The Air Force’s new top enlisted leader, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, doesn’t mince words when he talks about his rough, early days in the service.
"I was a pretty crappy airman, honestly," Wright said in a Feb. 15 interview in his new, still-bare office at the Pentagon. "I used to get in trouble a lot, got wrote up a lot. Coming to work late, not paying my bills, talking back, just kind of being irresponsible. Fighting. I used to fight a lot when I was a young guy."
But Wright was fortunate enough to gain the attention of a tough master sergeant who took him under his wing, set him straight, and became a father figure to him. The example that Master Sgt. Joe Winbush set inspired Wright’s own leadership style and his desire to help other young airmen find their talents.
And now, as the 18th chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Wright has the opportunity to help shape the entire enlisted ranks for the better.
Wright took over Feb. 17 as the new CMSAF, at the retirement ceremony for his predecessor, Chief Master Sgt. James Cody. Wright was previously the command chief master sergeant of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He comes from a dental background and has deployed to support Operation Desert Storm and to Afghanistan.
Wright joined the Air Force in 1989 — but it wasn’t the path he ever imagined himself on. Even though his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, is an Army town that’s home to Fort Benning, he didn’t come from a military family or have any desire to pursue a career in the armed forces.
‘Call it an omen’
But Wright had to drop out of Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina after less than a year because he didn’t have enough money to stay in school. He went back home to mull over his future, he said.
"I was laying on the couch, I rolled over, my wallet fell out, hit the ground, one thing fell out: it was an Air Force recruiter’s card," Wright said. "I looked down at it, and said, ‘Hey, I’ll join the Air Force.’ I called a recruiter and two months later I was in San Antonio. It was kind of … call it an omen."
It wasn’t a good fit at first, as he got into what he called "19-, 20-year-old mischievous stuff. That type of stuff that in today’s Air Force, you won’t last long doing those types of things."
But during Wright's first few misguided years at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, Winbush noticed him and took him under his wing.
"That was the beginning of my 180," Wright said.
One day — after Wright had been in the Air Force for about three years — Winbush handed Wright an application to join the base's honor guard. Wright handed it back and said he wasn't interested.
"He gave it back — with a few choice words," Wright said. "So I had to clean my act up a little bit. My uniform used to be really shoddy. I wasn't really that into serving. But joining the base honor guard gave me a different perspective."
Wright worked his way up to team lead, and recalls vividly the day he had to present a flag to the widow of a late airman during a funeral.
"I remember the second that I changed my life around, when I presented this flag and made eye contact," Wright said. "You have to say this canned statement. 'On behalf of the president of the United States and this grateful nation.' I made eye contact with the spouse. She cried, and that moment, I said to myself, 'Hey man, you got to get your life together. You got to get serious about your life and your career.'"
The newly-focused Wright began working harder, winning awards, going back to school, and paying more attention to the way he looked and the way he spoke.
Winbush "was really tough on me," but fair, Wright said. "Even though he was a dental guy, he was more like a maintenance NCO. A lot of cursing, a lot of hard lessons to learn. He would always tell me what I need to hear, not what I wanted to hear."
Sometimes, Winbush's tough love included letting Wright fall and make mistakes. And when Wright screwed up, unbeknownst to him, Winbush would talk to his first sergeant or commander — not to get Wright off the hook, but to ask his leaders not to give up on the young airman.
"He would say, give him whatever he deserves, letter of counseling, letter of reprimand," Wright said. "But he would assure them, 'I'm working on him, I got him.' To this day, he's still tough on me. Had it not been for him, I don't think I would have made it in the Air Force, and certainly I don't think I would have made it to where I am today."
The new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said he was a "pretty crappy airman" until a tough master sergeant took him under his wing. Here, Wright greets an airman during a 2015 visit to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Michael Battles/Air Force
The new chief's agenda
Today, there is no shortage of challenges facing the enlisted force. The biggest concern Wright sees is the punishing operations tempo enlisted airmen are working under with limited resources, and the resulting drag on morale.
"The fact is, we ask our airmen to do a lot with a lot less people, and a lot smaller budgets," Wright said. "Being a young airman or a young NCO in the Air Force is tough."
It's especially tough for young NCOs who have to do their primary job and then also have to supervise a handful of other young airmen, all while balancing their family needs, deployments, and other requirements such as professional military education, he said.
The active-duty Air Force is slated to grow from 317,000 airmen — both officers and enlisted — to 321,000 by the end of this year, which is an improvement over the 311,000 at the beginning of fiscal 2016. But that's still close to historically low end strength levels and is far less than the more than 510,000 active-duty airmen during the Gulf War.
And while the Air Force is short staffed, it has no shortage of missions — daily operations in Iraq and Syria supporting the mission to fight the Islamic State, ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the need to support Eastern European allies wary of a resurgent Russia, and countering an emboldened China.
That isn't likely to change anytime soon, Wright said. And while the Air Force wants to eventually grow to 350,000, that's still years away from happening. So the Air Force needs to find ways to ease the burden on airmen tasked with those fights, and help their families cope with challenges such as frequent deployments by making them more "resilient."
Wright said the Air Force has several programs to help airmen and their families, but they might need to be better coordinated to work more effectively.
