“Order of the Unrendered Apology”


“Dig, if you will, a picture” … of a periodic gathering, held at random intervals, whereby a group of gray-faced grand poobahs in ornate outfits with obscure insignia arbitrarily induct a favored crony into a meaningless order via a ceremony populated by muddled motifs and manufactured formality. 

Now … imagine the whole thing is funded by taxpayers and that the group in whose name the anointing is carried out didn’t even give consent.

What you’ve just conjured is a vision of the Air Force’s Order of the Sword.

It’s yet another in the dizzying panoply of self-congratulatory trappings enjoyed by the elites of the senior Air Force, their number bolstered in recent times not only by an explosion in the number of generals, but by the adhesion of Command Chief Master Sergeants, not-so-affectionately-known as “E-10s” by the rank-and-file.

While the rank of “superchief” was created as a means of better protecting the interests of enlisted airmen against the voracious appetites of bureaucratic authority, E-10s have in recent times basically dropped the pretense of independence and become mouthpieces for the generals who hire them. They exist not so much to stand up for airmen, but to stand abreast the desks of senior officers … descending occasionally from the ivory tower to deliver edicts from the empowered, usually in tones of Orwellian palatability reflecting a cultural shift away from the nail-gargling, rough-edged Chief of the days of yore toward a more corporatized and pliable minion.

You can see this shift in the (d)evolution of the Order of the Sword, which, according to Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2824,

” … was established by the Air Force enlisted force to recognize and honor military senior officers, colonel or above, and civilian equivalents, for conspicuous and significant contributions to the welfare and prestige of the Air Force enlisted force, mission effectiveness as well as the overall military establishment. This honor should be bestowed at a time the enlisted force deems appropriate, based upon the eligible nominees’ contributions to the enlisted force …” [my emphasis]

This makes the Order sound like an egalitarian nod to select senior officers whose commitment to their airmen was in some way exceptional. Air Mobility Command adds:

“An Order of the Sword is the highest honor enlisted Airmen can bestow upon a leader … a symbol of truth, justice and power rightfully used.”

Indeed, glancing back across most of the history of the Order, it has largely borne out these motivations. The honor has been highly selective, reflecting a stubbornly discerning and lucid commitment to principle. Only those senior officers who managed to commit to the Air Force by committing to and through their airmen were inducted, and this led to recognition of an eclectic assortment of colonels, junior and senior generals, and noteworthy civilians. Some generals were honored long before their careers ended, while others were honored only after they’d been retired … the passage of time helping to elucidate their contributions.

Most Order inductions have historically occurred at the Major Command level, and a large majority have honored generals below the 4-star level. But around the turn of the century, things started to change … and that change has now become more obvious.

In recent years, the Order has become deeply political — less an authentic salute and more a symbolic participation trophy for the uber-elite. Inductions at the Headquarters Air Force level have become more commonplace, and recognition of anyone below the 3-star level has become almost unheard of. Seven consecutive 4-star commanders of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) were placed into the Order, including a few who were wildly unpopular with enlisted airmen.

USAF Sword

This raises questions about whether the process still reflects its original ethos, and whether it can still be seen as a gesture on behalf of the enlisted force rather than on behalf of a tiny number of elites who have worn the rank of Chief so long that they’ve grown disconnected from life on the front lines of the service.

The AFI sheds some light on this question, and probably renders a complete answer. While any NCO or group of NCOs may nominate someone for induction, the matter is decided upon by an Executive Committee:

“This committee is chaired by the CMSAF. Committee members include the command chiefs from: ACC, AETC, AFDW, AFGSC, AFMC, AFOSI, AFRC, AFSOC, AFSPC, AMC, ANG, PACAF, USAFA and USAFE.”

This means the service’s 15 most senior enlisted members make Order of the Sword determinations on behalf of the roughly quarter-million airmen they represent. It’s fair to look suspiciously upon any process that claims to be representative but doesn’t structure itself to provide baseline fidelity to the wishes of those represented.

But the most eyebrow-raising part is the “process” by which these Chiefs ensure their votes accurately represent those on whose behalf they are made. Check this out:

“Each committee member votes on behalf of the enlisted members he/she represents and may consult, as necessary, with selected enlisted members of his/her command. All such discussions must remain strictly confidential.” [emphasis in original].

How does one consult with tens of thousands of enlisted members on a strictly confidential basis?

The answer is … one doesn’t. What this means is that the accuracy of votes cast in the process depends on how well command chiefs know their airmen, and this makes it unsurprising that in recent years — as the bonds of trust and communication have frayed — Order of the Sword inductions have made increasingly less sense to many in the enlisted corps.

As one active duty Chief told me privately, not without wit or justification:

“The whole thing should be renamed ‘Order of the Unrendered Apology.’ The guys they’re putting in there have been horrible for enlisted airmen.”

