By Airman Magazine Staff, Airman Magazine
/ Published February 13, 2017
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody represents the highest enlisted level of leadership, and as such, provides direction for the enlisted force and represents their interests, as appropriate, to the American public, and to those in all levels of government. After a lifetime of service, Chief Cody, bids the United States Air Force farewell.
Airman Magazine: Alright chief, it’s been more than a 30-year journey. It’s coming to an end. Folks would like to know if when you were in basic training; did you think that you would be amongst some of the greats like Chief Paul Airey, Bob Gaylor, Sam Parish, and others? Was that even a thought?
CMSAF Cody: Every Airman I think can relate to what I’m going to say. At basic training you learn about the chief master sergeants of the Air Force. You certainly had a military training instructor that likely told you that, “Hey, one of you could be the chief master sergeant of the Air Force,” and you actually believed it, right? Because you didn’t really understand the talent pool that you were getting ready to jump into. I’m fairly confident that I was standing around a bunch of other young men and women that thought it was possible; and certainly it is. I sit here today. I think when you get out into our Air Force and you realize just what it’s all about and the people that are in it, you kind of start to move away almost immediately from this idea that you’re going to be the chief master sergeant in the Air Force and you really just start to focus on being the best Airman you can be, doing the best job you can do … there are a lot of great Airmen out there, a lot of great Airmen that are far better than I am at many different things. We just feel blessed and privileged for the opportunity to have been selected for this position.
Airman: With everything that you’ve learned during your tenure as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, looking back, what would you tell yourself prior to taking the position?
Cody: I think you have to understand that the truth changes daily. Sometimes people don’t understand that. It’s great to have a plan;, it’s great to have an idea and then move out with it and try to see that to fruition, but the reality is, so many other things influence the future of our Air Force and the direction we need to take, and that happened certainly when I came into the position with Gen. Welsh.
Almost immediately after being selected and coming up into the position, we went into sequestration, and the things that he and I talked about when he was bringing me on board dramatically changed because of the fiscal realities and what we were going to face as a nation. I think flexibility is the key.
Airman: What would you say is the hardest thing you’ve had to overcome while in this position?
Cody: I think this is something we all have to overcome in life. I think you always have to work at overcoming yourself. It’s personal, it’s professional, it’s who you are. When all those things are kind of maturating together, sometimes the focus can get off of what it really needs to be, not for ill-intended reasons, but just the reality of it.
You’ve got to get over yourself. You’ve got to really understand that there are a lot of people that have a great insight to things beyond what you have. That’s doesn’t mean you don’t bring what you bring to the table. It just means you have to be very receptive to bringing what they bring to the table and have that be an equal part in the deliberation.
Airman: What would you say is your proudest moment while in the position?
Cody: I wouldn’t personally say I’m proud of anything that I did. When you really look at the accomplishments of the men and women and their families and what we’ve been able to do for our nation, what we’ve been able to do for our Air Force; I’m extremely proud of that because I have a full appreciation for the challenges and the sacrifices associated with what we do and how they step up to it every day.
Our folks persevere. They persevere in some of the most challenging and difficult environments. Every time I can stand in front of our elected officials or on a stage in front of thousands of people and tell the story about an Airman, that’s my proudest moment as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force because I’m getting to talk about what they do every single day for their nation.
Airman: What is the feedback you have received from Airmen on the new blended professional military education? Coupled with that, how much did budget cuts influence that shift?
Cody: We ventured down this road not in the idea that this was going to save us money, although the model in the long run would save money. There’s still going to be in-residence (education), but by breaking out some of the academia into distance learning, we were able to shorten that — of course, not by a tremendous amount, just a few days — but it would be mostly focused on the leadership experience and the dialogue we create by bringing people together, and not on an instructor on a podium.
This model has saved us no money to date, none at all. If anything, it has cost us some money, as we’re building the new products and continuing to try to get them right, but it is the right evolution of professional military education because we can deliver it to more people in a very standardized approach.
I think the products are not where they need to be. We need to continue to improve utilizing technology in the best delivery methods we can with some options on how people can learn. It’s not just Course 15. We began with the Senior NCO Academy. The feedback that we’re getting from those that are going to the leadership experience portion of these, whether the immediate and advanced leadership, is phenomenal. It’s taken them to a new level of understanding and a new level of collaboration with their peers. The distance learning portion of it … some people are saying, “I can get it done. It’s not a problem.” Other people are saying, “This is really hard.”
It is a different model that requires a different level of effort than maybe we had previously been predisposed. We tend to build things that are kind of, “Hey, you go do this. You can get it done,” and this course is challenging.
Airman: How has the developmental special duties program helped the critically manned special duties in the Air Force, and are we getting the right people for the job? Why was DSD important?
