By Charles Pope, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Long before his star turn as the Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force and “enlisted Jesus,” Kaleth O. Wright found himself back home in Columbus, Ga., mired in doubt and failure. He had bombed out of college in less than a year. He had no clear options, his future defined by a job at a local barbeque joint.
“The worst thing I thought could happen was go off to college and then come back home and hang out,” he said during an interview in May.
It was in that moment, however, that Wright found salvation thanks to a loose pocket and a wallet spilling to the floor. And in a larger sense, even though he didn’t recognize it at the time, that day in 1989 provided the basis for a career and philosophy that has served him well – and countless Airmen along the way.
When he went down to scoop his wallet off the floor, it was splayed open. Out in the open was a business card.
“An Air Force recruiter’s card; TSgt Rick Middlebrook. I didn’t even realize I had it because I had no intention of joining the military,” Wright said.
And yet, he called. “By March of ’89 I was in San Antonio at BMT,” he said.
It’s a good story and it illustrates something that shaped Wright’s career and philosophy ever since – the power of resiliency; the need to listen to others, even when the conversation is painful; the need to be honest with yourself and a willingness to take chances in pursuit of a larger goal.
Today, Wright owns an impressive Air Force career spanning 30 years with postings in Asia, Afghanistan, Africa, Europe and the Pentagon. He has developed a rapport with Airmen of all ages and rank that is in keeping with his overarching purpose in the Air Force – instilling resiliency and ensuring positive outlooks and mental health for all Airmen. The bond is so strong that Airmen soon gave Wright a nickname capturing their view of him – “Enlisted Jesus.”
Wright’s story is especially relevant now since May is Mental Health Month; a month that highlights Wright’s obsession helping Airmen learning to navigate emotional swings by providing tools and advice for mental resilience and, most of all, preventing suicide.
On that front, while some improvement has been realized, there is much work left to be done.
In 2018, 58 active duty members of the Air Force committed suicide, official records show. That marked a decline from the year before. It also was a reversal compared to the number of deaths across the entire U.S. military in 2018. Last year, 321 active duty members (including Air Force) took their lives. That was the highest annual total in at least six years and the number for each of the other services actually increased.
While the number of Air Force active duty suicides declined, the number is still significant. Even so, the modest progress reflects distinct changes designed to combat the problem, including making mental health services easier to find and more accessible, embedding chaplains and chaplains’ assistants within units and lessening the stigma surrounding mental health as well as other changes.
That is why Wright is not alone in the effort to drive the number down. Emotional strength and resilience as well as preventing suicide are high priorities across the Air Force. But in many ways, Wright has become one of the most recognizable faces of the effort.
Virtually each of the Air Force’s 685,000 Total Force Airmen knows it, and many act on it. Wright is approached nearly every day – on the street, at the gym, in places that are more official and especially on social media.
“When I came into the Air Force there were people who would have said, ‘You don’t dare talk to a chief.’ You rarely saw a chief and you wouldn’t dare talk to him. All of that has changed,” he said.
“It tells me we’ve come a long way. Now, we are a military and there is a clear hierarchical way we do things. But many of the leaders that we have today are open to social media or open to receiving feedback from airman; they’re open and involved and engaged in the lives of Airmen that’s created this culture that says, ‘When I’m feeling this way I can go talk to this commander or this chief or this first sergeant.
“I want to continue to see resilient Airmen led by engaging and inspiring leaders that take care of Airmen so that ultimately, they all can get after the business of the United States Air Force,” he said.
A key to Wright’s success, he says, is the authority of his rank coupled with his ability to remove it during conversations.
The recent case of a technical sergeant illustrates the point. The sergeant, whose identity cannot be revealed because of the sensitive nature of the case, was highly rated until the sergeant returned from a war zone to the United States with PTSD. The sergeant’s performance wavered which led to demotion and thoughts of suicide.
Wright heard about the case and asked for a meeting. “I was worried,” the sergeant said. “I thought I’d be penalized because of his rank and position. But it wasn’t formal at all; it was just like talking to somebody from my family. And refreshingly, it was about me. I felt comfortable and not judged. I was really surprised that somebody in his position understood my problem.”
The case is far from resolved and the sergeant says the outcome might not be entirely happy. Still, “he talked to me and he actually listened.”
Like a politician on the stump, Wright rarely shies from interactions and requests for advice. Much of what he offers is based on his own history and the mistakes he’s made. But there’s a twist.
“Sometimes I share my experiences. But I try, unless they ask, not to make it about me or my experience,” he said. “Most times I get them to try and see the big picture, get them to see the positive in whatever they’re going through, whether it’s some disease, loss of a family member, an Article 15, a divorce, financial problems.
“I try to get them to see, and I know this sounds a little or superficial in nature, but I want them to know that tomorrow will be a better day. That’s how my mother taught me – things are bad but tomorrow is a better day. Let’s see what you can learn from whatever you’re going through and try to look to look forward to what’s next.”
Like any interaction, Wright has some rules. Many of them have evolved from years of interactions and ideas he’s jotted in dozens of notebooks over the 30 years he’s been in the Air Force.
“One of the things I always ask them is, just tell me the truth. I think in so many ways I was asking them to admit to themselves you made this mistake that they were responsible for. That always had to be the starting point,” he said.
Which leads to this: “I never, ever want to put on a façade as a man or a human being, as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I think it’s very, very important for people to know and understand that I cry. I get sad. I get upset. I make mistakes. I’ve rebounded from them but I don’t have all the answers.
“It’s important to be genuine and to be your authentic self in whatever job or position you hold,” he said.