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Boredom sets in as brass, Congress hash out budget

Dec. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The budget turmoil that has forced squadron groundings, government shutdowns and countless negotiations over what the Air Force can and cannot afford has had a surprising result: Airmen are bored.

Pilots are growing restless as their flying hours have been slashed. Air crews that normally would be fixing planes are sitting idle because the Air Force can’t afford replacement parts. Airmen hoping to get retrained into more fulfilling careers are being told they can’t.

And while the budget deal being finalized on Capitol Hill would relieve some of the sequester cuts, it remains unclear how many flying hours could be restored.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said airmen have told him during his base visits across the country that they don’t have enough to do.

“I haven’t heard anybody in our military say they were bored in quite some time,” Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 7.

Several airmen across the Air Force who have spoken to Air Force Times or commented online say Welsh’s unusual morale warning is dead-on. They or the airmen they supervise are bored or frustrated, they say, and several are considering or planning to get out as a result.

“I have airmen who sit around and surf Facebook all day long because there’s nothing else to do,” said one lieutenant colonel who is a squadron commander, and, like other airmen interviewed for this article, asked that his name and location not be printed.

Every airman has a different story on why he or the airmen he works with are bored. But the root cause for many of these problems often seems to be the tight budget cuts known as the sequester that have grounded squadrons and severely limited retraining opportunities for dozens of career fields.

“Our airmen come in here, we teach them to do a job for our Air Force and our nation, and then when you get into the fiscal situations that we’ve been in over the last fiscal year and what they’ve had to endure, there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in a Nov. 26 interview. “We’ve had to stand down flying squadrons. We weren’t generating sorties, and that added a huge tail to what our airmen do to support that part of the mission. And they get frustrated. They’re here to do a job. They’re not here to wait for somebody to say we have enough money to do what they came in to do.”

The squadron commander said that with budget cuts and the drawdown, his squadron haven’t had the resources to actually conduct any missions. Airmen under his command in multiple career fields are not doing much, he said, and he estimates 20 percent of his airmen are either thinking about retraining, switching to the Air National Guard under the Palace Chase program, or leaving the Air Force entirely.

“The dollars aren’t there,” he said. “Flying has slowed down considerably, deployments aren’t there. Training is down. There are stories like that across the Air Force.”

The lack of retraining opportunities is also contributing to some airmen’s boredom. One staff sergeant told Air Force Times that he’s been stuck in a medical administration job that he finds menial for his entire career and kept getting shot down when he tried to retrain into a more challenging, fulfilling job. He said every time he tried, his current station said they couldn’t let him go due to cuts, or there were no openings in the fields he wanted to go into. He said he was planning on moving to the guard as soon as he could.

“I literally wake up in the morning, not feeling important,” he said. “We’re stuck in the middle. We get preached to from higher up that they want us to excel, but whenever we try to, we get stomped.”

That staff sergeant’s story, however, has a happy ending. After his interview, he found out that he would finally get his opportunity to retrain into a more exciting career field.

But about 1,000 other airmen in 42career fields aren’t so lucky. The Air Force on Nov. 26 announced it is slashing retraining opportunities in fiscal 2014 because several career fields it thought were undermanned were actually over-manned.

A major who is an intelligence officer said he isn’t bored, but knows several airmen whom he described as feeling frustrated. He thinks the Air Force’s culture — encapsulated in the “Fly-Fight-Win” portion of its motto — focuses too much on pilots, and leaves other airmen feeling that if they’re not flying planes, they’re not really contributing. This perspective even hurts pilots when their planes are grounded, he said.

“The Air Force in the past few years has lost focus on its mission,” the major said. “We focused too much on this mindset of a tactical warrior. When you make the mission statement to ‘Fly-Fight-Win,’ you disenfranchise all those who aren’t flying and fighting, like the [nuclear] missile force [which a recent study found is suffering from serious morale problems]. People get the impression that the mission of everyone else is to support [pilots] rather than all being part of a team concept.”

A captain said he doesn’t think the Air Force knows how to properly use the skills of its airmen. He said the Air Force spent more than $100,000 for his master’s of business administration degree recently, but then assigned him to a job that he said wastes his education. His days are spent administering fitness tests, putting in work orders to fix leaky faucets, and preparing Power-Point presentations on the drug test notification process, among other jobs he said don’t require an MBA.

“Making sure people do proper pushups is not work someone with a master’s degree should do,” he said. “It seems like a waste.”

What added insult to injury, he said, was when he arrived at his current job, he found his duties were being split with a lieutenant.

“I’m a highly capable, highly skilled officer who is unchallenged and unmotivated because, even when faced with a continually shrinking pool of resources, the Air Force, in all its stunning bureaucracy, can’t figure out how to effectively utilize the resources it does have,” the captain said. “The workload of the position I’m in would barely be enough to keep one person employed on a day-to-day basis. The fact that we have two people doing barely enough for one person means that I spend the majority of my day surfing the Internet, reading up on the news and going to ESPN and checking how my sports teams did over the weekend.”

Cody said he’s concerned that airmen are becoming frustrated. He sees the problem as Air Force-wide but said it is most acute in career fields that have had to scale back on their missions.

Cody said Air Force leadership and local commanders need to communicate better with airmen and be honest about what is coming, and what they won’t be able to do.

“The reality is, we’re not looking at seeing an increase in the budget,” Cody said. “We’re looking at living with this. This is the reality. We have to plan for that for the nation and we have to plan for that for the Air Force.”

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