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The year of the Air Force family.

Remarks to Air Force Sergeants Association, Aug. 19, 2009

Mr. Ledoux, thank you for that kind introduction and congratulations to you and Pam on being elected the international president. Mr. McCauslin, thank you for hosting this great event.

I'm incredibly honored to receive this award and grateful for the work the Air Force Sergeants Association does for our enlisted force and their families.

I'm also humbled to join the ranks of the many deserving award recipients this evening. We should all be extremely proud of the tremendous contributions our Airmen are making around the world, and I'm grateful we have this chance to recognize their achievements tonight.

As Secretary of the Air Force, I have the distinct privilege of attending events like this one. And if it gets me out of Washington for a few hours, I'll even agree to speak. But, what makes my job most enjoyable is the opportunity to meet and thank the truly remarkable men and women of our Air Force who distinguish themselves through selfless service, extraordinary performance, and exceptional leadership.

Beyond tonight's award recipients, a few others in the audience come to mind. I would like to recognize eight Airmen who have reached the pinnacle of leadership in our enlisted corps, and are with us tonight: Seven former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force:

Chief Robert Gaylor and his wife Selma

Chief James McCoy and his wife Kathy

Chief Sam Parish

Chief Dave Campanale

Chief Eric Benken

Chief James Finch

Chief Gerald Murray and his wife Sherri

And last, but certainly not least, our current Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Chief Jim Roy. Chief, your predecessors have set the bar high, but General Schwartz and I have great confidence in your leadership. We thank you for your commitment to our Airmen and their families.

As we salute these fine men, we are also reminded of our first Chief, Paul Airey. Chief Airey's work as the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force set the standard for the position, and we are deeply saddened at his recent passing.

While the Air Force has changed much since Chief Airey's tenure, the patriotism and lasting commitment to military service by our Airmen and their families has not.

Over the past 30 years in the national security community I've had the opportunity to see and visit many foreign Air Forces and military establishments, who seek to emulate the capabilities of our Air Force. And in visiting these partners we share many cooperative technologies and officer exchange programs. But what sets the U.S. military apart from others, and what others most seek to emulate, is the training, and professionalism of our non-commissioned officer corps. You set the standard and you make the difference. Thank you for that.

Over the past two decades, our Air Force has been continuously deployed and engaged overseas in great numbers. As we gather tonight, nearly 40,000 of our Airmen are deployed in 135 countries around the world. And, given our continuing commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, we expect this trend to continue.

Simply put, we are an expeditionary Air Force and deployments are now part of our culture. While we have made great progress in enhancing our support to families for this expeditionary paradigm, we must continue to refine our efforts and continue to recognize that an Airman's deployment is really a family's deployment.

Beyond the strains of deployments, military children and spouses face challenges their civilian counterparts will never know or experience. Our school-age children move an average of six to nine times before their high school graduation. Due to these same moves, our spouses often have difficulty in realizing their own career aspirations and while over 50 percent already work outside the home, another 27 percent would like to find meaningful employment.

While Air Force families face several hardships, we must also remember that over 40 percent of our force is single and face their own special challenges. Many are still teenagers, with close ties to hometown friends and worried parents. And when these Airmen deploy, they often have no one at home to help manage their personal affairs.

Yet, while they are willing to make sacrifices and endure adversity, our Airmen expect us to provide a stable environment for them and their families. And, doing so is part of our heritage and culture.

The Air Force has long been recognized as the Service for exceptional commitment to families. This reputation is well deserved, but will only continue only through the dedicated effort and focus of our senior leaders. You can rest assured that taking care of families is a solemn promise we make to each Airman and family--and one that Chief Roy, General Schwartz, and I each take very seriously.

And we make this commitment not only because it's the right thing to do for our Airmen, but because it is the smart thing to do for our Air Force. Enhancing our service to families and fostering a greater sense of community increases our mission effectiveness--both at home and while deployed. Our missions are demanding, and our Airmen perform to their highest potential if they are unencumbered by worries about their families and personal affairs.

Accordingly, Gen Schwartz and I have designated July 2009 to July 2010 as the "Year of the Air Force Family." During these 12 months, we will focus our attention on Air Force families-their hardships and needs, what we might do to make Air Force life more compatible with family life, and how we can build a greater sense of community across our force.

We'll use this year to highlight our longstanding commitment to the four basic needs of Air Force families: * affordable and available family housing;

* safe and rigorous schools that challenge and prepare our children for college and adulthood;

* accessible, quality medical care for families, Wounded Warriors and those with special needs;

* and finally, high quality, affordable childcare that meets the needs of working spouses and families with deployed members.

Single Airmen are, of course, part of our Air Force family and share many of the same interests and needs. But we'll also stay focused on their unique requirements such as dorms and MWR services that offer fulfilling off-duty activities.

We've made significant progress on each of these four major areas.

We've made great strides in our effort to provide affordable and attractive family housing, in locations our Airmen choose to live. Despite some challenges, the privatized housing program has eliminated nearly 35,000 inadequate units and provides over 900 new and renovated homes a month...5,000 in calendar year 2009 alone.

