Chairman’s ‘Short List:’ Take Care of People
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash., June 19, 2008 The mood in the C-17 Globemaster III hanger here was festive today as nearly 1,000 airmen waited for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take the stage for an “all-hands” call.
Music played. Photos of planes and patriotic images flashed on two large screens flanking the stage. Airmen tapped the toes of their boots on the hangar floor and talked and laughed.
“I just want to fly – put your arms around me baby, put your arms around me baby,” crooned a popular pop song.
The truth was, most of them probably could have used a hug. The troubled service has been rocked in the last weeks and months by procurement problems, funding debates and is still reeling from the resignations of those serving in its two top posts just more than a week ago.
And yesterday the Government Accountability Office released a report that could unravel one of the largest aircraft acquisition contracts in U.S. history.
”Put your arms around me baby, put your arms around me baby -- I-I-I-I just w-a-a-ant t-o-o fly,” the song chorused.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, here on a tour of western-U.S. military bases walked on stage and stood before the crowd in a green flight suit with a Joint Chiefs patch on his chest. As the military’s top officer, he was here to listen to, and take back to the D.C. beltway, the questions and concerns of the airmen. This airlift base is only about 50 miles from the western coastline, and its airmen are probably as far removed from the Pentagon and the levels of leadership that are feeling the heat as you can get in the “lower 48.”
Mullen did not stand on the elevated podium above the crowd. Instead, after he was introduced, he walked down to the hangar floor and asked that all those standing in the back come to the front and sit down on the floor. It left him, a career Navy man, surrounded by a sea of airmen.
For an hour the chairman fielded questions from the group on topics ranging from pay to politics. He thanked the airmen for their service. He challenged them to lead. He prodded them to up their standards.
But one question, from a senior noncommissioned officer here, cut to the heart of the chairman’s message he has carried from Air Force to Marine base to Army post throughout his four-day trip.
“What is on your short list to make this great military better,” the NCO asked.
“I don’t have any short lists,” Mullen joked.
After some laughter the chairman responded, “My shortest list is one.
“People,” he said.
“It gets to the heart and soul that is really you setting in this hangar -- because we can’t do it without you. We can have the greatest missions in the world, and the greatest aircraft in the word, and the greatest technology in the world. It’s not going to make any difference at all without the greatest people in the world.
Mullen, a Vietnam War veteran, said he remembers the military when it was not the all-volunteer force it is today. He regularly calls the military now the best in the history, and the world.
“I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to do that again,” he said of his service in the mid-1970s and 80s.
But today’s military is based on the quality of the volunteer, he said. Recruiting, retention, pay, promotions, families -- all demand his attention.
“I spend probably sometimes more of my time on these than others might like me to do,” Mullen said.
“Literally every single day, decisions come across my desk, and there’s not one of those decisions that I’m not thinking about what it means for your life, thinking about what it means for your families, thinking about what it means for the missions that I am asking you to carry out in a very dangerous time in very dangerous parts of the world.”
Mullen said making sure the force is robust and supported, and allowing for career advancement, training and education are critical to taking care of troops.
And leaders must take care of families, he added.
“I never got to vote whether I stayed in or not. Never did. It was ‘us’ that did that. If the family is not inclined, I’m not sticking around,” Mullen said.
The military needs to set up its systems to put the servicemember at the “center of the universe,” not the other way around, Mullen said. Assignments should consider not only the needs of the service, but also the servicemember.
“Top of the list, is making sure we have it right for you. You’re the ones … that carry this load,” Mullen said.
That would be my list of one, the top officer in the nation told the NCO as he sat back down in a hangar full of airmen who just heard that they were at the center of the chairman’s decision-making process. Not money. Not planes. And certainly not bureaucracy.
“We can’t do anything without you. Period,” Mullen said.