Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass has already made history as the first woman to serve as a top enlisted adviser in the military.
And now, Bass is planning to put an even bigger mark on the Air Force. In an Oct. 26 interview with Air Force Times, Bass said she’s working on a series of short, medium and long-term plans to improve how the Air Force manages its enlisted airmen.
Bass’s plans to improve the Air Force’s enlisted ranks dovetails with the priorities of her new boss, Air Force Chief of Staff Charles “CQ” Brown. In August, a few weeks after both Brown and Bass were sworn into their new roles, Brown released a paper called “Accelerate Change or Lose.”
As part of his call to change, Brown said that without significant end strength increases to count on, the Air Force needs to adjust its personnel strategy to better take care of its airmen and use their talents.
In Monday’s interview, Bass said the Air Force needs to shift its culture to be ready to make those necessary changes and prepare for the future.
“We’re looking at the long game,” Bass said in a video conversation with Air Force Times. “How do we maintain our relevancy as a warfighting organization? And we’re balancing that with, how do we take care of that today, so that our airmen have the culture that they need, so that they stay in and continue serving.”
Bass' historic appointment as CMSAF — her mother is Korean and she is also the first person of Asian-American descent to serve in the role — is the culmination of a career that began in 1993.
She was born in Puyallup, Washington, and spent her childhood moving around with her Army warrant officer father’s shifting assignments, including overseas postings in Mainz, Germany — her favorite — and Heidelberg, Germany.
Her family ultimately landed in Mililani, Hawaii, where she graduated from high school.
“I am a military brat — a proud military brat,” Bass said. “I think it’s definitely shaped who I am, the way that I think. It’s definitely made me a diverse person.”
She wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the military. But growing up, Bass said, she watched her dad get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning every day to go PT with the Army. She decided to join the Air Force under the belief that it would be a different story.
“I thought, man, there’s no way, I don’t think I could ever do that,” Bass said with a laugh. “What’s crazy is, now I get up at 4:30 or 5 to go PT every day. It started off something as silly as that.”
But more seriously, Bass said her father advised her that if she wanted to join the military, “the Air Force is the way to go, from a quality of life perspective.”
It took Bass some time to grow up. She was 18 years old, and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, aside from vague plans to do one enlistment to get her GI Bill and some experience and figure out what she wanted to do with life.
“I was your typical junior airman, that had huge potential, yet misguided at times, wanted to just enjoy life and take it one day at a time, was not completely forward thinking, yet a hard worker,” Bass said. “I was like any other 18-, 19-, 20-year-old who just wanted to figure her life out and have fun.”
But four years later, she had a Honda Civic to pay off, so she signed up for another hitch, and “that seemed like all the right reasons.”
“It wasn’t until the eight-year mark that I really understood what it meant to wear this uniform, and I understood that service was way more than just a GI Bill,” Bass said.
That understanding didn’t come all at once, rather “slowly but surely” as she got acclimated to the Air Force’s culture, made it through deployments and built relationships with other airmen over time. Her stint at the 24th Special Tactics Squadron at Fort Bragg, N.C., from 1998 to 2000 — during which she took part in a series of readiness exercises with allies — was particularly formative, she said.
“Being able to be in such an organization like that, where there’s truly some great Americans serving, I quickly realized … the privilege to wear our nation’s cloth,” Bass said. “The 24th Special Tactics [Squadron] … was where I really learned what right looks like, from a cultural perspective, where those brothers and sisters took care of me as if I was their own younger sister. And they empowered me and respected me for what I brought to the fight.”
She had a series of supervisors and mentors — “too many to count,” she said — who looked out for her. She got passed over for staff sergeant the first time she was up for promotion, and her then-squadron commander pulled her into his office to reassure her that she would get it the next time.
“It’s leaders like that, throughout my career, that have all afforded to me some kind of way, and were just great mentors to me,” Bass said.
As a senior airman, Bass said she was something of a know-it-all about how the Air Force should do things. But when she became a noncommissioned officer, she realized she didn’t know as much as she thought.
Today, she tries to be “pretty transparent” in her leadership style, and remain open to other perspectives and new lessons to learn — even if it’s through trial and error.
“Every job that you have, every stripe that you make, is a growth opportunity for you to learn,” Bass said.
This is the first time Brown and Bass have worked together. She began to learn more about him when rumors started swirling that he was likely to be the next chief of staff, and was excited to see how he would lead. And when she found out she had a shot at chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Bass began studying Brown and his leadership style even more.
She said she’s excited to work for Brown because she sees his passion and drive to push the Air Force where it needs to go — a passion which she shares.
“Being able to work for a boss that is unapologetic, and unafraid to get after the changes that we need, is pretty cool,” Bass said. “But he also is a leader who cares so much for airmen and their families that it’s admirable.”
