The Air Force's top enlisted airman will step down from his post and retire in January leaving behind an Air Force getting ready to transition from a war footing and struggling to deal with a sexual assault scandal that has rocked its training community.
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy has seen his share of problems these past three years with a spiking suicide rate and the investigations into the mishandling of troops remains by airmen at the Dover Mortuary.
He's also seen plenty of progress to include the "all in" mantra that he and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz used to change perceptions of the Air Force and its involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Roy and Schwartz also oversaw the sweeping changes made to the Air Force nuclear enterprise with the stand up of Global Strike Command and the return to respectability of a force stricken with problems that led to multiple embarrassments to include the mistaken shipment of six nuclear warheads.
Roy spent his last speech before the annual Air Force Association conference to highlight the dedication of his airmen and to express his faith in the future of the force. He spoke about the airmen who inspired him and the sacrifices he's seen in the force.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh broke the news of Roy's retirement during his speech to the convention Thursday. It's typical for a new chief of staff to name his own chief master sgt. of the Air Force as they will work hand-in-hand during their terms.
Speculation swirled on the convention floor over who would succeed Roy. When asked if he has a successor in mind, Welsh said he has a few, but chose not to name any.
Welsh did provide a hint over who he might select. He said he would pick a chief master sergeant who was not a specialist, but an airman whose career has taken him across multiple commands. He wants someone who can communicate with airmen.
"I've heard a lot of names, but I haven't picked anyone," Welsh said. Roy sat on a panel with Welsh Thursday along with the other Air Force four-stars. Next to the Air Force's leadership, he issued a solemn message about the demands of the mission on airmen over the past dozen years.
He warned the Air Force about the risks to morale and retention when the Pentagon slows down the deployment tempo, and airmen no longer have the motivation to serve in combat.
"One of the things we have to be careful about when we come back to a peacetime operation is this idea of motivation," Roy said. "The fact is the majority of our airmen today that serve came in after 9/11. The only thing they have ever known is this idea of war."
It may be a message that runs counter to other arguments about a tired Air Force. When asked what he needed to do first as the Air Force's top officer, Welsh said he needed to "hug the Air Force." However, Roy said many airmen run on the excitement of deployments and will struggle to return to garrison life.
"When they don't have that stimulant of deploying multiple, multiple times -- and because it is, it's a stimulant -- if we don't watch this we are going to be in danger. So I would ask each of us to continue to watch the motivation of airmen," Roy said.
Roy tackled the disturbing rise in suicides across the force. He warned that the suicide spike might be just one indicator of problems that airmen are facing.
This year, 79 airmen have taken their own lives. That number has been increasing. Based on prior year reports, the Air Force already has exceeded at least a 19-year record.
The Air Force is hardly alone in seeing a spike in suicides, and all service branches have been scrambling to develop and implement programs intended to roll back the suicide rates. The Air Force held a one day "stand-down" at bases around the world for suicide prevention training.
"I don't want to bring everyone down, but the fact of the matter is we've had 79 airmen this year alone who decided to take their own lives. The question is why?" he said.
"[Their problem] may not be difficult to you, but in their mind it is very difficult," he said, "So there are challenges in our force and I think it's incumbent on leadership, those of us sitting at this table, and incumbent upon you [in the audience] as leaders in our Air Force to continue to watch after … these kinds of things."
Welsh thanked Roy as well as his family to include his wife and twin boys for their service. A Michigan native, Roy entered the service as a heavy machine operator in 1982 and worked his way up to chief in 17 years. Three decades after he reported to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, he will retire.
"This guy is an unbelievable professional," Welsh said.