Air Force, A great way of life

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. John M. Raffiani Jr.
  • 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron Superintendent
Wow, what an opportunity! Stationed at Whiteman for 17 years (yes, that's accurate) and I was finally asked to write an article for the Warrior. I truly do view this as an opportunity, one to share my story of this wonderful experience we call the Air Force and to offer some advice on opportunities, change and priorities, especially since this is my last month on active duty.

I've been in the active service of our country since early 1985. Many are aghast to learn, I've only been stationed at two bases that entire time. Some would argue such long-term homesteading is detrimental to an enlisted career. I suspect they have some valid points, but as a heavy bomber crew chief, both of those bases provided me with multiple and positive opportunities, that allowed tremendous growth.

Some of those opportunities allowed me literally to serve on five of the seven continents while in direct support of heavy bomber operations. How many people can make that claim? From 48 degrees south of the North Pole, to remote and bare airbases in North Africa, to about 35 degrees south of the equator, I've been privileged to have had the opportunity of conducting actual combat, as well as combat training and aircraft operations around the world.

My first assignment was to the "frontlines" in the absolute height of the Cold War. At 19, I found myself maintaining crusty, but reliable B-52's, literally five miles from the Canadian border. Our mission statement was clear, "Peace through Strength."

A nuclear-only mission under Strategic Air Command, our goal was to provide the 'bomber option' side of the nuclear triad through strict training and adherence to rules and regulations. Since we were at war, (thank God a war that never went hot), we had to maintain a constant and disciplined vigilance. Although quite clear now; those were the waning days of the Cold War and through that disciplined vigilance, we won that war, but the Air Force as I knew it was about to change. Desert Storm would become the catalyst for that change.

Shortly after our modern-day air power, coming-out demonstration (Desert Storm,) the world anxiously experienced the fall of the Soviet Union. As this historic moment unfurled in front of us, I can recall thinking to myself as a young staff sergeant, "who do we fight now?" For three generations the Soviets were our main adversary. It was one massive chess match, with only two main players. The strategy was fairly simple; stare the Soviets down without blinking while simultaneously demonstrating incredible nuclear capability.

Grateful for our victory and the ability to avert a nuclear exchange, we left the match uncertain of the future. With no obvious adversaries (third world terrorist thugs didn't count back then), we were forced to reshape ourselves. Although many Cold War relics found new roles and missions, the entire Defense Department was forced to restructure organizations and realign missions, in a word, "change" and guess where I was; right smack in the middle.

Just prior to this extensive Air Force transformation (change), I formally applied for and was hired in a maintenance position on the brand new B-2 bomber program at Whiteman. I had heard they were building heated docks to house the jets and after eight years of sub-zero temperatures in my immediate work place, heat sounded nice. Old school dudes told me I was crazy, they tried talking me out of the move. I was widely considered one of the best B-52 crew chiefs on-base, "why start over, why force change?"

Why? I was ready for a change (recall the heat thing, plus I had done everything a 7-level could possibly do on a B-52, to include flying; yes flying, although only high and level). With only about 15 B-2 flightline staff sergeant positions available, I was honored to be selected for the initial cadre, after competing against hundreds of applicants. Bottom line, although some opportunities are at your feet, others can only be seized if you stand up and seek them out. And, oh by the way, almost all opportunities will force you to deal with some level of change.

Although change is a constant dynamic in everybody's life, to include the Air Force culture, most of us at some point in our life, have challenged it. We prefer the security of status quo and deny that change is a necessary part of our growth and development, both physically and socially.

Institutions and corporations are no different; sometimes change is driven through budgets and other times by policy. Either way, I can make you one guarantee here today; at some point in your life or career, you will experience some level of change. So if change is so inevitable, why resist it? We shouldn't.

Bottom line, almost all change should be embraced positively; embrace the change as quickly as possible, use it as a life lesson if necessary and press! Either way, the secret of adapting to those inevitable changes is to remain positive and flexible.

Now there's another word I love; flexible. I can't tell you who coined it (I suspect an Air Force maintainer) but one of my favorite Air Force quotes ever is: "Flexibility is the key to Air Power." I can offer thousands of examples where that quote has applied to tense situations in my career. It served me well as a guideline in moments of chaos, when the best laid plan merely became a point of departure. Although our training prepares us to fight, in the moments of actual execution, from sortie generation to acquiring and destroying targets, flexibility, in my experienced opinion, is the absolute key to turning that training into successful mission execution.

