JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS --
Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman, 25th Air Force command chief, walked into the base theater at Joint Base Langley – Eustis and immediately began breaking the ice with his audience. He laughingly thanked the one Airman who heard him say at ease. He explained to the crowd that all the emails he sends have the subject line, “Warrant Officers and beards,” because he knows everyone will read it. Then, he sat next to the Airmen he said was hiding in the least lit corner of the theater.
Everyone in the theater is laughing.
Slowly, the laughter stopped, and he was standing in front of everyone. The crowd waited for the chief to begin talking about the issues, but he only has one question for the audience.
“What do you want to talk about?” Towberman asked.
Having real conversations with the 480th and 363rd Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance Wing Airmen was the purpose of Towberman’s visit to the base Apr. 25 and 26. He held two town hall meetings and visited ISR Airmen to find out about the issues that concern them.
“We’re not all just robots with PowerPoint slides,” Towberman said, with a laugh. “I want them to know that it’s OK to talk to the chief. It’s OK to come, and even if “volunteered” to come, you can get value added out of this conversation.”
The town hall meetings and visits allow the chief to effectively hear the questions the Airmen want to ask.
“It’s really about communicating both ways,” said Towberman. “It’s about me getting smarter, staying in touch with what’s going on at the tactical level, and it’s about me bringing a strategic perspective to the tactical level so that those Airmen understand the bigger picture things. I’m not relying on middle men to send that message, I’ll give it directly.”
Towberman serves as the Numbered Air Force command chief, but previously he was the Command Chief for the 480th ISRW. He is very familiar with what ISR Airmen bring to the mission.
“We continue to recruit great Airmen, and leaders give them problem sets that they learn and figure out how to solve, he said.
“What I see is more of the same. Information is the coin of the realm,” said Towberman. “Our Airmen and their skills are in incredible demand and that demand isn’t going anywhere. Whoever owns the information space owns the advantage. What I think we’re going to see is a continued increase of demand and an increase in our expertise.”
Another aspect the chief enjoyed seeing was the continued evolution of initiatives he was a part of creating.
One of these initiatives is the embedded Airmen Resiliency Teams. These teams consist of chaplains, mental and physical health technicians who have the appropriate security clearance to speak with and provide direct support to ISR Airmen. The chief was involved with converting mission billets into medical positions to make this a reality, he said.
Towberman said the billets were flipped and, in a relevantly short amount of time, he saw major improvement.
“Our intelligence professionals are no longer on the Air Force high risk of suicide list,” Towberman said. “To see how that evolved and to see that became a reality is amazing. I get misty eyed just thinking about that, and that’s like the greatest thing.”
The chief believes that town hall meetings and face-to-face conversations relay the important message that leadership is listening to the Airmen and want to hear their ideas.
“I had a senior airman send me an email last night after the town hall, and that tells me that I’ve reached someone,” the chief said. “He asked me about an issue, and I was able to give him an answer--that matters. I would argue that that matters maybe even more than the answer I gave him. What matters is that he got to raise his hand virtually, ask a question, and got a response. Sometimes that’s all people want, to be heard. It’s ok to raise their hand and talk about the things that are difficult, because I want to hear those things so we can try to remove them.”
The command chief also challenged everyone to not only take better care of themselves, but to really look at the people to their left and right and be better teammates and Wingmen.
“We’re pretty good in the Air Force at what I would call vertical leadership and followership. In other words, if I work for you, I know how to do what you want me to do, and if you work for me, then you know what I want you to do,” said Towberman. “If you and I are peers, we’re not really good at saying, ‘Hey man, do you know how to do this?’ ’Can I help you out?’ or ‘Hey, I don’t really think what you’re doing is the right thing to do.’ We kind of ignore horizontal leadership opportunities, but its horizontal leadership that moves the team forward the most.”
Whether it’s through town hall meetings, emails or face to face conversations, Towberman enjoys standing in front of ISR Airmen and giving them the information they want to know.
“I’m there to serve them, and we need to make sure that Airmen understand that they are not a resource, they are the product, they are what I care about,” said Towberman. “They’re not beans to be counted, not faces to go in places and they’re not a bunch of worker bees to meet some queen bee’s end---they are the mission. I want them to hear that and know that.”