concepts. But they are just words, over-used and infrequently backed up by the actions of our leaders. They have been watered down to the point where they lost all meaning. Not long ago, Quality Air Force was all the rage. We did surveys and made graphs and nothing got better. Now we have AFSO 21 and we have working groups and stop light charts and nothing has gotten better. We tag on to civilian business management techniques that we don’t truly understand, then think we can simply apply a 10-step flow chart process to every problem and come up with the right solution. What happened to leadership, creativity and innovation? Give me a bar napkin, a pen, and a bottle of whiskey and I’ll solve your problems in one night. And I won’t have to remember what step number 7 was in the computer based training slides to be able to apply common sense.

And what about career? Get serious! Progression has little to do with leadership ability and actual performance, but rather filling a series of squares. A couple years back, we had the “no practice bleeding” policy—if you needed a masters degree, the Air Force would send you. Don’t do PME in correspondence unless you don’t get picked up to go in-residence. It only made too much sense. But this is the Air Force, so the pendulum had to swing back, and now it’s swung so far you can hardly see it anymore! They changed the ACSC program so that it doubles as a masters program—but you can’t realistically get selected to go in-residence unless you already have a masters degree. What sense does that make? So now you have guys simply finding the easiest, most useless on-line masters degree program they can find, just to fill the square. And the Air Force is stuck paying the bill!

Everyone loses in that battle. The Air Force is out of the money with no real benefit and its people spend their few free hours reading books and writing papers on subjects that are unrelated to what we really do. To paraphrase our former Chief of Staff, the Air Force treats a masters in basket weaving in the same exact light as a masters in quantum physics from MIT. Do we want officers who are truly educated in relevant subjects or do we just want to be able to flaunt our statistics on how educated we appear?

I had a general officer literally tell me that we do this to sift out those who are truly dedicated to their career. I guess 60-70 hour weeks spent trying to do well at my actual duties don’t show enough devotion. And now my favorite: you also can’t realistically get selected for ACSC in-residence unless you’ve completed it in-correspondence first. So you can’t take the course until you’ve taken the course? Huh? We have lost our minds! What happened to family time? I work 12 hours or more every day, yet I’m expected to come home and work on classes at night and on the weekends just so I can be competitive to re-cover that same material at Maxwell?

Just when exactly am I supposed to spend time with my wife and kids and re-charge my batteries? I hardly see my kids as it is. Something has to give. It’s either my job, my coursework, or my family. I can’t do all of that well. Does anyone really wonder anymore why our folks face pressure from home to get out? Does anyone really wonder why our folks are completely burned out?

What am I supposed to tell young lieutenants and captains who come to me asking if they should spend their spare time working on their masters degree or instead start work on their flight lead upgrade briefs? They don’t have time to do both well, and anyone who tells them they need to just manage their time better is so far out of touch I can’t take it. By all common sense, young guys should be focusing on being tactical experts and knowing everything they can about the weapons system they are tasked to employ. But I can’t tell them to prioritize that anymore if they plan to stay in the Air Force. I can’t tell them to commit career suicide because the fact is that the Air Force doesn’t care if they are tactical experts.

It only cares if they have their squares filled. The Air Force has decided that the 4-star grooming process begins on day one, and that seems to be our focus. We need to have experts at the tactical level—we cannot afford to be generalists at the company grade operator level. We were told by a senior officer the other day that we now need to be experts in space and cyberspace in addition to being experts in the air–this to an audience of mostly junior officers. Are you kidding me? We hardly have enough time or training to be true experts in our own lane, but now we’re supposed to be experts in everyone else’s? The theory seems to be so that we need to have a better understanding of those things work if we become “senior leaders.”

But we’ve put the cart before the horse once again. When our operators are also our officers, we cannot afford to focus only on officer development and senior leader grooming when guys are lieutenants and captains. Well, we can, but it’s at the expense of effective operations. And isn’t that what’s it’s really all about? I guess not.

And if that isn’t enough, the Air Force chooses to select its finest not based on actual Air Force work, but on how much ancillary stuff a guy does.