I digress, so back to my career path. I've been at Whiteman for so long ... I can remember when the current Air Combat Command commander (Gen. William M. Fraser III) was the 509th Operations Group commander! Not only that, we were both assigned to the same aircraft. Interestingly enough, the OG flagship at the time, Spirit of California, just happened to be the jet I was assigned to as a dedicated crew chief. Both of our names were forever etched (in removable tape) on the forward nose landing door at the same time!

I've been here so long, when I first arrived on-station, I actually signed into Detachment 509. The detachment itself was working in a temporary status in what is now the OSS. The Wing wouldn't actually stand-up for another three months.

I've been here so long, I can recall almost every 'first' this magnificent weapons platform has encountered. From the first delivery in December 1993 to the first GATS/GAM near-precision weapons demo (my jet) to actual combat operations to projecting power around the globe. And by the way, don't think for one second that every adversary (real or perceived) doesn't factor what we do into their thinking. Ultimately, some of them will cross the line and when they do, who will the national command authorities call? Yeah, you betcha, the 509th!

In 1985 the official Air Force recruiting line went something like this, "Air Force, A Great Way of Life." At the time, I didn't realize or appreciate how accurate that statement was. I'm definitely not a poster boy for recruiting, but without question, the Air Force is a fantastic institution and a great way of life, and I'm forever grateful to have been part of this team. And speaking of the team, the single most important part of this institution is not the weapon systems but the people who acquire, maintain and operate those systems.

Of all of my global Air Force experiences, some in really austere locations, the single thread that ensured success was the people. With a common goal of defending our nation, thousands of diverse people from across this great country, are able to continually execute our mission successfully, again and again. I challenge you to find that same capability in any industry.

In conclusion, I'd like to talk priorities. Mission priorities are obvious. Go to work tomorrow, and they'll be right there in front of you. Many of us don't consider them, but there are additional priorities that take some extra effort and directly impact our ability to do the mission.

First and foremost, take care of yourself. The Air Force has mandated some strict standards regarding our physical fitness and believe it or not, it's not only for the mission but it's for everything else in our lives. How can we take care of our families, pursue additional endeavors and take care of our troops if we aren't in shape, physically and mentally?

Second, take care of your family. If you're single, then this refers to your closest immediate family. Don't overlook them; they are essential to your success and well-being. Give them as much time and love as possible; consider it an investment that will forever pay dividends and believe me, they are essential to mission accomplishment.

Third, continue to educate yourself. If you're enlisted, start with the Community College of the Air Force, but don't stop there. I don't care if you already have your masters, then start seeking a second graduate degree or even your doctorate. Either way, never cease pursuing the next level. Our great Air Force pays full tuition, so take advantage of that opportunity.

Lastly, I challenge leaders and supervisors at all levels to take care of your troops. I was brought up in a time when supervisors would regularly work us 12 hours without question and lunch breaks, well they were sometimes optional. Is it necessary to sacrifice like that? Yes, sometimes you bet, but remember your troop's success or failure is yours to share.

Listen intently to their needs, provide them the necessary training and resources and then make sure they are aware of and held to Air Force standards. I have no room to talk on this one but avoid interacting with them on an electronic level.

Get in the field, go to their work centers or desks and chat with them. Let them know you were there once; ask them what's on their minds. It's amazing how productive and positive those conversations can be. Remember, our youngest troops can't remember life without microwaves or remote televisions. Soon they won't remember life without cell phones or Facebook ... OMG! Keep face-to-face conversation alive and visit your troops in person.

The Air Force is full of opportunities; so don't let them all pass you by. Leaders and supervisors, continue to challenge your troops to seek and capitalize on even the smallest of opportunities. They will become more valuable to your team and ultimately the Air Force team.

Change; embrace it and incorporate it into your mission ASAP and press. No ... change is not always positive or productive, but trust me, if that's the case, it won't take long for leadership to change back.

I have three words to prove that theory ... quality Air Force. I also have a positive example of change I'd like to share; the Air Force Core Values we subscribe to didn't exist when I first enlisted. Their introduction was change as well. In fact it was change many didn't embrace and their paths all led out of the service. Think about that for a second, can you imagine the Air Force without our treasured core values? I can, and trust me here as well; we are a much better and stronger force thanks to that change.

In closing, the last 25 years has been incredible; I loved every moment and will truly miss the people and the mission.