He’s not wrong.

2005 inductee Gen. Robert “Doc” Fogelsong was widely reviled by enlisted airmen for his notorious focus on style over substance and his unremitting and unapologetically demanding leadership approach. Fogelsong could be more than a little condescending with anyone below his rank, including the tens of thousands of NCOs and junior airmen who worked tirelessly to make him look good when he commanded USAFE.

2010 inductee Gen. Roger Brady championed personnel policies that put the service on an unsustainable path. As director of all Air Force personnel matters, he lengthened deployments, slashed rosters, and liquidated commander’s support staffs … policies that have severely degraded service life for enlisted airmen. During Brady’s four-year tenure at helm of the service’s manpower apparatus, active duty strength declined by more than 50,000 airmen … and 80% of those cashiered were enlisted. The ranks of Senior Airman through Technical Sergeant — the spine of the service — shrank by nearly 20,000 … while 22 new general officer billets were created over that same span. This makes sense given the relative value Brady places on the ideas of individuals based on seniority.

But the biggest whopper of them all is perhaps the most recent. Somehow, the E-10s persuaded themselves that the current Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, should be inducted … despite a policy track record that has been outright hostile to the interests of enlisted airmen.

Welsh enacted a painful 2014 drawdown that left the service (by his own estimate) 15-18% undermanned in every critical area. He crammed that drawdown into a single year instead of spreading it out over five years as Congress authorized — a transparent gambit to free up cash for the already over-budget F-35 program.

He also pushed a command philosophy openly opposed to basic civil liberties, cultivating a climate within which airmen are spied upon in their living spaces and can’t even expect privacy in their personal texts. Welsh’s generals are known to surf social media looking for “unprofessional” posts that open airmen to disciplinary crack-backs, and he’s legitimized such actions with his own statements.

Welsh pretended to open remotely piloted aircraft positions to enlisted airmen while limiting them to an herbivorous and mostly automated platform, blamed wing-level leadership for “misunderstanding” serially bungled Air Staff miscommunications, and compromised his own effectiveness by losing credibility with the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, getting labeled “disingenuous” in open testimony. It was a textbook example of a leader getting so hung up on a single issue (in this case the A-10) that he undermined his ability to effectively advance the interests of his people in other important ways. 

Welsh also refused to remove the waist measurement from the PT testing program (or to even discuss doing so), advocated disproportionate punishments for airmen accused of lesser offenses in order to show toughness on sexual assault, and approved a punishing one-year timeline for completion of a new (and quite shoddy) distance learning course without which NCOs can’t promote, extend, or re-enlist. He did this without giving them dedicated time to meet the requirement, forcing them to carve the 500+ required hours out of their personal lives.

In the end, when given the chance to fight for airmen on Capitol Hill, Gen. Welsh told lawmakers morale in the Air Force was “pretty darn good.” It was a remark that left many in the street-level Air Force gobsmacked and angry … while leaving Congress in the dark about the true state of things.


It’s not surprising that Welsh’s own command chief, CMSAF James Cody, would nominate his friend and professional partner for induction. It’s not even surprising that two thirds of the command chiefs on the Executive Committee would persuade themselves that the nomination should go forward, given the politics of the process and the fact that most of the voting members are hoping to be nominated to replace Cody in a few short months.

What is surprising is just how out of touch senior enlisted leaders have allowed themselves to become. In response to online criticism of Welsh’s induction, Air Force Special Operations Command Chief Matt Caruso, ostensibly a voting member of Welsh’s induction committee, offered, in relevant part:

“Guys, thanks. There is a lot more to it. You guys don’t see what we see.”

The message seems to be “trust us.” But by nominating and inducting someone who many don’t believe is deserving of an award given on their behalf … by essentially ignoring their input by not sufficiently seeking or including it … the E-10s have shown themselves undeserving of that kind of trust.

Maybe that’s the biggest revelation here. In Mark Welsh’s tenure as CSAF, trust in the Air Force has been grievously damaged. If for no other reason than that alone, senior enlisted managers should have thought twice about their most recent Order of the Sword induction … and perhaps should have had many more “strictly confidential” discussions with people directly impacted by the policy direction of the past four years.

The Order of the Sword should exist, and should proudly convey a solemn lifetime honor to a highly select cadre of leaders whose actions mark them unquestionably deserving. Induction should happen because senior enlisted leaders harbor an accurately developed and well-founded notion of the nominee’s deservedness.

But if the Order is going to be nothing more than a Rube Goldberg machine generating ornate political tributes devoid of integrity but replete with taxpayer funded regalia under false pretenses, it’s not only injurious to the cause of enlisted airmen … but a waste of money undeserving of future sponsorship.

Here’s a closing question: given the state of technology in 2016, is there any reason the entire enlisted force shouldn’t vote on nominations?

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