Chief Master Sgt. James Cody, Air Education and Training Command command chief, will succeed James Roy as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. Roy is set to retire at the end of January 2013. (Todd Berenger / Air Force)
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In just over two months, Chief Master Sgt. James Cody will trade the warm climes of San Antonio for his new home in Washington as the next top enlisted leader.
Cody, a career air traffic controller, will replace Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who retires Jan. 31.
Cody was selected from five finalists. He comes to the Pentagon from Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, where he is command chief of Air Education and Training Command.
In an interview, he described his priorities: easing some of the unnecessary requirements that have overburdened the force, finding ways to address the growing numbers of suicides and sex assaults, and building trust among airmen. With him in this mission will be his wife, Athena, herself a retired chief master sergeant.
Cody, who is described as a no-nonsense leader, plans to make the rounds at bases to take input from airmen about how to make their lives better.
"Their concerns are a major priority," Cody said. "It's a huge part of what this job is, and I can't wait to get out on the road and see the great things they are doing. I want to hear what's working for them so we can help them keep doing those things. I also need to know what's impeding their ability to be productive and see if we can't tackle those challenges and make it better for them."
Cody joined the Air Force in 1984. Since then, he has served in Germany, South Korea and Turkey and has deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has held four command chief positions and his military awards include the Meritorious Service Medal. He holds an associate degree in airway science from the Community College of the Air Force.
For Cody, leadership is based on mutual respect and trust.
"I firmly believe our airmen and their families are our greatest strength, and if we don't have that right out the get-go, we'll struggle," he said. "I understand how the Air Force works, but I'm certainly excited to learn about what our airmen are doing as we move forward. People that know me will know that I'm not afraid to tell it like it is."
Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr., who knows Cody's leadership style well, said he "would follow that dude anywhere."
Cody wants to know his airmen so that he can understand the problems they are dealing with, said Del Toro, who is a legend in his own right.
After suffering third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Del Toro endured more than 100 surgeries to be able to re-enlist, and he now trains tactical air control party airmen.
The first time Cody talked to Del Toro was after another chief master sergeant called Del Toro "just an extra body." Del Toro only mentioned the incident to one person, but Cody still heard about it.
"He contacted me and wanted to talk to me and sat down and just told me, he's like, ‘DT, you are not just another body out here in the Air Force,' he was like, ‘You are a very important part of this Air Force, and I would love to hear anything you ever have to say about it,'" Del Toro said. "That day, I was like: "Dude, this is a great chief. This is what a chief should be. At that point, I was like, ‘I wish he could be chief master sergeant of the Air Force — and I hope he will become one."
‘Straight shooting' chief
Cody said his main priority is the safety of airmen and their families.
"We have a lot going on in our Air Force," Cody said. "We have the situation that we're working through at basic military training, our suicides are on the rise, sexual assault — these are all top things that we're working through in our Air Force."
Another priority is cutting down on all the requirements airmen need to do on top of their job, said Cody, who echoed concerns of outgoing Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Raymond Johns Jr.
"We need to look for meaningful ways to — honestly — stop doing things and tell them what's reasonable to allow a little bit more white space and breathing room for our airmen in their schedules," Cody said. "I think this is going to be important as we look to ensure that we're giving supervisors and leaders the time they need to spend with each other to develop and create the relationships that are foundational to serving in our Air Force."
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Bobbitt remembers Cody from his time at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
"He is one of the most no-nonsense, straight shooting chiefs I know: Very even tempered, doesn't raise his voice or get excited, but he doesn't have to," Bobbitt said in an email. "He is the type of leader that people WANT to do a good job for, not have to be forced to. His leadership is palpable, as is his caring for the Air Force and for airmen. It may sound a bit cliché, but when he speaks, people listen. I am excited to see him bring what he offers to the position."
Retired Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Gerald Murray said he has been impressed with Cody for quite some time.
"He's maintained a discipline there, I think, in his growth intellectually, in the development of his leadership skills," Murray said. "I think Jim is just a complete package. He and Athena are a wonderful family. That was one of the things that has always struck me as just how solid they are together."
All in the family
In an email to airmen, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said selecting the new chief master sergeant of the Air Force was "the most important decision" of his tenure.
"I reviewed the records of the best and brightest [chief master sergeants] in our Air Force and personally interviewed five of them here in the Pentagon," Welsh said. "I'm very comfortable that I've made the right choice."
Cody and his wife share a passion for airmen, said Welsh, who noted that their son is in the Air Force.
"If you know Chief Cody, you'll be excited about this selection," Welsh said. "If you don't know him, you'll get excited as soon as you do meet him. He's smart, talented, engaged and driven to make our Air Force a better place to live and work … and I'll be proud to have him as my partner in this job."
The fact that Athena Cody is a retired chief master sergeant herself — she retired in January 2011 — will give her a unique insight as the Air Force senior enlisted leader's spouse. In March 2008, she wrote a commentary in the MacDill Thunderbolt about being invited to an Air Force women's symposium.
Initially, she wondered why she had been invited at all because she felt "this is not an issue now," but when she saw who the speakers were, she changed her mind and encouraged other airmen to attend such gatherings.
"Most of these speakers were women, which had mentored or worked side by side with my generation and been in command or in key leadership positions," she wrote. "They've had a direct impact on where we are today and [have] valuable insight to share with the next generation."
News that Cody would become the Air Force's senior enlisted leader drew both positive and negative responses online.
Cody was described on the Air Force Times online forums as a good guy who doesn't tolerate nonsense. Some people were happy to have an air traffic controller as chief master sergeant of the Air Force. But others questioned why he only has an associate degree after 28 years in the service.
"I do like the idea that he's not a PME or First Sergeant type, and spent the all of his career in his specialty before becoming [command chief master sergeant]," one person wrote.
Still others asked why so few aircrews become chief master sergeant of the Air Force or why the service has not had a black senior enlisted leader in years.
"I keep on wondering where the Air Force is today and when they are going to pick a female [chief master sergeant] for that position," one person commented, "We have many women who are more qualified than some of their counterparts."
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., head of Air Education and Training Command, called Cody one of the best leaders he's every met — both from the officer and enlisted ranks.
"When we have conversations and discussions, we're able to get, I think, to the heart of the issues instead of talking around them because of his capability and capacity to really understand an issue, to ask the right questions and to understand what the key elements that are in play are at a level that very few people that I've dealt with of any grade have been able to do," Rice told Air Force Times.
Cody has the potential to be one of the most outstanding senior enlisted leaders that the Air Force has had in a long time, Rice said.
"He's an airman who's got a great vision of the Air Force, a great breadth and depth of knowledge about the expanse of Air Force missions," Rice said. "At the same time, he's detail-oriented in terms of how he thinks through and presents issues. Very, very articulate in front of large crowds, able to communicate and generate a level of enthusiasm for positions. Someone who I've found really doesn't just understand what words say but what they mean."