'Acting with Their Heart:' How the Air Force Led the Services in Talking About Race

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright participate in a sit down discussion during the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 27, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Wayne Clark)

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright didn't run his message through a gauntlet of approvers to fine-tune the phrasing. But his words were deliberate and chosen with feeling.

"I am George Floyd ... I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice," Wright wrote Monday in a lengthy social media post. "Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks ... I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes."

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Wright was the first member of senior military leadership to speak out publicly following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Wright's words contained concern for black members of the Air Force, and a call for change and improvement in the service, including a review of the military justice system.

And in response to Wright's message, fellow Air Force leaders backed him up. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein released his own heartfelt call to action a day later, followed by a six-minute video in which Goldfein spoke to Wright about his experiences and the need for change. On Wednesday evening, the two appeared together in a town hall session to answer airmen's questions and entertain their concerns.

The Air Force approach to the issue, led by Wright, has been hailed by many as an example of strong military leadership. Officials speaking to Military.com on condition of anonymity said the message was united because of the strong relationship between Wright and Goldfein and their interest in making sure that they helped lead the conversation with their airmen.

Wright felt compelled to say something as part of a larger conversation about being black in America, especially as it relates to the military judicial system, where equitable justice and progress has lagged, according to one defense official who spoke to Military.com on background Wednesday.

In May, the organization Protect Our Defenders released newly obtained materials from an Air Force study that found that black airmen in the most junior enlisted ranks were twice as likely to receive discipline as those from other demographics, a revelation that prompted calls for change from lawmakers and activists.

Wright's decision to speak out was also personal, the official said. He sought advice from close friends inside and outside the Air Force as he decided what to say, and in what medium.

"He talked to his wingman, who is one of his best friends, and that's Gen. [David] Goldfein, and [Goldfein] supported him wholeheartedly," the official said, adding that Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett has also been supportive.

Goldfein's own letter to the force states, "Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020.

"We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America ... but it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is," Goldfein wrote Tuesday. "What happens on America's streets is also resident in our Air Force. ... We will not shy away from this. As leaders and as Airmen, we will own our part and confront it head on."

A second defense official noted that Goldfein -- who has made inclusivity a top priority as the service's top officer -- wanted to "act fast" and decisively to bring Air Force values into the conversation. His memo was sent to every wing commander and above, with a directive to "ensure wide distribution of this message," according to an email first posted on the popular but unofficial Air Force page, Amn/Nco/Snco.

Many hailed the Air Force's proactive communication on social media.

Dave Lapan, vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a former spokesman and adviser for the Defense Department, said unequivocally, "This is leadership."

"Our military is largely -- not perfectly -- a reflection of the society we serve. Racial inequality is a problem inside and outside the ranks," Lapan tweeted. "These two senior leaders know it affects airmen, in uniform and out, their families and co-workers. This is a call to action."

Wright and Goldfein -- who are retiring in coming months -- spoke out even as Defense Secretary Mark Esper has urged the force to "stay apolitical in these turbulent days."

"They're acting with more of their heart," the second official said of both chiefs. "Some of the hallmarks of leadership is doing exactly what they're doing -- taking lead on the issue.

"I think there's a real commitment to action in terms of trying to uplift and give opportunities to those that might not have them," the official added.

It's also notable that Wright is the only current nonwhite uniformed service leader -- officer or enlisted. In March, Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown was nominated to be next Air Force chief of staff, the first African American tapped for the position. His nomination still awaits a vote in the Senate.

Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson also praised Wright and Goldfein for their actions.

"Kaleth Wright and Dave Goldfein have a combination of competence and deep connection to the people they serve that is really unusual," she told Military.com. For example, Wright regularly communicates with airmen on social media and has a recurring podcast, "Blueprint Leadership." The podcast features not only top officials, but also airmen of various ranks, to explore topics near and dear to their careers.

"They are completely genuine and two of the best leaders I have ever worked with in any field," Wilson said.

Separately, the two defense officials emphasized that neither Goldfein nor Wright defied any order from the administration or the top levels at the Pentagon with their decision to speak out.

On Tuesday night, The Washington Post reported that military service chiefs had been warned by Trump administration officials not to comment publicly on events following Floyd's death.

"The communication lines were open," the first defense official said, when asked whether the services have been coordinating with one another.

It may just be that top leaders are still "working on finding the right words," the official said.

On Wednesday, Army and Navy leaders added their voices.

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, as well as the Chief of Naval Operations and the commander of the Navy's Sixth Fleet, sent letters out to their respective service members asking them to reflect on recent events, and encouraged an open forum to address the tough, uncomfortable issues.

"We're all reacting to this tune and come at it from different perspectives," the second defense official said. "And I just think this is how it has developed.

"[The Air Force] wanted to get things out. And [it] did, I think, in a timely manner."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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