WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --
When the Air Force got a fresh-faced Arnie Bunch straight out of the United States Air Force Academy 38 years ago, little did anyone know that he was in for the long haul.
In fact, the Morristown, Tennessee-native didn’t even know himself that joining the Air Force would lead to a career in service.
“It hit me when we began talking about the Air Force 75th birthday. I’ve been in the Air Force more than half the time the service has been in existence,” said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Commander, Air Force Materiel Command, who will trade in his uniform for civilian attire when he retires on August 1, 2022.
When Bunch opted to attend the Academy as a way to pay for college, he expected to serve only four to seven years; but, life took a completely different direction, with both he and his high-school sweetheart, Caroline, dedicating a life of service to the Air Force and its people.
“Once we started, we started feeling the sense of serving a greater purpose. The sense of camaraderie that we had with our fellow Airmen, the commitment to excellence, the integrity…we started realizing that this is definitely different. It was in our first tour that we set the only goal that we've ever set for our Air Force career, and that was we wanted to be a squadron command team,” said Bunch. “Never in a million years would we have thought that we would have the opportunity to sit in this position. Caroline and I are so honored that we got the opportunity to serve as the command team for the Air Force Materiel Command and to have worked for the 89,000 plus uniform and non-uniform Airmen and their families.”
Bunch was commissioned in 1984, and he completed undergraduate pilot training in 1985. After operational assignments as an instructor, evaluator and aircraft commander for the B-52 Stratofortress, he attended the Air Force Test Pilot School and began his foray into a number of positions at AFMC. He conducted developmental test for both the B-2 and B-52, and was an instructor for both.
Bunch also served as a squadron, group, wing and center commander--leadership roles that aligned most with his philosophy on life and service.
“Getting to be a commander and being able to touch people's lives… getting to do the kind of things that help people has just been a phenomenal thing to get to do,” said Bunch. “What I have valued most is being able to call people up and help them as they move through their careers. I have been able to remove obstacles and allow them to be successful. That’s what has made being a commander so much fun and rewarding for me.”
As the AFMC commander, Bunch dedicated the past three years to removing mission obstacles in multiple areas, ranging from diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, to innovation, technology, bureaucracy, digital transformation and more. To accomplish this, Bunch focused on the voice of the people working across the mission set in order to identify the specific areas for change.
“When I came in, there were a lot of people who thought I would immediately come in with, ‘go do this’ or ‘go do that.’ But, I didn't want to do that, because even though I had some ideas, there were things that were going on in the command that I didn't fully understand. I didn't really understand what was happening out at the in the program office, in the squadron, and how they were getting their business done and what was causing them to not be able to get things done in the manner that they wanted to. The only way you find that out is to listen. A lot of times they were really educating me,” said Bunch.
While focused on driving AFMC operational change for what he continuously referred to throughout his tenure as, “the most important major command in the United States Air Force to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy,” Bunch also took a hard line look at institutional barriers to mission success, particularly in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.
“I have always believed that in any organization, you, as the leader, have to set the right tone. Anything that hinders the ability to execute the mission, you have to address it…root it out, because it can be a cancer in an organization and really tear away at the fabric that holds a team together. We have to create the environment where every Airman has the opportunity to perform to their full potential,” said Bunch. “Making this sustainable over the long term-- that's a slow cooker problem that a lot of people want to fix with a microwave oven. I believe that we've got to sustain it, because it's going to take time to foundationally change it and make a difference for our Airmen.”
He was also challenged with leading a workforce through the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that both the people and the mission remained successful.
“I often made the joke that I looked on my bookshelf for the book, ‘How to lead AFMC during a pandemic,’ and I couldn't find one. I was really proud of the way we brought in new tools so we could get the mission done. It’s just the innovative spirit--the nature and the way that everybody embraced it. I am really proud of the way that we worked our way through it,” said Bunch.
While Bunch’s leadership term is drawing to an end, the work of AFMC Airmen in support of the Air Force will continue to endure. He offers some sage advice to those who will continue to carry the AFMC mission forward.
“We need to evolve for the future to be successful in supporting our Air Force, and in some cases, get out of our own way. Each Airman needs to come to work every day understanding that they’re doing their wartime mission and to keep looking at ways to be better at it,” said Bunch. “One of the things I've told people is that, ‘you got to get comfortable being uncomfortable’ because we've got to move forward so that we can support where our Air Force needs us to go.”
He also spoke of the importance of AFMC in ensuring the Air Force is prepared to tackle the challenges of near peer competitors today and in the future.
“We've got to move forward so that we can support where our Air Force needs us to go. As you look at the operational imperatives, the management initiatives, the increased importance of allies and partners called out in the National Defense Strategy… if you look at accelerate, change, or lose and putting technology out there at speed of relevance…those are all us. They're all us [AFMC], and if we don't play a critical role in that, we're not going to be successful as an Air Force,” said Bunch.
As Bunch gets ready to hang up his uniform for civilian attire, he cannot help but feel a bit nostalgic for all that he has experienced as an Airman throughout the past 38 years. He has often paralleled his time in command to that of living in a ‘fishbowl’ with eyes all around, and he recognizes that though his Air Force leadership role will cease, the service core values will continue to show throughout the next stages of life.
“I’ve kept a fishbowl on my desk to be that reminder for me of what I need to be as a leader, and that I am always that leader. So even though I am retiring, that fish will continue to serve beside me, no matter what I go do next, as a reminder that everyone is watching what I do and say as a leader,” said Bunch.
Though Bunch’s military service is drawing to a close, upon moving back to his Tennessee hometown, he and his wife Caroline plan to continue to serve in their local community school system as a way to give back to the place that provided such a strong foundation on which to build their life. Above all, he will continue to emphasize the importance of Air Force service to inspire future generations.
“The Air Force is a profession. It is a calling. It is something that our Nation needs young men and women to come in and serve so that we can defend those freedoms that we often take for granted. It is a group that holds itself accountable and dedicates and commits their lives to service and sacrifice,” said Bunch. “It’s the way the core values live within our culture. That is what has made the Air Force such a great journey. We need men and women who are willing to step up and take that step to commit to serve and sacrifice for the freedoms that we, as a Nation, have. Because if we don't protect them, they'll be gone.”