Airmen complain about the growing number of computer-based training requirements. (Airman 1st Class Gustavo Castillo / Air Force)
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Always at the top of the list for every new chief master sergeant of the Air Force is a desire to get in touch with the enlisted personnel and find ways to improve their productivity and fix the challenges that hamper their work.
That's exactly what Chief Master Sgt. James Cody has in mind when he takes the mantle Feb. 1 from Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who retires Jan. 31.
"I can't wait to get out on the road and see the great things they are doing," Cody said during a November interview with the Air Force Times. "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."
Air Force Times readers have plenty to offer what Cody should have on his "fix-it" list: cutting down on computer-based training, overhauling the enlisted performance report system and finding a camouflage pattern that actually works, among others.
Less computer-based training
Enlisted airmen need to have more time with hands-on training and less time in front of a computer, according to one technical sergeant.
It is important for airmen to get interactive training, especially when it comes to learning first aid, said the tech. sergeant, who did not want his home base identified. Right now, airmen get a lot of computer-based training on how to treat potentially lethal wounds but not a lot of classroom time.
"It's basically like if you were to do a task in your car, like if you were to say, ‘You know what, I don't like the motor in my car; I want to change it out,''' he said. "It's like you watching a YouTube video on how to change your motor out in your car. How confident would you feel trying to do it after the video? You could only watch it once."
But if someone who knew how to do it helped you change the motor, you would remember how to do it because you actually touched what you were working on, the technical sergeant said.
The value of hands-on learning is also evident with training to deal with chemical, biological and nuclear materials, the tech sergeant said. You cannot forget a single step involved with wearing the protective suit.
"That's a suit that's going to save your life, and that's not something you can teach by showing someone pictures on how to do it," he said. "You have to put things on in the right order and you have to tape up certain areas, and certain articles of clothes have to be tucked into other things."
Get rid of group PT
Getting a squadron together for PT is a waste of time because it's up to individual airmen to meet the Air Force's physical fitness standards, said Senior Airman Matthew M. Sheeron.
"I feel it's more of a morale thing if anything," said Sheeron, who is stationed at RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom. "If you can get a 90 and not test for a year, I don't see why they have to have group PT, if they're saying, ‘Your fitness is good for that year.' I can see if it was mandatory for like a 70 to 80, because that means they need improvement."
Sheeron said he has not seen out-of-shape airmen improve by going to group PT.
"They're the ones that are usually complaining that they have to go to group PT," he said.
The issue hits close to home for Sheeron, who used to be 250 pounds of "pure gut" despite going to squadron PT three times a week. Then he woke up one day and realized how bad he did on his PT test and decided he needed to work out on his own time to lose weight.
"If I can lose a gut and pass our PT test, so should anyone else," Sheeron said in an email. "All squadron PT does is waste the time that could use for the Air Force mission. Bring back wing 5k days each month if the Air Force wants to raise morale and make it fun."
Leeway on waist circumference
The 39-inch limit on airmen's waist circumference should not be a deciding factor on whether airmen pass or fail the PT test, said Tech. Sgt. Daniel Tercero, who once failed his PT test because he was half an inch above the limit.
"In my opinion, if you can physically perform, your waist should never be a factor that makes you fail the test," said Tercero, who got maximum points for situps on the test he failed for having a 39.5-inch waist. Since then, Tercero, who is stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, paid greater attention to his diet and passed two subsequent PT tests.
Tercero believes the waist measurement should be part of the PT but he would like to see the test put a greater emphasis on physical performance.
"If someone has a 42-inch waist, then they would get zero points for their waist and that means they have to do more situps and more pushups — but if they can do more situps and more pushups, are they really out of shape?" he said.
Meanwhile, it is possible for an airman of slight build to have a waist well below the 39-inch limit and at the same time be barely strong enough to pass the situp and pushup portion of the PT test, Tercero said.
Tercero understands that a 40-inch waist can be an indicator of increased risk for heart disease, but he says the process of measuring one's waist is very arbitrary.
On the Friday before he took his PT test again, Tercero went to the fitness center and got his waist measured.
"The guy tapes me at a 41, and that really rocked my world a little bit," he said. "My actual test was a Monday. I go in to take my actual test and get taped at a 37.5. The point of that story is what if on some off chance the guy who taped me at a 41 had been giving me my actual test?"
The enlisted performance report system is broken, many wrote to Air Force Times. Outstanding and mediocre airmen alike are virtually guaranteed to score a perfect 5 unless supervisors can produce volumes of documentation that justify a lower score.
This is not a new issue. When supervisors looked for guidance in the past, Roy told them they don't need guidance from the chief master sergeant of the Air Force because supervisors are in the best position to evaluate airmen.
But supervisors "can only do so much," said a lieutenant colonel in Osan, South Korea.
"If they provide honest feedback to their airmen and they put it on their enlisted performance report, when it goes up the chain of command for review, the supervisor a lot of times is compelled to change the rating because the chain of command doesn't want to think that they've got anyone who's less than a stellar performer," said the lieutenant colonel, who is also a former Navy corpsman.
The chief master sergeant of the Air Force should set objective guidelines for how supervisors should write EPRs, said a master sergeant stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Right now, supervisors quibble about how to word evaluations, so the end product is very convoluted.
"By the time it comes back to me after it goes to my supervisor's supervisor, it's not in the format I wrote it in," he said. "It's completely different, completely reworded. It makes it very complicated and difficult to understand."
