Backbone of the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Maj. Kieran F. Keelty
  • 97th Logistics Readiness Squadron
We all learn through experience and sometimes it's helpful to distill a collective group of experiences into one or two "golden nuggets" of insight. One of these nuggets came from my time in the Air Mobility Squadron in Ramstein, Germany from 2003 to 2005.

As the primary trans-load hub for cargo going to and from Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, we were exceptionally busy. For most of those two years, a normal day consisted of loading and unloading cargo and passengers on 60 to 80 strategic airlift aircraft and around 20 tactical or operational support aircraft. In fact, there were a few days where we had more aircraft on the ramp than we had parking spots available.

At the end of each day I would marvel at what I'd witnessed - a unique choreography between people and machines. Yet, I never put any thought into what made it all work; I didn't try to characterize it. I just knew we had 700-plus Airmen putting in long days and nights.

It wasn't until my next assignment, that I extracted the essence of that experience and converted it into a "golden nugget." Like Altus, we had monthly promotion ceremonies. The Wing Commander always made a special point of congratulating the newly promoted Staff Sergeants. He told them they were the most important rank in the Air Force, not Colonels or Chiefs or Generals. I inherently agreed with this statement, but as time passed I wondered what would cause a Wing Commander to so adamantly proclaim it.

It certainly wasn't said to diminish the role of all other Airmen; we all have a critical role in our mission. Rather I think it was simply a statement recognizing the vital role they play relative to their position in our hierarchy. Staff Sergeants must not only maintain and improve their own technical proficiency, but they are the first-line supervisors for roughly 45% of our enlisted force. They are responsible for overseeing the day to day work of, providing the feedback and mentorship for, ensuring training is accomplished by, and generally taking care of the newest and youngest 36% of the Air Force: the Airmen Basic to Senior Airmen.

According to AFPAM 36-2241, Professional Development Guide, they must "assist subordinates in resolving personal, financial, marital, alcohol, and stress-related problems." Essentially, in their leap from Senior Airman to Staff Sergeant, these young leaders become junior life-skills counselors as well as Junior NCOs. Additionally, relative to all other supervisors in the Air Force, they perform these duties with the least amount of training, education, and experience.

Periodically, I reflect on this nugget to see if it still holds true. I consider their responsibility in ensuring mission success, their guidance and mentorship of our junior enlisted force, the tools they are given and their relative experience. And I always come back to the same conclusion. All things considered, I still agree with that former Wing Commander: Staff Sergeants are the most important rank in the Air Force.