Cody: Developmental special duties are extremely important. We specifically picked these 10 because of the impact that they had on the broad force at large, meaning they touched every Airman basically coming through our Air Force.
Getting the right people at the right time in their careers for that opportunity, meaning they have the right level of professional maturity, they have the right level of experience to be put in front of these young Airmen or even senior Airmen, to be credible.
The great news about this, since we’ve implemented developmental special duties we are manning those 10 critical developmental special duties at the highest levels historically. We are in the mid-’90s and always trying to get right close to 100 percent in those career fields. That significantly helps our ability to develop the force and support the pipeline. That’s going well.
The feedback that we’re getting from the leadership in those communities at all levels, from the frontline supervisor all the way up to commanders, is an extremely high level of confidence.
Airman: Chief, with fiscal restrictions and a smaller force, what are the challenges with maintaining training on health and culture issues, i.e., sexual assault, harassment, suicide prevention, etc., and ensuring Airmen still have time to concentrate on their mission?
Cody: This goes to a large part of what Secretary James and Gen. Goldfein have just recently released. As an Air Force we are moving forward with trying to reduce some of the additional duties, some of the ancillary training to the point that we can give more time back to the Airmen. More time back to the Airmen could mean a lot of different things. It could be more time to do the mission. It could be more time to do some work/life balance things with family. Hopefully it’s a combination of both, but it isn’t for every community, and we all have to appreciate that. Every community isn’t at the same level of stress when it comes to mission demands as others in the Air Force.
I think what we’re trying to do is realize we’re a really small Air Force that is really, really busy, and that’s a reality, right? This becomes a math problem. There are only 24 hours in a day, there are only seven days in a week, and you’re only going to be able to get so much done. How you prioritize that … that’s what the secretary and the chief and that’s what we’re trying to do is make sure we help give commanders the tools and flexibility to prioritize that.
You mentioned some behaviors that I worry about all the time. I worry about suicides; I worry about sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence. There’s a plethora, unfortunately, of destructive behaviors out there that have a tremendous negative impact on the people that serve and our force at large.
We’re constantly regenerating the force. I understand the toll it takes, the training it takes and sometimes the fatigue associated with repetitiveness of the same topic areas, but if you are on the other end of that topic — meaning you happen to be a victim or you happen to have been impacted by a suicide — your view and perspective on that would dramatically change.
Airman: How did your team ensure that military members and their families were taken care of during all those changes?
Cody: A lot of those other things you’ve talked about have impacted families and we put them in the calculus when we make the decisions on timelines and whatnot, but when you specifically think about force management and telling people that you’re not going to be able to serve anymore — and that number collectively got up into 17,000 people — that was a big thing to go through.
Gen. Welsh held constant that one, we were going to give people as much notification as we could, that we took that process out through an entire year so people could start to plan and make some deliberate decisions on that transition. I’m not trying to make light of the impact that that had on them and their families, but it does go to the leadership. The easier thing for the Air Force to have done, just like we’ve done before in history with force management, is once we identified you, 90 days later you were no longer in the Air Force.
When you think about why we were going to change the evaluation system, that needed to be changed for lots of reasons; but the impact on this is you do have a lot of great men and women serving, but we didn’t have a promotion system, and in turn, an evaluation system that fed that promotion system by putting performance first and foremost. We actually had a system on paper that would say that’s the way it should be, but it didn’t execute that way.
Basically at the end of the day, everybody was equal, and those that could test better than others or had been around longer than others would be the folks that probably advanced in that order. That really isn’t fair to those that serve, and it’s not fair to their families that are sacrificing and watching those people commit and do all the things that you need to do. This overhaul, by and large, impacted them in a big way, and I think in a positive way.
When you look at Course 15 and the evolution of PME, we’re giving people 12 months. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of material in there. There is a lot of material in there, but we are giving an entire year to get that done. We’re allocating an entire year, and we’re also telling commanders that they should be giving Airmen, where they can, time to work on those things.
Airman: Sir, how would you characterize the effect of force distribution and the changes in the EPR process? What has the effect been across the Air Force, and do you have any regrets with the roll out of the new EPR?
Cody: When you say regrets, I wouldn’t say I regret anything. We needed to do this. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fraught with challenges. Less than 100 percent accurate information being released; not necessarily having every answer to every Airman’s question along the way, because a lot of this was a phased-in implementation by which we were looking to get feedback to make final decisions. That’s why we did it over basically a two and a half, three-year period of implementation.
Who is performing at the peak of their game and has the greatest potential to move forward? We have to give commanders a method by which they can document that, and that is the EPR. An ability with the reports is that those who are eligible to advance; commanders have a level of discernment to make sure that we’re getting the order of merit right. By using force distribution and stratification with limitations it forces commanders to kind of give us the lineup, and then that lineup in turn influences the centralized process that we have.
