Air Force units regularly pause their activities to celebrate behaviors and actions that hew to our core values of service and excellence. We attend promotion, reenlistment, award, graduation, and retirement ceremonies to recognize the meritorious actions of our airmen publicly. By honoring their accomplishments and dedication, we show our airmen that we see the light that shines bright inside them. We show them they are valued.
Equally important as honoring the individual is the public recognition of imitable behaviors for our airmen to emulate. Whenever I see young senior airmen raise their hands, in the presence of their friends and family, to take an oath-of-enlistment, I am humbled and moved to rededicate myself. They are writing a blank check to the country and forgoing a lot of other opportunities in order to continue serving. Watching colleagues receive the award of a Bronze Star or Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions downrange makes me proud and want to be brave and heroic, too. These ceremonies are important because they affect and move us.
The Air Force has tried to attack the pilot shortfall from multiple angles for several years, but it hasn't shrunk.
Failing to recognize our outstanding airmen would be almost unthinkable as would passing up the opportunity to share these celebrations with our units.
But, this is what we do when our F-35 pilots, B-52 electronic warfare officers, E-8 air battle managers and other rated officers sign retention contracts, sometimes committing up to 12 more years of service. Their renewed commitment to the country will likely mean more time in harm’s way, but it will almost certainly result in more time away from their families. This selflessness helps the Air Force maintain its lethality and readiness, and it saves a lot of budget dollars. We do nothing, however, to recognize and honor them when they make this choice.
We squander the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the selfless commitment of pilots and other rated officers, the majority of our front-line combatants, when they go all-in after their initial service commitments. Equally as important, we miss the chance to publicly hold up their exemplary actions for others to see.
When I was a younger pilot, I deeply respected the more experienced aviators, officers and enlisted, in my squadron for their skill, courage, patriotism, and commitment to the mission. Frequently, I saw our airmen and NCOs aircrew reenlist in front of the squadron and honored for their personal decision to extend their service to the country. It would have moved me to see my unit’s senior pilots do the same. I never got the chance.
The Air Force says it has made progress in retaining existing pilots and creating more new pilots, but increasing missions are eating up those gains.
Is public recognition enough to convince more pilots to sign retention contracts? For those pilots adamant about separating and starting the next phase of their lives, probably not. But only the most cynical or hardest of hearts wouldn’t be affected by a moving public recognition. For those pilots on the fence or uncertain about their future in the Air Force, having the opportunity to see their peers lauded and honored for pledging more years of service would be impactful. It’s a powerful signal to pilots and other rated officers that the Air Force values them and wants them to stay, too. Even if public recognition of their extended commitments does not improve retention — dubbed a crisis by our leaders — we should do it anyway because it’s right. As often as possible, airmen need to see instances of service-before-self and be reminded that our personal decisions add up to momentous impacts for the Air Force and the United States.
Lt. Col. Tobias Switzer is a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he recently published a report on Air Force pilot retention. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense and/or the United States Air Force.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.