Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Misplaced Priorities

Meet Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) Gerald A. Murray. As his title implies, Chief Murray is the senior enlisted member of the United States Air Force, charged with advising the senior defense officials--including the Air Force Secretary and USAF Chief of Staff--on matters relating to the service's enlisted force.

As you can imagine, CMSAF Murray is a busy man, but lately, he's been devoting much of his time and attention to a matter he deems critical--eliminating the "Indian symbology" that has become associated with the rank of Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force.

A little background here: Chief Master Sergeant is the highest enlisted rank (E-9) in the Air Force. By law, no more than one percent of the USAF enlisted force can hold that rank. By virture of their position, Chief Master Sergeants typically serve as superintendents of large Air Force organizations, or advisors to senior Air Force commanders, at the wing level or higher. They enjoy broad responsibilities and are respected for their leadership, advice and counsel. If the enlisted force is the backbone of the Air Force--and it is--then the "Chiefs" are the leaders who run the enlisted corps and ensure its proper function.

The rank of Chief Master Sergeant has been around since the dawn of our Air Force and (not surprisingly) the title of "Chief" became synonmyous with Indian symbols. Upon reaching the rank of E-9, it became customary to give the newly-promoted "Chief" a small bust of an Indian Chief, or a framed lithograph of an Indian leader, usually depicted in full war bonnet. Indian symbology also made its way onto coffee mugs, cermonial coins and other mementos of military service.

Under Murray's watch, that is about to change. He has banned the use of taxpayer money for business cards or stationery bearing Indian symbols, and described the use of such items as "inappropriate." Murray cited the case of one Air Force chief with no less than 38 Native American items in his office, including a 6-foot "cigar store" Indian.

"There is no official correlation between the U.S. Air Force rank of Chief Master Sergeant and Native Americans," Murray wrote in an April 15th letter to all Chiefs in the Air Force, outlining his position on the use of Indian symbols by Air Force "chiefs."

Well, duh. Pardon me, Chief Murray, but during my Air Force career I never met an E-9 who viewed him or herself as the reincarnation of Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. As a ranking Air Force enlisted member, they viewed their position as one requiring the same qualities--courage, integrity, dignity and honor--as those found in lengendary Indian leaders. The Indian symbols were intended as a show of respect and honor.

Reaction to Murray's "crusade" has been mixed. Some Native American groups have voiced support, and a few base-level Chief's groups have banned Indian symbology, probably to avoid the wrath of the Air Force's senior enlisted member. But in Sacramento, California, a group of retired Chiefs has announced that it will continue to use Native American symbols, claiming that "Chief Murray was being overly concerned, and the letter was unfounded and unnecessary."

Is this a tempest in a teapot? Obviously. Consider the comments of Brigadier General LaRita Aragon, a Native American who is currently serving as Commander of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. General Aragon told Air Force Times that she views the Air Force Chiefs' association with Indian Chiefs as a compliment. She also noted that the logo for Oklahoma ANG is a chief's head with his bonnet, proudly displayed on the guard's F-16 and C-130 aircraft.

CMSAF Murray claims that Native American groups haven't pressured him to ban Indian symbols, but it seems clear that political correctness is driving his crusade. And that begs another question: with thousands of Air Force personnel now engaged in (or supporting) combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, why is the symbology issue so important? Hundreds of Air Force airmen and NCOs--now pulling force protection and conoy duty in the Middle East--might argue that Chief Murray's time might be better spent on more pressing issues, such as improved protective gear, better armored vehicles, and a camouflage uniform that actually blends into a desert environment. Against that backdrop, Chief Murray's efforts to banish Indian symbols among Air Force E-9s seems to be an example of wasted effort and misplaced priorities.

One final thought: before earning my commission, I spent 4 years as an Air Force enlisted member, reaching the grade of Staff Sergeant (E-5). One of the great, early mentors in my career was a Chief Master Sergeant who served as Senior Enlisted Advisor for a fighter wing at a base in South Carolina. During a conversation, he opined that Air Force leadership was determined to eliminate the post of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, and planned to accomplish that goal by appointing ineffective or mediocre Chiefs to the post. Watching Chief Murray's "crusade," I can't help but wonder if that prophecy is coming true....

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