Tom Kovach
September 16, 2007
Air Force insignia -- out of step
Enlisted grades need more commonality among the Services
By Tom Kovach

I've waited more than 30 years for someone to write this column.*

Back in 1976, the Air Force created its own "soft stripe" grade: the Senior Airman. That grade split E-4 into a non-supervisory Senior Airman and the supervisory "buck" Sergeant. The split was comparable to the Specialist grades that were created by the Army during the 1960s. As I understand it, the "soft stripe" Specialists were created to retain experienced technicians that wanted to remain in the Army but did not want a supervisory role. (Whatever happened to "lead, follow, or get out of the way"?)

In order to recognize the split in the pay grade, the Air Force also had to alter the insignia for grades E-2 through E-4. They created the "dark star" in the middle of the traditional circle and star. From a distance, of course, it simply looked like "no star" which is what people called it. At the time of the change, I was a newly promoted E-3. So, like many others of that time, I had to use a marking pen to darken the star, as opposed to buying new chevrons for all of my uniforms. (Of course, the stars had to be "reblued" about every-other washing.) I thought the split grade was a silly idea, and so was the "non-supervisory" concept behind it.

In 1994, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, the USAF Chief of Staff made a number of sweeping changes to the Air Force uniform. Having been "downsized" at the end of 1991, I did not have to keep up with those changes. The few that I saw from a distance made me thankful that I was no longer on active duty. It appeared to me that he was trying to turn the Air Force into the Navy. (The same is true for the changes from "Air Force Regulation" to "Air Force Instruction," and the complicated numbering system that went along with that change.)

During that period of upheaval, the Air Force also changed its insignia ... again. When I heard a rumor that the change was coming, I thought, "Aha! Someone that was a two-striper back when I was has now risen to power, and will change things back to the way they should be." Boy, was I wrong. Instead of going back to the simpler system, and also aligning with our fellow Services, the Air Force made its insignia even more out of step.

sweeping changes needed

To their credit, some of the changes in the Air Force organizational structure made sense. Downsizing forced the USAF into the "expeditionary" concept similar to the Marine Corps. (This was brought about by the fact that, once again, the non-veterans in Congress want all of our Services to "do more with less.") This expeditionary concept has worked fairly well in our wars in the Middle East. The concept gives our "blue suiters" a greater commonality of experience with our brothers-in-arms from the other Services. (Perhaps too much commonality in that a high percentage of Air Force members are currently serving in Army assignments!) But, the enlisted grade insignia does not show commonality with the traditions of our "older brothers." I propose that those connections be healed, and that the changes should be more than skin deep.

Instead of adding more stripes, the Air Force should reduce the number of stripes. And, there should be an alignment with the rank structure of the other Services. (Perhaps it is because I served in a "combat arm" that I notice this disconnect more than, say, an Air Force member that serves in an administrative job.) In the Army and the Marines, the grade of Sergeant is E-5. But, in the Air Force, a Sergeant was an E-4. (And, in the current system, the grade of Sergeant doesn't even exist. The "new" USAF jumps from Senior Airman to Staff Sergeant.) A key ingredient of my proposal is that the grade of Sergeant should be the same (E-5) in the Air Force as it is in the Army and the Marine Corps. The same is true of Staff Sergeant (E-6). And, in deference to the power wielded by those assigned as Command Chief Master Sergeants, the optional term of address "Top" would be added.

In my opinion, many of the changes in the USAF rank structure (both in the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s) were the result of the "self-esteem movement," fueled by Leftist politicians such as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, President Jimmy Carter, and President Bill Clinton. The higher grades were, in some ways, brought low in order to make people in the lower grades "feel good." This is an outgrowth of the concept of making school tests easier, so that students will feel good about getting higher scores.

The pendulum needs to swing the other way. For example, in the Marine Corps, personnel in basic training are not even referred to as Marines. They are called "recruits" or "boots" even though their official title is "Private." They are not called "Marines" until they graduate, because they have not earned the title until they successfully complete boot camp. I propose that the Air Force adopt a similar concept. Basic trainees should be called "recruits" until they earn the title of Airman. And, like the Navy and the Coast Guard, I think that should be their grade title. (In those Services, an E-1 is officially a Seaman Recruit.) A recruit would become an "apprentice" when he leaves Basic Training and goes on to Technical Training. An apprentice does not earn the title of Airman until he has completed time-in-service requirements (normally comparable to the completion of Tech School), and goes on to an assignment in the "real" Air Force.

Thus, the grade progression from E-1 through E-9 would go: Recruit, Airman Apprentice, Airman, Airman First Class, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, Master Sergeant, and Chief Master Sergeant. (This structure would also eliminate having "three different kinds of Master Sergeant.") Along with this change, the Air Force would return to having the traditional three "rockers" on the bottom of the chevrons. (Since 1994, the third rocker has been missing.) Thus, the grade of Chief Master Sergeant would become the only one to have a "spike" at the top. The change in insignia would graphically show that the CMS is set apart from even the other senior NCO grades. That, in turn, would "give honor where honor is due." (Remember the old comparison? Superman might be "more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound," but a Chief Master Sergeant "kicks trains off the track, picks up tall buildings and walks under them." I served under a few chiefs like that, and we need to return to such traditions.)

(NOTE: my shooting hand works better than my Photoshop artwork hand.)

what about the other Services?

Admittedly, the changes that I propose might prompt the other Services to consider a few adjustments of their own. But, by comparison, those changes would be fairly minor. For example, the Marines might consider changing the official title of E-1 from Private to Recruit. (Hey, Army, "go and do likewise"....) And, if the Army, Marines, and Air Force all have the grade of Sergeant at E-5, that might prompt the Navy and the Coast Guard to start their Petty Officer structure at E-5 instead of E-4. And, that might prompt a joint-service return to the NCO ranks starting at E-5 instead of E-4. (So... what's wrong with that?) The concept of an NCO is generally that of a career military member. The bridge between non-career and career is between E-4 and E-5. So, why shouldn't the bridge between junior enlisted and NCO be in the same place?

All of the changes proposed above are based on the concept of returning to a higher degree of military tradition, honor, and respect. During the 1970s, there was a great effort to view the military as merely a job. It isn't. The military is a way of life. One does not gain "self-esteem" by having more baubles on one's uniform. One gains self-esteem by knowing that every item on that uniform was earned by a certain measure of pain and effort. (I have a lot of pins and patches on my Rolling Thunder vest. But, unlike some people that I've met, I do not have any that I did not earn.)

In the long run, self-esteem is earned by knowing that one has joined with a long historical line of people that have also earned certain things by similar pain and effort. There is an old Texas saying that, "You can put your boots in the oven, but that won't make them biscuits." I think it's time that the mistakes of the "self-esteem movement" of the Carter and Clinton years should be corrected. I think it's time that my beloved Air Force let go of the idea of being "different" (which led to the disastrous "rear area" mentality which had to be corrected by Project Safeside, and reinforced by Project Warrior), and return to the more solid military traditions that made them great in the first place. I think it's time that somebody stood up and shouted, "Hey, Air Force, get in step!"

* Why did I wait so long to write this column? Partly because I felt that I had not yet earned the right to make such a sweeping statement. And, partly, because I was waiting for those before me who had earned that right to exercise their own right and authority to say the same thing. (Back in 1983, my first sergeant told me, "Air Force NCOs didn't lose their authority. They gave it away." It's time to kick the train back onto the right track.)

© Tom Kovach


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Tom Kovach

Tom Kovach lives near Nashville, is a former USAF Blue Beret, and has written for several online publications... (more)

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