This year marks a notable milestone most Americans are unlikely to recognize or fully appreciate — 50 years of an all-volunteer U.S. military that is the most professional, potent and capable fighting force in world history.
Yet while this moment deserves a full-throated celebration, it also arrives at a time when our nation is facing an array of new threats to our security and a documented decline in the public’s willingness to serve. This directly affects our ability to recruit and retain personnel.
According to 2022 Department of Defense data, just 10% of those asked expressed an interest in military service. In another key data point, only 23% of American youth are qualified to serve without a waiver. It’s also true that, today, most Americans don’t know anyone in the military. As personal connections to the military dwindle, so does the level of the nation’s understanding of it.
Reversing this reality is difficult. But presenting honest, clear-eyed examples for what a life in the Air Force offers — why it’s rewarding and attractive — is an important first step.
While no organization is perfect, an Air Force career embodies ideals every American can embrace. Additionally, the U.S. Air Force offers unmatched opportunities and experiences, which I’ve experienced first-hand and benefitted from across my 40-year career.
Even so, my own story demands honesty.
I did not enlist in the Air Force at 18 for patriotic reasons. I just wanted to get out of my parents’ house, and I needed a job. My dad and older brother both served in, and retired from, the Air Force, and so I could see what was possible.
While I didn’t expect it, a massive sense of purpose snuck up and overwhelmed me during my first enlistment. I was surprised by the power in fully understanding that there is no greater calling than serving and protecting others. A career in the Air Force has inherent purpose and meaning unmatched in the civilian world. To me it feels like the most noble thing to do with my life.
I embraced it.
An Air Force career offers the chance to work in an innovative and forward-thinking organization where career options, education, mentorship, leadership and on-the-job training are everyday perks. The Air Force offers opportunities spanning almost every career field imaginable. Not all are combat related, but every uniformed and civilian airman, regardless of career field, has a critical role in delivering and supporting airpower.
From my earliest days I was struck by how much responsibility I was given as a maintainer on the flightline. Getting the call on a “red ball” to fix the communications system on a T-38 with the engines running, while a lieutenant just a few years older than me watched from the pilot’s seat, was an exhilarating feeling I will always cherish. The Air Force consistently presented me with meaningful jobs, educational opportunities, and leadership challenges. To ensure my success, the Air Force provided the training and experiences necessary to develop and succeed at each level.
The Air Force provides membership in a special community of individuals who share three core values: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. At its foundation, military service offers a sense of belonging and the support of a work family. Indeed, I love the people I serve alongside and marvel at my good fortune to be on this high-performing team.
Additionally, our installations provide a set of personal support services — housing, gyms, grocery stores, bowling alleys, event centers and recreation — that enhances quality of life and fosters work-life balance. It provides 30 days of paid vacation each year and 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
Dede and I raised our four children in this environment, and each of them, now adults, look back with fond memories of their “Air Force life.” We benefitted from tuition assistance, a pension system and complete healthcare coverage.
The opportunities offered to those who willingly, voluntarily join the Air Force are unmatched. We aim every day to inspire, engage and recruit the most talented and qualified people. Our diversity grows as we continue to remove barriers to service. There will always be more work to do to ensure we keep pace with a changing nation. But through this change a constant remains — we must understand and preserve what we value as a nation and stand at the ready to protect it. Joining this world-class team offers this chance and so much more.
It’s hard to believe 40 years have passed since I first donned the uniform and Dede and I married. Many of those years have not been easy, but each has been rewarding.
What I thought would be a quick four-year enlistment and start to my adult life grew into the tap root of my character, a fulfilling life-long commitment to my nation, and a source of pride for my spouse and children. Indeed, every morning I place my feet on the ground thankful for the opportunities, community and sense of purpose the Air Force gifted me and my family and the inspiration I get from all those with whom I serve.
Gen. Duke Z. Richardson is commander of Air Force Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He is responsible for installation and mission support, discovery and development, test and evaluation, life cycle management services, and sustainment of virtually every major Air Force weapon system. Richardson enlisted in the Air Force in 1983 as an avionics technician, and later received his commission in 1989 via Officer Training School.