To be selected as a quarterly company grade officer award winner in any wing, the write-up needs to include bullets for 1) “Leadership and Job Performance in Primary Duty” 2) “Significant Self Improvement” and 3) “Base and Community Involvement.” So what happens to the guy who is the best in the world at his actual duty and a natural born leader, but doesn’t coach a kid’s soccer team or tutor underprivileged students in his spare time (what spare time)? Answer: he can’t be competitive for the quarterly award above the squadron level since he isn’t involved enough in the community. Which means he isn’t competitive for the annual award. Which means he doesn’t look as strong on paper, even though he may be the very best officer and tactician we have. As we know, it doesn’t matter how good you are, it only matters how you look on paper. Why on earth do we prioritize non-Air Force work to identify our standout officers? The write-up should end at “Leadership and Job Performance in Primary Duty.” Period, dot. Anything else means that we are using the wrong measuring stick.

And there are no more carrots left to keep guys motivated, only bad deal after bad deal, and hardly a “thank you” for any of it. If I have to listen to another colonel or general officer tell me how they understand what it’s like now since they had a bad deal once too–then proceed to describe how much fun they actually had on that “bad deal” ALO tour in Germany in the late 1980s–I’m going to lose it. If I have to listen to another commander say that they can’t understand why anyone would want to get out of this great Air Force when the worst deal they ever had in their whole career was as a T-38 IP at Willie back in the day, I’m going to scream. And then there’s always the lecture about how there really aren’t any “bad deals.”

Really? Come on. We all know better and it just fuels bitterness when our leaders don’t even acknowledge that. I’m tired of watching my buddies dive under desks every time the commander walks down the hall for fear that he’s going to drop a 179- or even a 365-day deployment on them with three weeks notice.

Really now, do we have a rash of guys slitting their wrists right before they go to the AOR or are we that poor at managing? But at least it will come with a pep talk about how it’s good for your “career” to get a little war stink on you, even if it’s just the smell of a desk in some rear echelon office. Another square checked. Maybe you’ll even earn a medal for updating those power point slides over there, or whatever worthless job we’ve invented to inflate our numbers and make it look like the Air Force is pulling its weight in theater. Oh, and after you get back from that little vacation, you’d better be ready for a remote three months later.

Sorry, no credit for time served. I’m sure the wife will understand. She’ll be comforted by the mere three hour wait and rude desk clerks at the base medical clinic when the kids inevitably get sick the day after you leave.

We’re at war—I get it, I really do. But how on earth can anyone be expected to deal with such constant instability in their lives over such a long period of time and take it with a smile?

But the real problem is much bigger than all of that–we have lost the drive to be good. We were good for so long that we forgot just what exactly it was that made us that way. We have forgotten all of the lessons learned in blood from our predecessors, and focus only on looking good. We held an advantage in both technology and training for a long time and we became complacent. Technology is vital, but if we aren’t experts at using it, what good are we? And now any technological edge we had is being minimized by any third-world country with a checkbook, as cheap electronic attack and air defense systems proliferate. So now we’re down to training and experience to carry us through. Not long ago, we used to laugh in our intelligence briefs when we heard how little enemy pilots flew per year.

It’s not so funny anymore, as we struggle to get in the air ourselves.

We’ve even resorted to using simulator time to make us appear more experienced on paper, but that is only a mirage. Sims can be decent training, but they are no substitute for flying, no matter how much the bean counters and desk jockeys wish they were! Pilots spend entire assignments training and studying for upgrades, only to get shipped off to a non-fighter assignment just as they start to “get it.” That makes no sense! Why not extend assignments for an extra year and let our guys actually put their obscenely expensive training and newly gained experience to use for even just a little while? Nope. Instead we move them on to a non-fighter assignment to make room for more newbies…after all, the Air Force is short on pilots so we need to keep training new ones. But what good is it to have a ton of fighter pilots, few of whom have much actual experience flying fighters? We have prioritized having “fighter experience” in jobs all across the Air Force…everywhere, that is, except actually in fighters. When we do get an experienced guy in the door, they are always fresh out of the TX course instead of current in the jet. Only one time in the last three years have I seen a guy show up who was mission ready—that was the new weapons officer. We have to re-train all of our “experienced” guys again from mission qualification training on up, so our schedule is one constant upgrade train.

Why doesn’t someone do one of those AFSO 21 group hugs and analyze how much money we waste constantly re-training guys from the ground up every couple of years? All to the tune of fifteen grand per flight hour, I might add. Maybe we could use the money saved to buy a new plasma TV to display the schedule or another round of new office furniture. Almost never do we get to just go out and practice advanced CT scenarios, so we spend all of our time just trying to stay afloat instead of actually getting better. And the same story is true throughout the CAF.

Result: Most operational squadrons are not worth a damn. And no one seems to care.

