Knowing he’d soon be hanging up his military uniform for the last time, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III reflected on his first day, in 2012, as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, a job that entails making sure 660,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen are trained, equipped, organized, and able to accomplish any mission thrown their way.
The position came with a fear of letting Airmen down. It is an unavoidable anxiety for Air Force senior leadership, but it is similarly present in every job in the service, Welsh remarked.
“I don’t think I felt any more intimidation or concern than a new staff sergeant supervisor feels walking into a job with six new Airmen to supervise. It’s the same kind of worry; it’s the same kind of pride in the opportunity, and excitement of the challenge,” he explained. “I don’t care if you’re that young staff sergeant, or you’re the old chief of staff — the job’s a thrill. It’s exciting. It’s a little intimidating. All of that’s good. And then we just do our best.”
After serving nearly four years as the senior uniformed officer in the Air Force, Welsh is set to retire July 1, 2016. Before his departure, the Air Force’s 20th Chief of Staff shared his thoughts on family, service and lessons learned along the way.
How did you go from being a graduate of the Air Force Academy in 1976 to the chief of staff of the Air Force in 2012?
Welsh: It’s one of the great mysteries of our time. How do you go from the Air Force Academy to this office? I think you’re led there by great supervisors, by great commanders. Sometimes you’re carried there by great family, which I’ve been blessed to have. And I think sometimes you’re carried there by thousands and thousands of great Airmen. … If you think back on anyone’s career, there are so many people who touch them: from the youngest Airman that they are privileged to work with to the most senior commander who they try to follow and emulate. My early supervisors were magnificent. They were direct. They were to the point. That’s continued through my whole career. I’ve worked for remarkable people, with remarkable people, and I’ve had unbelievable people working for me. They made me a better man; they just made me a better human being. That’s what I love about the Air Force, it just makes you better.
How does today’s Air Force differ from the one you joined 40 years ago?
The biggest things that have changed since I came in: We’re an all-volunteer force now, and I think that’s been a remarkably positive thing for the military as a whole. I think the Air Force has gotten smaller, which means we’ve had to focus more. We’ve gotten more operationally committed — that smaller force plus a higher operational tempo means we’re awfully busy. So, there’s extra stress in certain areas of the force that wasn’t there before.
What hasn’t changed?
Airmen are the same; they haven’t changed. They’re just as dedicated. They’re just as patriotic. They’re just as committed to the job. The Air Force still stands for the same things. We will be successful in the fight – always have been, always will be. Our Airmen will always lead the charge. They will typically be the first in and the last out, although everybody claims that, but I think that if you look at our ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) force and the way we do command and control, it’s going to be Airmen. If you look at all the different critical, integrating and enabling capabilities we bring to the joint fight, from to tankers, to airlift, to ISR, to command and control, we’re always going to be part of the critical fabric of the joint fight. And then we have the ability to take the lead and just be a devastating lethal force when we need to be. Hopefully, that doesn’t have to happen much in the future, but if it does, we need to be ready, and Airmen have always been up to that challenge. That won’t ever change.
What’s your best guess on what the Air Force will look like 40 years from now?
I think Airmen will still be spectacular. I think they’ll be better connected in every way possible, just like generations today are better connected than we were when we came into this service. I think the Air Force will continue to be more and more lethal. I think that Air Force operations will be much more fluidly connected across the domains of air, space and cyber, and I think we’ll still be the most critical integrating and enabling force on the battlefield.
Is there one moment during your service that you are most proud of?
Not one, I’ve got thousands of them. I still remember the moment my father commissioned me; I was pretty proud then. I remember commissioning my own sons, two of them—one in the Air Force and one in the Marine Corps. Those were proud moments. One of my sons will retire me here soon — that will be a proud moment. I think every interaction with an Airman, ever, was a proud moment for me because I really do admire them. I love the fact that they come to work every day trying to do the best that they can on behalf of a bigger cause, which is what inspires me to come to work every day and try and do something important on behalf of a bigger cause. Every time there’s a distinguished transfer ceremony at Dover you’re divided between this horrible sense of loss and empathy and sympathy for the family and the sense of pride that someone cared enough to serve and give everything on behalf of this nation—that’s a proud moment. There’s so many of them, I couldn’t even begin to break one out.
What is it like to have your children serve in the military?
I have one son who was in the Air Force … he’s out now and serving as a doctor. One of our sons is a Marine Corps infantry officer, and while it gives me a little bit of pause as a parent because he’s not a subtle Marine Corps infantry officer — he’ll want to be where the action is — I’m awfully proud of him for serving. What was most interesting to me about Matt’s choice to serve in the Marine Corps is that it came later in life. He was four or five years out of college and he had never thought about going into the military before, then one day he called us and just said, “It’s time I stood for something.” And I said, “Well exactly what does that mean?” He said, “Well, I miss the people I grew up around.” I thought he meant his friends, but actually, he meant my friends. He wanted to go work with the kind of people he saw me work with as he was growing up. I can’t think of a greater compliment to the men and women of our Air Force than that.
What will you miss the most?
I’ll miss everything, everything about it. Even the frustrating times just remind you that you care, and caring’s never a bad thing. So I’m going to miss it all. The good and the bad, it all comes together. The hard work, the laughter, the crying, it’s all part of it, and I think you have to embrace the entire thing or you wouldn’t experience it the way you should. I believe the Profession of Arms is something that should be experienced; it’s much more than a job. If you don’t embrace it, you don’t try to live each and every day and do your best throughout that day, then you’re missing something in this business. The people who stand beside you, that’s all they’re looking for; they just want you to try your best. They want you to care. If your best isn’t good enough, on any given day, they’ll carry you, and other days you’ll carry them—that’s the way this team has to work, and I’ll miss that.