We've also made great progress in strengthening our educational initiatives for our 145,000 school age children, including funding school liaisons and using existing Airman and Family Readiness Center staff to attend local school board meetings and advocate for the interests of Air Force families. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs has started implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides significant resources for our Airmen to receive an education or transfer their benefits to a family member.

We've also been actively engaged in improving care for Wounded Warriors, focusing on the recovery, rehabilitation, and re-integration of these combat veterans as we encourage them to remain in uniform or enable their successful transition to civilian life. And, increasingly, our perspectives on health care include emphasis on fitness across the force and healthy dining options especially for our single Airmen.

Finally, we've led a sustained effort to expand the capacity of Air Force child care while improving the standards of care and quality of our day care facilities. Between our facility modernization plans and those funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act we will soon reduce our foreseeable base childcare shortfall from 6,400 spaces to nearly zero by the end of 2011.

In addition to these accomplishments, our Airmen and Family Readiness Centers have been incredibly successful in helping our Airmen and their families address a wide range of concerns, including education, employment, housing, retirement, childbirth, and parenting.

We cannot, however, rest comfortably on these accomplishments. We need to assess where the gaps are in our coverage, and look for new ideas to better the lives of our families. Earlier this year we set this process in motion by holding the "Caring for People Forum." This conference brought together a cross-section of professionals to identify potential service gaps and make recommendations for headquarters review, which is currently underway. We'll take their findings into account as we make decisions on where to shift or add investments that yield the greatest impact. Additional emphasis on 14,000 Air Force families with special needs and the role of key spouses are two areas that come to mind.

Other actions we'll take this year include executing an Air Force Family Week and incorporating "Year of the Air Force Family" efforts into scheduled events and celebrations. We'll also enlist local and national partners like Air Force Sergeant's Association, the Air Force Aid Society, Air Force Association, Boys & Girls Club of America, and the Military Child Education Coalition, among others.

When we talk to Air Force families about their needs and desires, one theme continually emerges: Air Force families often seek a shared sense of community that Air Force bases offer. It is felt most profoundly at overseas bases, which is one reason why the 20 percent of our Air Force families who are based overseas, frequently extend their tours. This sense of community is a cultural trademark of the Air Force, and we will seek ways to nurture it as part of the larger "Year of the Air Force Family" effort.

General Schwartz, Chief Roy and I have asked the headquarters staff to review our policies and determine whether there are Air Force, MAJCOM, or base-level policy adjustments that we can make to improve family life at our bases. As I travel around our Air Force, I'm always struck by the seemingly simple adjustments that would make real impact: Airmen who request we keep the child development center or the dining facility open just an hour or two longer to align with their duty schedules. Spouses who request we change hospital policies regarding children--some aren't allowed to make appointments because hospital rules won't allow her child in the examination room, but also won't permit an unattended child left in the waiting room.

These are real world problems our families face, and we've got to identify them and look for practical, actionable solutions. We can't fix all these problems from the Air Force headquarters in Washington, but we can encourage local commanders to identify these local issues and seek solutions, and identify where MAJCOM or Air Force policies are hindering their efforts.

We need to recognize that supporting families and communities does not always mean adding another program or throwing money and people at the problem. While our personnel and strength is down 7 percent since fiscal year 2000 our personnel costs are up 16 percent. So, we must find ways to do more with the resources and authorities already within our grasp.

Just like any other wide-ranging effort, we need your help to make the Year of the Air Force Family a success. As I look across the room tonight, I see so many of our Air Force leaders ... certainly many command chiefs and other senior enlisted leaders serving at base, MAJCOM, or headquarters level. I ask that you devote a substantial part of your time this year to improving the lives of Air Force families from whatever your vantage point. Air Force families live on Air Force installations, far from the beltway of Washington, D.C., and it is base-level leadership and decision making that truly impacts the quality of service of our Airmen.

As I noted earlier, Airmen want a sense of community, and sound Air Force policy can help foster it. But it is leadership at the local level the probably does more to fulfill that need. Developing or expanding support groups for families with deployed members doesn't cost much, but it pays huge dividends toward increasing the sense of community and family. We shouldn't underestimate how important these human connections are or the impact of simply reaching out to our fellow Airmen.

On General Schwartz's reading list this year is a book about Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bud Day, called "American Patriot." As you know, Colonel Day earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the face of his North Vietnamese captors, and is one of the most highly decorated American servicemen ever. During the 5 years and 7 months of his captivity, Bud Day often thought about his family, and vice versa. In his book about Colonel Day, author Robert Coram writes:

"Each night when Doris and the children said their prayers, she prayed for Bud. She put Bud's picture near the bed of each child. She wanted them to remember his face, to remember everything about him. She told them that she did not know when, but their father would be coming home. They should never doubt that fact."

Like Bud Day and his family, I am sure many Airmen and their families will be thinking of their loved ones in faraway lands tonight. They should never doubt the Air Force is standing with them.

Thank you for being here tonight, and thank you for your service.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley
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Author:Donley, Michael B.
Publication:Air Force Speeches
Date:Aug 19, 2009
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