The Millennial Air Force

by Tech. Sgt. Zachary Wilson
U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center

When I arrived at my first duty station in the fall of 2000, one of the first things my supervisor did was hand me the most horrid hat I had ever seen in my life. It was a blue “trucker-style” mesh hat with a blue rope stretched across the bill displaying my new organization’s shield with gold lettering on the front.

I was expected to wear this “head gear” every day with my BDUs as a fully fledged Airman (we were still “little A’s” then) in the U.S. Air Force. I was confused, as this was by appearance the least military contraption you could ever imagine. I couldn’t believe the base’s senior members wore this travesty without batting an eye.

Sitting here now, more than a decade later, I bring this story up as I reflect on a lot of comments I have heard in the years since about how much more “Air Force” we were in those days. From many of the comments you can read on Air Force message boards and forums, many commentators have an almost visceral reaction to anything new our service does or proposes. This includes uniforms, policies, manning and physical fitness testing, among other things.

The common refrain heard is, “In the old days, things were so much better because of x, y and z.”

Going back to 1999, when I enlisted, we were finishing up our recent actions in Kosovo as part of Operation Allied Force. The Air Force had active-duty end strength of more than 363,449 Airmen and was still reeling from the cutbacks of the early ’90s upon the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm. The phrase “do more with less” was common in many workplaces at the time. The ever popular ergonomic bike test was the Air Force’s premier fitness assessment and used an arcane formula that led world-class marathon runners and triathletes to routinely fail and 5-foot, 250-pound, chain-smoking Airmen to pass with flying colors, or at least as the anecdotes are told.

The premillennial Air Force was trying to educate the force on a nascent Air Expeditionary Force, or Expeditionary Aerospace Force (I always confused the two) policy that would require Airmen to serve 90 days overseas every 18 months maximum, most likely supporting Operations Southern and Northern Watch. I could go on with the history lesson, but the point I’m trying to make is the Air Force was a bit different then. At the time, a number of Airmen liked to express their dissatisfaction with certain segments of Air Force life, just as I’m sure they have for 60-plus years.

Airmen serving today are proud of the tradition and heritage of those who served before us, but when I look at the faces of many Airmen attending pre-deployment training here, I see 19-year-old security forces Airmen who were not even in middle school on 9/11. The “new” Air Force is being shaped year by year, day by day. This generation truly answered the call to serve without hesitation, even with our nation at war. I can’t say the same for myself, having enlisted with no serious threats on the horizon at the time.

I am not glossing over significant issues many Airmen face today, whether it is force shaping, severe manning reductions in workplaces, limited resources or nonstop six-month deployments to combat zones. In fact, that is my point.

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we have seen our service embrace more of a combat role and mindset that increases with each year.

In my job at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, more than 24,000 Airmen are trained each year to go forward into harm’s way. Some may deploy to larger and more established bases in Southwest Asia, and others may operate at an isolated forward operating base shared with a few dozen Soldiers or Marines.

We are away from home longer. We assume risks doing our deployed missions that our predecessors 20 years ago did not anticipate or train us for.

However, we are more fit. We are paid better. Our families have many more resources and programs available to them. Our leaders continue to find ways to allow us to develop more professionally with each passing year. The Air Force does not get everything perfect (remember the ultra-blue ABUs?), but it has dealt with a full spectrum of challenges during the years, such as major geopolitical changes in the world, two full-scale contingencies, humanitarian operations and a nationwide economic crisis.

Leaders of all persuasions have faced these challenges and others and postured Airmen to meet them head-on. I have faith that these leaders will continue to do so and provide an Air Force that will allow me to take the stage at my retirement ceremony post 2019 and say, “Back in the old days, things were not that much better. Today’s Air Force is the best it has ever been.”

And then I’ll burn my blue hat.