JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
The 502nd Air Base Wing command team of Brig. Gen. Caroline Miller, 502nd ABW and Joint Base San Antonio commander, and Command Chief Master Sgt. Wendell Snider hosted the fourth “Tough Conversations” roundtable at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Aug. 25.
The Tough Conversation roundtable is a series that focuses on important, challenging and impactful topics that affect the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
This specific roundtable focused on unconscious bias, allowing Airmen and civilians to relate their own workplace experiences to help military leaders address racial and gender disparities that can lead to poor morale and hinder the mission.
Miller, who assumed command of the 502nd ABW and JBSA in June, prefaced the discussion by talking about the current civil unrest in American society and the “terrible cases in the service with sexual assault,” but also recalling the welcomed change in the military culture from the time she was a young officer – when “pin-up girls and parties” were tolerated in many units – to today’s more professional environment.
“If you went into an environment like that today, you would be mortified,” she said. “If I walked into a unit that was like that, it would be shut down immediately and everybody would be fired. Things have definitely changed, and a lot for the better, but I also know that we have a long way to go.”
Miller told participants her hope is that a culture of acceptance and appreciation will be created for everyone.
“We’re just trying to gather information and find out how you are feeling and what you are experiencing and hopefully there are pockets of awesomeness, and I think there are, and I also think there are some challenges out there,” she said.
Miller later said she wants the 502nd ABW to be the “wing of choice.”
“I want to make sure that when you come in that it’s fair and equitable,” she said. “It doesn’t matter about anything else.”
Several roundtable participants addressed sexual assault and what approaches work best to combat it, agreeing that PowerPoint presentations are not effective.
A 502nd Security Forces Squadron officer said a group of college students came to his unit when he was on active duty and performed a skit relating to sexual assault and prevention that had much more impact than PowerPoint slides because it encouraged participation.
“It was extremely effective,” he said. “We were able to get a whole lot more from it. It was a real plus; even an old dinosaur like me learned some new things.”
Miller told him she does not know the answers, but it’s important to find out what approaches resonate with people.
“How do we connect? How do we make sure we’re all respectful?” she asked. “We’re all Airmen, we’re brothers and sisters in arms, and to treat each other like that is so foreign.”
Another roundtable participant said she has learned from young Airmen that they do not have a voice.
“I think the military, by its sheer nature, is a breeding ground for power and control,” she said. “I find that Airmen need two things – they need good order and discipline, and they need to know that they matter. And that’s for all of us at every level – whether you’re a one-striper or you’re a colonel, and I’ve had cases in that range of both rank and position.”
A civilian in the 502nd Civil Engineer Group raised a concern that he sees in his career field – which professionals at a higher grade level than others sometimes overlook the insights of electricians, plumbers, and other craftsmen who bring both expertise and experience to their jobs.
“There is a definite sentiment of some leadership that because that person is not a professional – they’re not an engineer and they’re not an architect – their opinion is automatically at a grade lower,” he said. “But that guy’s done the time and his opinion is just as valid, if not more so.”
He pointed to pay disparities, especially for women and minorities, and for Air Force jobs in general, and later said that JBSA personnel merit higher pay because of the mission.
“We’re not paying people enough in my personal opinion for the level of effort and work that we have considering we are the largest joint base,” he said.
Miller agreed with his assessment.
“We need a joint base standard because the work that we’re asking our team to do is much, much more complicated,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it.”
The civilian 502nd SFS officer also talked about the problem of retaining seasoned law enforcement officers.
“We’re losing officers left and right because there’s very little room for growth,” he said. “We have a wealth of experience, but it’s not being used like it should.”
Another civilian in the 502nd CEG discussed workloads, saying many people are being overloaded with work.
“The big thing about doing more with less – it’s not working for us,” he said. “We have more people with anxiety, we have more people with PTSD. I want to work and go home; I don’t want work to go home with me.”
Gender bias and sexism in the workplace was another topic of discussion.
An NCO described how some people at her job perceive her as being unapproachable because of her serious demeanor.
“People don’t want to engage, people don’t want to talk to me because I don’t walk around with a grin on my face,” she said. “As a woman, I find that insulting because you wouldn’t tell a man that.”
She said the demands of her job and her role as a mother keep her focused on those duties.
“I am stressed out. I’m not going to be smiling all day long, but that doesn’t make me a bad person, and that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to me, because if anybody walks into my office they know I will stop whatever I’m doing and give you hours of my time.”
Another female NCO described a male-dominated environment where women are sometimes overworked and dismissed when promotion opportunities are available.
A female Airman told how important the Air Force’s core values are to new Airmen only to see that “gung-ho” attitude diminish over time.
Chief Snider said it’s difficult to live the core values every day.
“I think the Air Force tries to give people core values,” he said. “It’s going to sound brutal, but for some people, the core values don’t take.”
Miller ended the discussion after a new Airman commented that, so far, the Air Force has been a great experience for him and that he feels part of the team.
“We want everyone to have that sense of belonging,” she said. “That’s the way it should be; that should be the norm.”
Miller said it’s important for everyone to contribute to the solution and encouraged community members to email their ideas to her.
“Let’s figure out how to do it together,” she said.