But even airmen who aren't dealing with deployments will still have challenges — a bad supervisor, or a pass over for the next promotion, or other problems — and they'll need to learn resiliency too, Wright said.
"It happens to all of us," Wright said. "These things are designed to help us grow, and as an airman, you have to be able to bounce back from that."
Wright said he doesn't have plans for new programs, but wants to "synthesize" existing programs to get them to better work together. He also wants to make sure airmen know what kind of programs are out there to help them and that it is OK to seek mental health services.
In high demand
The Air Force has long been concerned about high deployment rates, and in recent years has made progress in ensuring most airmen are home for at least twice as long as they were deployed before they are called up again.
But there are some highly in-demand career fields — such as those at Air Force Special Operations Command — that have been facing a 1:1 dwell-deploy ratio, meaning they're deployed about as long as they're home.
Easing the strain on such airmen will be tough, Wright said, because they have a "unique and specific skill set." Wright said the Air Force will need to talk more to commands in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps that have similar skill sets and are facing similar challenges, to get new ideas on how to handle it.
Wright also wants to focus on improving the Air Force's training. That could include getting rid of unnecessary training to allow airmen to better concentrate on what matters, as well as taking advantage of technology, such as for "virtual" training.
Better training will be key to achieving Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein's desire to overhaul how Air Force squadrons operate, Wright said.
"I don't think we get to be the greatest Air Force that ever existed without being really well-trained," Wright said. "As the boss focuses on revitalizing the squadron, I think you can give the commander more responsibility, more authority, you can give him more resources, but if the airmen in the squadron aren't well-trained, they won't be able to perform their mission."
Leadership development is another area of interest for Wright.
"How can we get the right airman in the right job at the right time with the right experience, and the right attitude?" Wright said. "It comes down to managing talent. Not only do those airmen need to be well-trained, they need to be well-led. Well-trained, well-led, resilient airmen will be the goal."
Wright said he thinks the new enlisted evaluation system — a major effort during Cody's tenure — is working as intended, and was the right move.
"I think it's fair, I think it allows folks a broad range of opportunities to advance, to get promoted, to be recognized, to receive decorations, all things that were pretty limited under our old system," Wright said. "When I wasn't getting promoted, I wasn't happy with the system, so there are some folks that [may not like it]. I do hear some feedback about, we still have some issues with the performance ratings, and some folks are still far to the right [receiving ratings that may be inflated]. We need to figure out a way to get everybody thinking the same way with respect to the performance ratings."
Incoming Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said he looks forward to getting "unfiltered" feedback from enlisted airmen.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Micaiah Anthony/Air Force
About a year and a half from now — three years after the new performance system went in place — the Air Force will take a look at it to see how it's going.
Wright said he also has heard complaints from some that it has led to favoritism. He said he's "not naïve enough" to think that never happens, but that in most cases, it's subconscious favoritism.
"Those are real problems, so I think we as senior leaders owe it to our airmen that the chiefs and the other senior NCOs are aware of those biases, and are aware of the perception that there is favoritism, and they understand the importance of being as objective as possible, and not whether you like the person," Wright said.
Return of warrants?
Wright is happy with how the effort to allow enlisted airmen to fly the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft is going so far. And he thinks that, eventually, the range of aircraft enlisted airmen can fly will be expanded even further, to armed MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers — and perhaps even to flying manned aircraft.
"We have airmen that are perfectly capable of flying, not just other RPA systems and dropping ordnance, but that are perfectly capable of flying manned aircraft," Wright said. "Many of them have private pilot's licenses. I don't know that it will happen on my watch, but I think that's the natural progression. We have some brilliant young minds in our Air Force that are perfectly capable of flying manned aircraft."
Wright said he's "a little torn," because part of him thinks an enlisted airman who is talented enough to fly a manned aircraft deserves an officer's commission.
And Wright said it's worth taking a look at reviving the warrant officer program to handle enlisted pilots, as well as other specialized fields. But he said it will require more study to see if it makes sense for the Air Force, and that he doesn't now have a position for or against warrant officers.
The 'unfiltered' truth
Wright is planning a series of trips to bases around the world over the next few months, beginning with his first week in office, to talk to enlisted airmen face-to-face and find out what's on their minds. He also plans to continue Cody's practice of holding Chief Chats — town hall-style meetings where the chief takes questions from enlisted airmen, that are then posted on YouTube.
And Wright said he plans to be active on social media platforms such as Facebook to get feedback from airmen.
"I'm all about access," he said. "I plan to be very open and accessible."
It's important to hear honest thoughts from enlisted airmen, he said — even if those thoughts might make those airmen's leaders uncomfortable.
"One of the hardest things for any senior leader is, how do you get to the truth, unfiltered?" Wright said. "Even when I go on a base visit and I say I want to have breakfast with some airmen, they're going to send the sharpest, most professional airmen with questions that have been vetted through the chief and the commander. And then they're going to tell them, 'Don't say anything to embarrass me, and don't bring up anything we probably can't fix in the squadron.' So it's hard for any senior leader to get to the ground truth. So that's why I like going to the gymnasium, and the DFACs [dining facilities], and veering off. It'll be a little harder for me to do now, to veer off on my own, but I'll get away from the team."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.