Fourteen years in the Air Force, and I’ve yet to have an OG or Wing Commander ask us what our true combat capability is–I mean our true skills, not how we look on our SORTS report. Lots of questions on dirty boots, low zippers, and crooked patches. Lots of questions about why I landed five minutes past my scheduled window on my once-a-year fight-tank-fight blue air DCA sortie. We’ve gotta make the statistics look good, even if they are meaningless, or else someone might have to actually explain to the Wing Commander why I used common sense to get that extra setup while we had the airspace and gas. Even our former crown jewel, RED FLAG, has become a joke. Instead of getting some folks good training, we decided to be all-inclusive and try to get everyone some training. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out in today’s Air Force, so once again real combat capability suffers.

And then there is queep. Oh, the queep. We have no support staff anymore, so we spend our time supporting ourselves administratively instead of improving ourselves tactically. On top of that, pilot jobs that used to be manned two or three deep are now single deep at best. So instead of young pilots spending their time studying and learning the ropes underneath someone’s wing, they are now chiefs of a shop. Yet, rather than the chain of command recognizing that fact and re-focusing just on what’s actually important, the demands on ridiculous queep have only risen. Case in point:

have you seen an OPR from 20 years ago? They are full of white space and sub-bullets and all sorts of things that are forbidden now. That didn’t seem to hold back all of today’s generals much. Now, we have all of these unwritten rules on how to fill out that form that it has become a voo doo art. For what? Are we better able to evaluate someone who doesn’t have any white space at the end of a line on his performance report? Does it really make a difference if I spell out numbers or use digits? Does it really matter if I abbreviate the word “squadron” as “sq” and “sqdn” in the same section? Does that somehow change the meaning?

The real question should be: does it make us more combat capable? Of course not! But, we grind away for hours trying to figure out how to wordsmith in our secret OPR code so that even the bottom feeders look like heroes, but it takes a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin to figure out what we’re really trying to say. We had a report kicked back from the wing the other day to make us change the abbreviation “2nd” to “2d.” What on earth was the point of that? It’s death by paper cuts, and I don’t have the energy to spend on such ridiculous nonsense anymore.

Not when I’m saddled with forty other “urgent” non-issues, each of which I need to solve right now, yet none of which are actually important. I even heard this little gem: “if we could only get our queep perfect, the tactical stuff will follow naturally.” What? We’ve got it all backwards! We worry about the stuff that doesn’t matter at the expense of what truly does. And the unimportant stuff is all I ever hear about from leadership. It doesn’t matter if we can execute our increasingly complex tactics, handle EA, or even find our sort…as long as the statistics look good and our queep is done right, the bosses are happy. After all, if the minimum training wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum, right?

Well we’re going to find out. We’re min-running the entire Air Force. God help us if we ever have an all-out air war. We are going to pay the price in blood on the backs of the minimally trained and inexperienced. We have learned these lessons before. We have been the hollow force. We have seen what blind faith in technology with minimal training does to combat success. Have we forgotten everything we learned in Vietnam?

Not long ago, I had a general tell me that he wasn’t worried about retention because the airline industry had gone down the toilet. Well I’ve got news for him—that doesn’t matter. Because, you see, I’m not the only one that feels this way. Every guy I know is looking for the door and counting the days until their contract is up. Not a single one of them wants an airline job, either. Not one. If they can’t get hired by the Guard, then they’ll just go get an MBA with the new GI Bill and get a regular job. Anything with a bit of stability will do. It turns out we’ve picked up a few non-flying skills along the way, and those are in demand, bad economy or not. It’s never been about the money for us, so the bonus isn’t the driver. It’s been about the mission. Our rewards are purely in the satisfaction that we’ve done a good job, earned the respect of our peers, and made a difference. But it’s just too difficult to see how to make a real difference here anymore. Not in this climate of yes men and party lines and square filling and image-over-substance. We are watching an organization that we once worked so hard to be a part of veer off into insignificance as it focuses so frequently on the unimportant, all while it kicks us square in the junk and expects us to smile.

And that’s why I’m resigning…long hours with little support, no stability or predictability to life, zero career progression, and senior commanders evidently totally missing the point. Our only real heritage—an unfailing drive for excellence—has gone by the wayside in favor of a culture of square filling. I’ve had it—life’s too short to fight an uphill battle for commanders and staffs who won’t listen or don’t believe or maybe don’t even care. So thanks for the memories, it’s been a real slice of life…But I’ve been to the mountain and looked over and I’ve seen the big picture. It wasn’t all green. But it wasn’t Air Force blue either.

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