If you could take one lesson learned from your time in the Air Force and carry it with you for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It’s okay to care. And it’s more okay to show that you care.
Why’s that so pivotal?
Because all of us want to feel that; human beings need to feel like what they do matters, that they matter, their family matters. There’s a very well-known old quote that’s been attributed to probably a thousand different people, but it’s that your people want to know how much you care long before they care how much you know—it’s just an absolute fact. People just want to know that they matter to you, and if they feel that way, their ability to perform and excel is just remarkably enhanced. I think the one thing I learned from my bosses early on is that if you care about your folks, they’re going to take good care of you, and I think that’s been proven over and over in my career.
Does caring that much for others have its own highs and lows?
I think that’s an important part of this; it’s not all goodness and light, there are tough days. But if you care, there should be tough days. There are some moments that caring makes it difficult, but it never makes it bad. I’ll give you an example. This is just a Rolodex — it’s a box that I keep in my top right drawer and the folks in the office fill out a card every time an Airman dies. We started the first day I came in the job. The latest card is number 2,192. So, in the three years and eight months now that I’ve been in the job, 2,192 Airmen have died. All the family members were affected by that, and all the units that feel the loss, all the adjustments that have to happen in the lives of all those people pull at the fabric of our Air Force, and our families, and our organizations. The good news is for every one of the 2,192, there were Airmen throwing their arms around that family. There were people who cared about the fact that there was a loss and tried to make a difference in the lives of the people who continued living. For the families, their lives are forever changed. And I think because we’re a caring service, because we have leaders who feel that pain, it makes us stronger and it lets us handle the loss in a better, more positive way than it could be otherwise. Go to any distinguished transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base and walk away not feeling inspired — incredibly sad, but inspired. Caring is a good thing, all the time.
What does each name in that Rolodex motivate you to do?
Work harder and make sure there’s not something I could have done that would have prevented the next one. In this job, if I ever felt I didn’t work hard enough and I let Airmen down as a result, I couldn’t live with that.
What is something you’d known to be true for a long time, until you learned you were wrong?
Maybe it’s not something so much that I really believed or anything anybody told me, but something you just kind of felt. When I was young, I thought if I was going to get the next opportunity, the next job, the next promotion, then I must be better than the people around me at whatever that task required. That’s absolutely not true. It’s fundamentally not true. Everybody who’s ever worked for me is better than me at something, and most of them are better than me at a whole lot of things, and some of them are better than me at everything, including the job I was assigned to do. And when you first learn that, it’s a little bit intimidating until you figure out what a wonderful thing it is that you now have all these talents and skills and perspectives that you didn’t have yesterday. It’s a remarkably good thing, but it took me a little while to learn that one. I figured that out as a squadron commander.
Does working with great people alleviate the pressure that comes with the job?
I don’t think it alleviates the pressure so much as it just presents opportunities for solutions that I would have never come up with. There are so many things that I’ve run into in my Air Force career that I would not have had any idea how to handle, but people around me just intuitively knew how to solve the problem. As soon as I became comfortable enough just to turn them loose on it, all of a sudden things started to get good, through no credit to me other than getting out of their way. But I think knowing when to step out of the way is an important part of leadership, just like knowing when to step out front and say, “follow me,” is an important part of leadership. This is a kind of a lifetime journey of learning in this business, and if you don’t continually get better and learn more about yourself and change the way you do business then you’re just missing the train. To me, that’s what’s been exciting about it. We have remarkable people in this business; they’re not just really, really good, they’re remarkable, and being around them is an education all day, every day.
You said that you had three worries when you were a cadet: what would the future hold; would you make a difference; and what would be expected of you? Do you have those concerns as you transition to the next chapter in your life?
I think the first two still apply. Betty and I still don’t know what the future holds, so we’re excited and nervous and there’s a big world out there, we have to go figure out how we fit into it. I also think the “Will I make a difference?” part still applies because I still want to make a difference in something — whether it’s in a second career or it’s just in my marriage, or it’s in my grandkids’ lives, I want to make a positive difference. The expectations, I’m not so worried about that anymore. I don’t feel like I have to live up to those, except for my wife’s expectations and my family’s expectations, and I’m pretty dedicated to living up to those, so that part doesn’t concern me nearly as much.
How do you feel about retiring?
I’m not looking forward to retirement. I’m not dreading it either. I’ll miss this. I’ll miss the people. I’ll miss coming to work every day with them. I’ll miss so many things about it, but I’m excited for new opportunities. I’m excited about spending more time with my family and getting to know my grandkids a little bit better than I’ve been able to up to this point. I’m excited about opportunities to do new and different things. There’s a big world out there — lot’s to do. I’m excited about spending time with Betty just sitting on an old dock somewhere, hanging our feet in the water.
What does your family mean to you?
It’s everything. On the day I die, when I’m trying to decide if I won or lost at the game of life, the fact that I was the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force isn’t going to be a part of the equation. If Betty is standing there, if she’s holding my hand, I’ve won. I think it’s important that we keep our priorities straight. Family is at the top of that list.
In the future, when people tour the Pentagon and see your portrait on the wall, what do you hope they will think as they pass by?
Well I hope their first thought is “What an incredibly good looking man.” But that’s probably not going to be it. I hope they just say he was a proud son of an American Airman and that he spent his whole life trying to live up to that legacy. That would be enough for me.