Bass said the top three areas she wants to focus on as top enlisted leader are people, readiness and culture.
Bass wants to look at how the Air Force recruits the right people, and then goes on to develop, train and equip them once they are in so they can be their very best. And once they hang up their uniform, Bass wants to make sure the Air Force does what it needs to take care of them and make sure they’ll be assets to their communities.
“I don’t care if they’re on the first enlistment, second enlistment, or 28 years in, they all matter,” she said.
Bass also wants to make sure airmen are ready for the fight, including making sure they’re leading healthy lifestyles, and are being properly trained and developed.
Ensuring the Air Force has the right culture “is the foundation of everything,” she said.
“How do we make sure that we have a culture where we are living our core values, we respect each other, we trust each other, we hold each other accountable?” Bass said. “There’s pride, honor and courage. How do we take care of our brothers and sisters in arms?”
That also means ensuring airmen feel “valued and empowered,” she said, and that the Air Force has a culture that values diversity and embraces inclusion.
Bass laid down a marker on this topic earlier this month when she weighed in on a case involving harassment of a deployed airman and her sister.
In a September op-ed in Air Force Times, Staff Sgt. Heather Fejerang described the harassment, including sexual harassment, and victim-blaming she and her sister received after the Air Force wrote a story about them deploying together to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Bass had her staff reach out to Fejerang afterwards. And on Oct. 8, Bass addressed the issue in a series of tweets in which she declared “Respect is non-negotiable.”
Creating an Air Force where all airmen are respected “takes every airman and every wingman, to get after the culture we need, where we truly value and respect each other,” Bass said in Monday’s interview.
But that’s not the part that most concerns her, which is, “Have we actually developed our airmen to understand the information age that we’re in? That we realize that our actions and our behaviors and our words matter, especially on social media?”
Younger airmen grew up with social media and are very aware of it, she said. But for many leaders, she said, it’s completely new terrain.
“I don’t know that we’ve developed all leaders and all airmen to be able to understand that respect for each other as brothers and sisters in arms also very much bleeds into how we behave on social media,” Bass said.
If Fejerang and her sister came face-to-face with those airmen who disrespected them online, Bass said, they wouldn’t say the same things — or at least she hopes they wouldn’t.
The Air Force community is much alarmed about high rates of suicide among airmen, but has struggled to address the problem. In September, Brown told reporters that 98 airmen had taken their own lives at that point in 2020. That was roughly where the rate of deaths by suicide was at the same point in 2019. By the end of 2019, 136 airmen had died by suicide, about one-third more than in 2018.
Bass said she thinks about suicide prevention every day, and how to build strong and resilient airmen and families. It’s a daily topic of conversation in her office, she said.
The Air Force is planning to create a working group to bring together all officials involved with building resiliency among airmen and families and look at how the Air Force is going about it, Bass said. The working group will look at issues including mental health, culture, and policies and procedures that need to be improved.
The group will also include airmen who have been directly affected by resiliency issues, and can provide firsthand examples of where gaps in the system exist and must be fixed.
Bass also wants to focus on improving how the Air Force develops its enlisted leaders, from the time they start at E-1 all the way until they become chief master sergeants. Her office is working on a new enlisted force development strategy, which could include changes to professional military education and other training and development programs.
“Are we developing the leaders that we need for that high-end fight?” Bass said. “Are we developing the leaders that we need for 2030 and beyond?”
Bass has an extensive history overseeing training and development issues, including her previous role as command chief of the Second Air Force, which oversees basic military training and other training operations.
Bass is also eying potential changes to how the Air Force evaluates and promotes enlisted airmen, including short, intermediate and long-term changes.
In 2019, the Air Force dropped Weighted Airman Promotion System tests for senior noncommissioned officers. At the time, Bass’s predecessor, Kaleth Wright, said the Air Force was thinking about doing the same for NCOs, but wanted to study the matter further.
Bass said that while her office is looking at ways to improve talent management, it’s still undecided what the Air Force might do with NCO WAPS tests.
But one thing the Air Force will do, Bass said, is once again give enlisted airmen some form of credit for their level of experience when deciding promotions. The Air Force used to give enlisted airmen points based on time-in-grade and time-in-service, but finished a multi-year phase out of those longevity points in 2018.
It’s not a matter of if experience consideration returns, Bass said, but how. The Air Force’s personnel experts are studying the issue, and within the next month or two, are expected to provide Bass recommendations and possible courses of action for once again giving airmen credit for their experience.
Recognizing experience also could include giving airmen credit for the skills they already bring into the Air Force, Bass said. For example, she said, if a new airman joins the Air Force to work in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and has all the certifications from previously doing that work in the private sector, how should the Air Force recognize that?
“We value experience,” Bass said. But “we want to go forward in a smart way, that there aren’t second- and third-order effects to how we bring that back.”
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.