LAJES FIELD, Azores — I was not a very good Airman in the early days of my Air Force career. I was passably good at my job and very bad at the Air Force.
Here is an actual quote from one of my early Enlisted Performance Reports, “Improved responsibility in off-duty affairs would quickly set this top-notch performer above the rest.” Literally translated it says “Stop being an idiot all the time and you might have a promising future in the Air Force.”
Ouch … harsh, but true, I promise. Luckily for me, my supervisors saw some very-well-hidden potential. They cut me some slack on my EPRs. But did they do the right thing? I’m not sure.
I would not have survived force shaping our Air Force faces currently and in the years to come. Actually, I may have survived, but only because my supervisors were afraid to rate me appropriately. Don’t get me wrong. I had some great supervisors early on. They taught me about my shortcomings and what I needed to do to be successful. However, when EPR time came around, they wrote me “4s” and likely slept well thinking I got what I deserved. But did I?
Was I “Above Average?” My record was littered with Letters of Counseling, Letters of Admonishment and Letters of Reprimand, for repeated indiscretions like tardiness, disrespect to superiors and financial struggles. While I may have been a “top-notch performer,” I was anything but “Above Average” in the Airman department.
Truthfully reflecting, I desperately “Needed Improvement.” So why didn’t my supervisors say that on my EPR? They told me as much in counseling and feedback sessions. But they did not want to “hurt my career.”
How many times have you heard that? That philosophy is a disservice to our Airmen and our Air Force. Here’s why.
A little over two months ago I sat down with my command team to prepare for the upcoming retention boards. We met for eight hours a day for almost a week. We aimed to advise our commander on appropriate completion of the Enlisted Retention Recommendation Forms for 117 Airmen; approximately a full third of our unit. Each one needed a retention recommendation and stratification.
The difficulty of the task became abundantly clear when I reviewed their records. While the very best and very worst Airmen were easily identifiable, nearly 100 Airmen fell somewhere in the middle and all of the records looked identical. That’s right, on paper they were all clones of each other because supervisors failed to rate their personnel honestly.
Our job should not have been so difficult. Had supervisors been consistently honest with their subordinates, we could have better made our decisions. However, we were forced to try to read between the lines.
The bottom line is when we rate every Airman the same it becomes increasingly difficult to separate those individuals truly worthy of distinction.
You cannot control what the rest of the Air Force does or how other supervisors rate their subordinates. However, you can control your piece of the Air Force — your immediate sphere of influence. As long as you provide appropriate guidance, counseling and feedback, you can never “hurt their career.”
Give your Airmen the tools they need to succeed and then rate them honestly and accordingly. When you refuse to make the tough calls at your level it merely pushes the decision up the chain, to someone less informed about your Airman. That’s not helping anyone.
Make the tough calls, never pass the buck and take care of your piece of the Air Force.