There are always going to be great Airmen. It is a leader’s responsibility to discern amongst those folks, and that’s not always going to be a big kumbaya with everybody. There’s always going to be somebody at the cut line, right? Somebody just to the right of it and somebody just to the left of it.
Airman: In that same vein chief, with the actual physical aspect of promotion, sitting down to take the test, are we moving to a digital system like we do in our Course 15? Will that be implemented in the near future?
Cody: Airmen ask, “Hey, we’ve got this technology. Why aren’t we leveraging it?” We’re trying to see what options we have. The problem is we did have a contractor come in and show us what it would look like to transform all this stuff to completely digital; the challenge with that is it’s more expensive than printing the paper.
We’re looking at an Air Force-wide, enterprise-wide solution where you’re using some common architecture with electronic testing. When you’re prioritizing funds, if something that you’re doing today is cheaper than what you would be doing tomorrow, you have to kind of create why is it better to do that. There are some obvious reasons. The technology is out there, and you should be leveraging it. I think we should. Again, I’ve seen how that system would work. It’s great. I do think we’ll get there. Matter of fact, I’m a 100 percent confident. When? It really just comes down to where does it prioritize up, right?
Airman: During your tenure you’ve been rather transparent, especially on social media where people are anonymous but letting questions fly; you respond. The question is how important is transparency, specifically on some of those social media platforms, from the position that you sit in, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force?
Cody: My view on this has always been there’s nothing I won’t say on social media that I won’t stand right in front of you and say to your face. I think credible people, leaders, should be as transparent as possible, meaning if I can tell you why we’re doing it, then I will. If I can’t, then there’s a reason, and if it’s beyond my ability to tell you why or why I can’t talk about it. There is no, “I’ve got a secret.”
Airman: Chief, what kind of advice have you given your successor, Chief Master Sgt. Wright?
Cody: Chief Wright is well prepared to be the 18th chief master sergeant of the Air Force. We’ve sat down and talked about a lot of things. The great thing is I’ve had a relationship with Chief Wright over my tenure in this position. I’ve seen him progress, so he is very much in tune and aligned with where the Air Force is and where he and Gen. Goldfein will take us into the future.
I think it is about building new relationships up here, not just around the Air Force, it’s the staff, it’s the joint staff, its the elected officials that you will represent our Airmen and Air Force.
Airman: Sir, what do you think Chief Wright’s biggest challenge will be?
Cody: I think the biggest challenge will be the uncertainty that exists globally. We are going to hopefully be able to stay on this path of continuing to grow the Air Force, although it being modestly, but still grow and create some more capacity; bringing back and bringing in great men and women to be Airmen. But what is going on globally does not seem to be settling at all. Instability is at an all-time high. A lot of changes will take place within the Department of Defense as well as our elected officials, so that all creates churn and creates anxiety amongst people.
They’ve got the right team to do it. He’s the right chief to do it. He’ll have a resource in me just like he does my predecessors. He has an entire team in our Air Force that will do everything they can to help him be successful so the Force can be successful.
Airman: What kept you up at night, if anything?
Cody: The things that kept me up mostly was the impact of what we’re asking our men and women to do from a personal standpoint. I’m always worried about getting a call that we’ve lost Airmen in combat. Unfortunately, there is rarely a day that goes by where I don’t receive notification that an Airman has taken his or her own life. Those things keep you up because that’s the collective toll that it takes on those that serve and their families. That worries me a lot. I never worry about the mission. Our Airmen are just too good at it. I don’t worry about them getting the job done because they just do it. It’s amazing, but I do worry about the impact that it has on them personally and their families, and that’s the stuff that keeps you up at night.
Airman: Chief, will you miss this position? Are you at a point where you’re ready to go?
Cody: You come full circle with all this. This has been a professional honor of a career, right? Both Athena and I have been blessed and privileged to have a lifetime of service in our Air Force with some of the most amazing people, the greatest people you’ll ever get to know and meet. I do think as you come to the four-year point that it makes sense to hand it off to somebody else that can take it to the next level. It’s right for the Force, it’s right for lots of different reasons. I’m ready to hand that off because I’m ready to see our Air Force get to the next level, and I absolutely think Chief Wright and Tanya will take us there.
Airman: Finally, Chief, what’s next for you and your family?
Cody: Yeah. We’re excited about this. We’re headed to Florida. Our daughter is going to graduate college there in May, and we’re really excited about spending some time with her. She’s been doing this her whole life, born in Turkey. Our son’s an Airman, he’s a (technical sergeant). … We’re not going to chase him around the globe, but we’ll certainly pick the ideal locations that he’s at to visit him. Yeah, we’re excited about the idea of spending some time with our family.
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