Nominations for who is to succeed Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who is retiring at the end of January, closed on Oct. 4. (Air Force)
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The race is on for the next chief master sergeant of the Air Force.
Nominations closed Oct. 4. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III is expected to review up to 20 candidates for the job.
Welsh has not set a date to announce who the 17th chief master sergeant of the Air Force will be, said his spokesman, Lt. Col. John Sheets.
"Once the Chief's Group makes the initial review of the nominations, Gen. Welsh will take the time he needs to review them and then make his selection," Sheets said in an email. "This isn't a process you rush or a decision you take lightly."
At the Air Force Association's annual convention in September, Welsh said he did not have anyone specific in mind to succeed Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who is retiring at the end of January.
"I'm looking for somebody who can communicate with airmen, somebody who is credible with them; somebody who is going to be able to keep the pace up for three or four years because it's a tough job," Welsh said Sept. 18. "I'm looking for somebody who has a relatively broad experience in the Air Force as opposed to someone who specialized for most of their career."
Welsh also wants a diverse slate of candidates, even though diversity itself "won't be the deciding factor."
"That diversity should include everything from gender to race to background to job skills," he said.
The list of nominees may be a closely guarded secret, but retired senior enlisted leaders have some ideas about who may be on the short list.
Chief Master Sergeant Jack Johnson Jr., senior enlisted leader for U.S. Africa Command, is likely at the top of that list, said Steph Page, who retired in 2009 as command chief master sergeant of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
"Jack Johnson is the airmen's airman," Page said. "He knows airmen."
Johnson's experience at Global Strike Command as the functional manager for assigned command chiefs, group superintendents and first sergeants means he knows airmen well, Page said.
He also is command master chief for a theater of vital interest to the Air Force, Page explained.
"He's got Somalia, the Horn of Africa. … He's got the high-impact, heavy-hitting command — it's a new command; [he] helped build the command," Page told Air Force Times.
Johnson would also bring much-needed diversity to the chief master sergeant of the Air Force's position, Page said. Of the 16 chief master sergeants of the Air Force so far, only one, Thomas N. Barnes, was black.
"I think it's an important piece, I really do — the diversity," Page said. "We talk all day long about diversity in the military but we are really grooming those people for those positions. We've had ample opportunity — ample opportunity — to do it in the past, and we just haven't made those selections."
Another likely contender is Chief Master Sgt. David Williamson, former command chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe — Welsh's former command, said Scott Dearduff, who retired in 2010 as command chief master sergeant for 9th Air Force. Williamson is now chief of Air Force Resiliency.
"What Dave brings to the fight is a great deal of combat leadership experience," Dearduff said. "Dave has been highly engaged in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, my former boss and I, we specifically brought Dave into Iraq as a wing command chief after he had already completed a tour in Afghanistan as a wing command chief, and so Dave has faced a lot of challenges, and he has come through with shining colors."
Command Chief Master Sgt. Richard Parsons of Air Combat Command is also a viable candidate to replace Roy, Dearduff said.
"Rick, much like Dave, has a battle-tested background," Dearduff said. "He spent a lot of time in combat. My first recollection of him was 2003 in Baghdad where he — among other things — earned a Purple Heart. He was wounded in action. We've continued to groom him and grow him and he's serving as well as ACC command chief now.
"Rick has a great personality. He gets deep down inside the problems of the airmen and understands them, and he's not afraid to go to the boss and explain what he needs to help with the problems of the force."
Dearduff stressed that he is confident that Welsh will choose the right person "regardless of my input."
"Gen. Welsh is a highly talented leader who has a firm grasp on the enlisted corps," Dearduff said. "He knows, based on the challenges that he sees in his term as the chief, he knows what the challenges are better than anybody."
The other candidates are likely to come from major commands as well as combatant commands, said retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Binnicker.
Expect the slate of candidates to include Command Chief Master Sgts. Brooke McLean of Pacific Air Forces, who is due to retire in November; James Cody of Air Education and Training Command; and Martin Klukas of U.S. Transportation Command, Binnicker said.
"I am confident all those names will be in front of the chief of staff," Binnicker said. "He will have to make that decision, and it will be one of the most important decisions that he makes, because of all the things that are in front of us in our Air Force today, all the challenges: suicide, the Lackland scandal. It's tearing at the threads of our military society and the Air Force in general and we have just got to fix that."
Interestingly, having served under the chief of staff does not give candidates a decisive edge, said Binnicker, who was selected by a general whom he had never met. When all the candidates have impeccable records, it comes down to who hits it off with the chief.
"It has to be the chemistry between the chief of staff and that potential chief when he or she comes in for that final interview," Binnicker said. "I think something clicks in that interview."
The past three chief master sergeants of the Air Force came from assignments in the Pacific: Roy was senior enlisted leader at U.S. Pacific Command; and both Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force Rodney McKinley and Gerald Murray were command chief master sergeants at PACAF.
All of the past five chief master sergeants of the Air Force have served on overseas assignments. Three of them were stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
But Binnicker doesn't believe there are critical assignments that make the difference between mission success and mission failure for chief master sergeants vying to become the Air Force's senior enlisted leader.
"Some might say being a first sergeant is necessary, or having a maintenance background or serving in a particular command, but looking back over the past 16 chiefs, you see a broad array of career fields from weather to security forces, admin to operations," he said in an email. "Personally I feel the chief should have one thing above all else: credibility with the airmen!"
Retired Gen. Larry Welch, the chief of staff who picked Binnicker, said the decision to select a senior enlisted leader was not difficult for him, even though the candidates were hard to distinguish based on their qualifications.
"It would have been impossible to separate [the candidates] on the basis of deserving, so I separated on the basis of what specific kind of help did I need from the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, and that had to deal with the issues at the time in the minds of the senior officer leadership of the Air Force," Welch said.
At the time, the four-star generals believed senior enlisted leaders were spending their time away from the airmen they led by going to NCO clubs and other places, he said.
"My view was that the chief master sergeants are the enlisted leaders of the enlisted force and we need to be very certain that they see themselves that way," Welch said. "They are not something somewhere between a senior master sergeant and a colonel — or a second lieutenant even. They are in fact the NCO leaders of the particular force. That was becoming more and more of an issue, and I determined that Chief Binnicker was probably more sensitive to that than I was."
Time in service may also be a consideration. The top enlisted airman typically serves a three- to four-year term, and chief master sergeants are expected to retire at 30 years, though there are exceptions.
"In limited cases not restricted to the position of [chief master sergeant of the Air Force], waivers are issued to allow chiefs to serve longer than 30 years," said Roy's spokesman, Senior Master Sgt. Chris Vadnais.
Whoever gets the job, the current chief master sergeant of the Air Force has some advice for his successor, but he is not saying what that is.
"There are many things I will pass on to the next CMSAF to prepare him or her to lead our airmen," Roy said in an email. "I intend to do everything I can to prepare the next CMSAF to take on this important duty."