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Hold the line on timeless standards

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Eric Jaren
  • Command Chief, Air Force Materiel Command
A couple of months ago I attended an awards ceremony at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where retired Technical Sgt. Matt Slaydon was the guest speaker. Matt is an explosive ordnance disposal technician who suffered critical injuries when an IED blew up two feet away from him during his deployment to Iraq in 2007.

Matt spoke of the war against Islamic extremists and his journey of faith and self discovery.

After reading more about Matt, I discovered an article by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who attended his retirement ceremony. General Schwartz said Matt closed out his career saying, "Hold the line ... hold the line."

I believe Matt's message to hold the line was about standards, but not just minimum standards.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Ralph Schell -- one of the original 625 chief master sergeants when that rank was created during the 1950s-- was at the AFSA banquet, too.

Like Matt, Chief Schell talked about standards and how they have relaxed over the years. Now in his 90s, but still mentally sharp, he said basic military functions are the cornerstone of discipline and military bearing. Activities such as assembly, formation and inspection are necessary to establish and maintain standards, discipline and attention to detail.

Basic Military Training School teaches Airmen those very standards. Trainees learn fundamentals like military drill, ceremony and inspection to establish military image and bearing. The Airmen coming out of basic training are the best ever. They graduate fit to fight, disciplined, motivated and "Ready!"

And then we send them to our bases ...

Airmen speak of their disappointment when they arrive at their first assignment to discover the basic lessons are not applied.

Throughout their careers, enlisted Airmen attend professional military education, where they are taught the latest supervisory and management tools appropriate for their rank. They also rehearse military ceremonies, traditions and rituals, and embrace our heritage. I often hear PME graduates saying they were "reblued."

And then we send them back to our bases ...

Airmen are "blued" in Basic Training and "reblued" in PME, but they become de-motivated once they return to their units.

Air Force leadership reminds us along the way about the importance of standards. General Schwartz speaks about getting "back-to-basics" in the nuclear enterprise and other areas where we had lost focus. Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy says we need to "do the basics" in regards to compliance and acceptance of responsibility.

Unfortunately, I discovered relaxed standards right on my base.

At interviews for a new command chief executive assistant and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the First Term Airman Center, candidates were directed to report in service dress for an interview. I wanted to give them a chance to shine.

After being seated, one of the candidates slid down in the seat and slouched to one side.

I decided to give him a clue. Also wearing my service dress, I rocked slightly from side to side to straighten my posture. I thought it worked because the candidate straightened up, only to slide back down the opposite way a moment later. This was a complete lapse in military bearing, image, customs and tradition -- during his job interview no less!

He wanted to work in the wing command section, a revered position for a staff sergeant. He agreed to put on his service dress, meet in the conference room and participate in an interview. I concluded this display was simply an Airman doing the best he knew how. This wasn't his fault; this was my fault. Senior leaders, this is our fault. We have allowed standards to slip this far.

A couple of weeks later, while doing a Senior Airman below-the-zone board, I realized there wasn't a single line in the records pertaining to status of training or career development. The board was judging merit for early promotion based on 15 bullet lines crafted by the most gifted writer in the squadron. The Airman's military bearing, military image and communication ability were unknown, too. These were actually important elements of the grade when I was vying for BTZ. Now they are not even considered.

Later, I was discussing my observations during a perspective panel for the Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Seminar. It struck me to poll the NCOs to see how many of them had stood in front of a face-to-face board. The answer: none! Even among the senior noncommissioned officers, only half had ever met a board.

It was time for action.

We formed a team to work on getting back to basics. We changed the BTZ instruction to require Airmen to meet a board. But if no NCOs and only half of SNCOs knew how to meet a board, who would teach the airmen?

We were beginning to build an "Old School" course when retired Master Sgt. Jaye Tyrrel knocked on my door. Jaye, who in his 80s, handed me a document he had kept for more than 60 years. "The Guide to the NCO, 23 Jun 1948" captures the spirit of the basic military functions that Chief Schell talked about. Since then I have copied and bound the document into the Little Green Book and had the original placed in the Enlisted Heritage Research Institute. And we've gotten back to work on our "Old School" course.

Leaders, it is time to hold the line!

We need to do reveille. We need to do retreat. We need to do roll calls, every day. I hear people say we don't have time. If we are that busy, then I believe we need roll calls more than ever. And yes, we need to do uniform inspections, in formation, weekly!

These basic functions teach attention to detail and stress adherence to standards. Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward. This is that time!

General Schwartz tells us to get "back-to-basics." Chief Roy encourages "doing the basics." Jaye Tyrell gave back the "guide to the basics." Chief Schell says "basics are the cornerstone." Matt Slaydon "held the line."

Leaders, tell me: will you hold the line?