• T. Kearny Vertner, III

What is an Airman?

The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force represents all enlisted Airmen, but what does that mean? What is our core identity?

Chief Master Sergeant JoAnne Bass

First of all, I'm excited by the Friday, 19 June 2020 announcement that CMSgt JoAnne Bass would be taking charge as the 19th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF). She's an outstanding leader and her selection to be the first woman to boldly serve as our top enlisted is historic. Taking over from Chief Wright, she has tremendous shoes to fill, but I daresay that she's up to the task. Any time our Air Force chooses a new CMSAF, certain rituals are inevitable. Besides the metaphorical white smoke (it's a rather opaque process), Airmen immediately look up her biography and find out what her technical specialty was. For those keeping score, here's the list so far:

  1. Airey: Aerial Gunner & Radio Operator, Radio Maintainer

  2. Harlow: Aircraft Armament, Personnel

  3. Kisling: Army Infantry, AF Personnel

  4. Barnes: Aircraft Maintenance, Crew Chief & Flight Engineer

  5. Gaylor: Security Police

  6. McCoy: Radar Operator

  7. Andrews: Security Police

  8. Parish: Weather

  9. Binnicker: Life Support

  10. Pfingston: Crew Chief

  11. Campanale: Aircraft Maintenance

  12. Benken: Information Management

  13. Finch: Missile Maintenance

  14. Murray: Aircraft Maintenance

  15. McKinley: Medical & Aircraft Maintenance

  16. Roy: Civil Engineering

  17. Cody: Air Traffic Control

  18. Wright: Dental

  19. Bass: Operations

While interesting, it's largely immaterial. The Chiefs considered for this duty have long served as senior enlisted advisors in a broad range of organizations and many tiers of command. To even be considered for one of the lower tiers, they must demonstrate an ability to understand enlisted issues at a broad scope and to communicate well in any community. In short, they must shed their prior identity as technicians and become Airmen.


Yet this begs an interesting question: What is an Airman?


Think back to a time you met a service member in an airport and asked them what they do. Common answers are, "I'm a Marine!" or "I'm in the Army." When you ask an Airman, you will almost always hear, "I'm an aircraft maintainer," or "I'm a pilot." Often, it will be followed with the bumper, "... in the Air Force."


Every Marine is a rifleman. Every Soldier is a rifleman (or a sentry, if their pre-World War I mission is truly embraced). Every Sailor is... well... a sailor. What is every Airman? Certainly not a pilot; they represent less than 4% of our Air Force. Not really a maintainer, as they comprise nearly a third of our authorized end strength, but live a very different and challenging life from the other two thirds.


Our identities are almost entirely wrapped up in our technical specialty, but not necessarily our service identity. On the one hand, our bonds within our own tribes are extraordinarily close. On the other hand, our rejection of other specialties can lead to potentially toxic and destructive behaviors. A great example of both of these is from the infamous Ammo troop slogan, "If you ain't ammo, you ain't shit!" or IYAAYAS, if you're into brevity.


Even during basic military training, where civilians are indoctrinated and converted into die-hard Airmen, their identity is somewhat nebulous. Other services' basic training institutions focus on core skills that apply, regardless of occupational specialty. Every Marine or Soldier will spend extensive time focusing on the infantry basics while every Sailor will man a ship's battle station and learn to swim. Airmen... well... we spend some time as "expeditionary Airmen," but it's mostly just basic training in a tent with a few drills on base defense. This is nice, but in all of my deployments, Airmen have never been primary on defending our bases and there is an all but implies understand that if I am ever on base defense, something has gone terribly wrong.


Ever since I heard the question, "What is an Airman?" in 2018, I have asked it of my fellow Airmen time and time again. I have heard a lot of great answers, like "someone dedicated to airpower," or "a warfighter that can collapse time and space to achieve unparalleled mass." That second one takes some understanding of mass as one of the nine principles of war where one masses the effects of overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time. Any explanation that requires an unpacking of Carl von Clausewitz to really understand may be accurate, but hardly makes for an easy conversation at the recruiter's office! Regardless, I haven't found them tremendously satisfying.


My sincere hope is that CMSgt Bass may be able to help us find a satisfactory answer, though that might also be in any one of you, dear readers! Let me know what you think: What is an Airman to you?


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© 2020 by T. Kearny Vertner, III. These are my views and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or its components. Proudly created with Wix.com