Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh angrily pushed back against criticism that he is not taking the problems facing drone pilots seriously enough.
The blog John Q. Public reported on March 27 that Welsh's recent visit to Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, left drone pilots feeling hopeless.
During his March 24 visit, Welsh reportedly told remotely piloted aircraft pilots that the Air Force will not add housing or 24/7 child care at Creech, according to the blog, which is written by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr.
Welsh also "knocked the wind out of many airmen approaching decisions about their Air Force futures" by telling RPA pilots and maintainers that it would be a long time before they could live normal lives, Carr wrote in the blog.
When an RPA maintainer asked Welsh what he could do to address manning issues, Welsh reportedly responded by saying that manning is an Air Force-wide issue, Carr wrote in his blog.
"Here, Welsh crystallizes the line between giving people the straight answers they crave and using blunt talk to dismiss, shut down, or filter out their valid concerns," Carr wrote. "The questioner was making a statement to the effect of 'we can't do the job you expect without enough manpower.' Welsh's counter-statement was 'suck it up.'"
Asked on Thursday if he could add context to his comments at Creech, Welsh made very clear that he never told RPA pilots to "suck it up."
"That's absolutely, categorically false," Welsh said at an Air Force Association speech in Arlington, Virginia. "So whoever said it is lying, or they were not even listening to the same conversations I was in, or they have an ax to grind."
Welsh, who said he had not seen the blog, praised RPA pilots for flying six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day. He understands that no matter how much they love the mission, they worried about how they and their future will continue living that way.
"This workforce is tired and we've got the first group of people who are RPA-only pilots now coming up to the end of their initial commitment this year," Welsh said. "It's a small group. It's another small group next year. The year after that, it's a big group."
Welsh said that he understands that RPA pilots will leave the service if they do not believe the Air Force will make life better for them, so he and other senior Air Force officers will visit Creech about once a month to talk to them about how they are doing.
"I have a huge respect for the RPA force and I've been around it for a while," he said. "So, anybody tells you I said to 'suck it up': First, they don't know me; secondly, they didn't hear me say that; and third, I would love to have them walk up here and say I said that, because it's not true."
Welsh said he did talk to the RPA pilots about how the Air Force as a whole is stressed so that they understand that they are not the only career field under strain.
"I talked to them about manning in other career fields," Welsh said. "I talked to them about work schedules in other career fields. Because their feeling is they are being stressed more than any other career field in the Air Force."
Still, the conversation with the RPA community was positive overall, said Welsh, who added he was "astonished" that it anyone had characterized it otherwise.
"That's why I don't read blogs," he said.
Carr told Air Force Times that he used the term "suck it up" to convey the message Welsh was sending.
"I think if Gen. Welsh reads the article, he will note that the phrase 'suck it up' wasn't meant to be construed as a direct quote," Carr said via Facebook on Thursday.
The blog was not meant to criticize Welsh as much as it tried to call attention that Welsh told RPA pilots and maintainers some "difficult truths" that dashed the hopes of people who wanted to hear that help was on the way, Carr said.
"Many in the community feel like it's in a sort of perpetual crisis mode, and further feel like the service leadership has let them down by having crisis mode drag on for years with no end in sight," he said. "No one can predict the future, but the sense I get is that retaining much of anyone is going to be impossible without a change in the resource equation."