The current EPR has too many requirements, or "bullets," such as volunteer work, said an airman who asked to be identified as "loadtoad82." The report should focus instead on job performance.
"Revamp the EPR system by decreasing bullets, try to decrease inflation, make it more objective and delete school and volunteer work from the EPR because these things have little to do with our job, career or the Air Force," the airman said in an email.
Promotion boards for E-7
In order to build a stronger noncommissioned officer corps, the Air Force should require technical sergeants to go before a promotion board before advancing to master sergeant, said retired Chief Master Sergeant Vincent L. Howard.
Not all good enlisted leaders are good test takers, so they are at a disadvantage when they take the test for master sergeant, said Howard, who retired in December after 30 years in the military. Also, most NCOs get a 5 on their EPRs, so performance evaluations are not good indicators of the service's strongest leaders, he said.
Promotion boards look at more than just job performance when evaluating whether airmen should advance to senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant, Howard said.
"In the process for senior and chief, you still have to take a test to gauge your knowledge but you also have to show some other things, at least to your rater and your senior rater that they can put on paper, that a board could latch on to and go, ‘This is who we want to be a senior enlisted leader in the Air Force,'" he said.
Howard has always felt potential master sergeants should also be reviewed by a promotion board because it would force candidates to rise above standards.
"They know to make master [sergeant], there are some things they have to do and their EPR has to look a certain way to be competitive for that senior enlisted rank," Howard said. "So it makes for a better NCO, it makes for a better senior NCO; in the out years, it makes for a better senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant."
In addition to rewarding candidates who go "above and beyond," a promotion board would prevent technical sergeants who are "just doing the bare, bare minimum" from advancing, said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Bellant.
"The current system is, as long as you have some decent EPRs and you can test well, you will make it," said Bellant, who is stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Bring back buck sergeants
One thing Cody could do in order to better prepare NCOs to supervise airmen is reinstate the rank of "buck" sergeant, said retired Chief Master Sergeant Terry Williams.
In the past, E-4 airmen would become buck sergeants after a certain number of years, giving them some on-the-job training before they became staff sergeants, Williams said.
"As a buck sergeant, you received the respect and everything as an NCO but your duties were limited," he said. "They didn't assign you a lot of people. They kind of allowed you to work your way into becoming a full NCO.
"That's normally when you would receive two or three people to supervise and you became the reporting official and you would write their performance reports and you would have a little bit more responsibility toward those people and, like I say, it was on a smaller scale than what an E-5 — a staff sergeant — would get."
It's time to retire the airman battle uniform, said a technical sergeant in the Alaska Air National Guard.
"The problem with the ABU is: I've been deployed in it in the desert and they're about worthless and it took them a long time to fix the heat problem with them — we're just now getting the summer weight and it took the five years to do that," said the tech. sergeant, who asked not to be identified. "Then there's the fact that when you're in the desert and everything is tan, you're wearing gray."
He cited a recent report by the Government Accountability Office that found the services could save money by adopting a single camouflage pattern. That may not be feasible now, but the Air Force should adopt the same pattern as the Army, which is going back to woodland green and tan uniforms.
"That's basically what I would tell the chief is: ‘Get with the sergeant major of the Army and sit down and be part of this process so we can get past the — basically the ridiculousness of the single-service uniform,'" he said.
The Air Force should also ditch the green boots that come with the uniform, said an airman stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
If you spill oil on the boots or just get mud on them, they will look "terrible" after a few weeks, the airman said. Unlike black boots, they can't be polished.
"It's the green color: I don't know what they stain them with or what, but eventually they start turning an awkward greenish color, greenish brown," he said. "They start fading and just turning weird colors. I work with a bunch of joint people — Navy, Army, everything like that — everybody thinks these boots are hideous."
Enlisted airmen can cop an attitude when told that they are not up to Air Force dress and appearance standards, said Staff Sgt. Melvin Chatman Jr.
"There's a lot of people below standards — they're not at standards — and when they get corrected on it, the first thing they do is look at the person's sleeve to see what rank they are and then either they're going to fix it or they're going to make a snide remark or make an ugly face instead of just fixing the problem," said Chatman, who is based at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.
Cody should remind enlisted airmen they are required to maintain standards and correct those out of uniform, Chatman said. As it now stands, all Chatman can do when an airman at his rank is out of uniform is try to let that person's supervisor know, but that's a major headache.
"The Air Force address book, the global, is very large, so if he says, ‘Oh, my supervisor's name is Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen,' there's like 5,000 Jeffrey Allens," he said. "Me as a staff sergeant, I don't think that's going to hold over well: Me emailing a master sergeant."
One of the most striking suggestions for Cody is probably out of his lane: Abolishing enlisted and officer ranks entirely.
Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Jones doesn't think it is fair junior officers outrank him and other NCOs, who have much more experience.
"I got captains and lieutenants who have half the education, half the military experience on top of that and yet they're my boss?" said Jones, who is stationed at Ramstein. "It seems misaligned these days."
He proposes replacing officers and enlisted ranks with one system that allows all airmen to rise based on education and experience.
"I realize the history and the way it was back in the day — the colonial era where the rich and the privileged, they held officer positions because they were more cultured people," Jones said. "Whereas the poorer people, they created the whole enlisted rank because these were the not-so-cultured people. It's just that mankind has moved on and we're not in that era anymore."