Maintaining the Human Weapons System

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- It all started during an Elmendorf staff meeting. Seeing a major I didn't know, I introduced myself. In reply she spoke a sentence that still echoes in my mind.

"Hello Chief, I'm Major Jennifer Halter, I am a crew chief on the human weapons system."

Puzzled, I asked for clarification and she replied, "I am a crew chief on the human weapons system; I maintain the critical emotional guidance system of our most valued asset." She was our new mental health officer.

I paused to consider her unique point of view. Was I a "weapons system?" Did I want to be one? The answer to that question was a quick "yes." In the Air Force we revere our weapons systems. When I enlisted there were seldom pictures of people on the walls but there were always pictures of our weapons; aircraft, missiles, satellites, etc. We are a technological force and we love our stuff.

Afterward, I looked out my window and pondered the F-15s on the flight line. Each is a complex system of systems requiring dedicated and skilled maintenance. Each is assigned a crew chief and assistant crew chief responsible for ensuring the jet is always in good repair. No pilot steps to a jet until the crew chiefs prepare it and verify it is ready to go.

"Sir/ma'am, the jet is ready. All systems are green. If you handle it properly it will take you out and back and you'll both be ready for tomorrow's mission."

The crew chiefs have access to specialists in the "back shops" to provide specialized maintenance beyond their expertise. Avionics, fuels, weapons, etc; whatever help is needed to ensure the performance and safety of the jet. On occasion, we will even take a jet off the line and send it for depot-level maintenance, an upgrade of its major systems. This allows us to fly our aircraft for 50 years and more.

I realized there are many parallels between Airmen and aircraft. I am, we are, a complex system of systems. We require constant and competent maintenance. Who is my crew chief? I believe I am. Basic maintenance; food, rest, exercise, education, is my responsibility. My supervisor, teammates, wingmen, and chain of command serve as assistant crew chiefs. Sometimes though, I need more maintenance than my supervisor and I can provide. This is where the "back shops" play their role in maintaining our human weapons system.

Should my spiritual compass go askew, our chaplains will help me "re-center" it. The professionals at the dining facility are here to ensure I am properly fueled. Should I suffer a physical breakdown, the medical group is standing by with specialists for all my physical systems. If I find my thrust-to-weight ratio off and my performance slowing, I can go to the Health and Wellness Center and the fitness center for a fitness tune up. Just as we have preventative maintenance for aircraft, we also have preventative maintenance for people including routine performance feedback, proper diet and exercise and preventative health assessments. We even have depot-level maintenance. After all, what is professional military education but depot-level maintenance for the leadership guidance module of the human weapons system?

Too often, we treat our equipment like treasure and our people like labor. We often work our people as hard as we can and then are disappointed when they break down or fail. We don't do it intentionally but it still works out that way. I'd like to serve in an Air Force where our human weapons systems are as revered as our other weapons systems. One where each member works as hard at maintaining themselves and their people as the weapons and processes they are responsible for. One where no Airman is sent on the day's mission until his/her supervisor checks him/her over and ensures he/she is mission-ready.

"Sir/ma'am, I've checked out Airman Snuffy. All systems are green. If you treat her right she'll perform well and be ready for tomorrow's mission when we need her."

There is no reason we cannot become more capable as we age. It all boils down to how well we maintain ourselves and our teams.

I owe Major Halter a great deal. She reshaped how I look at maintaining myself and my team. She was right; we are the Air Force's most valued asset. America provides us with her most precious treasure, her sons and daughters. It is up to us to ensure that each reaches their maximum potential and provides their best to our mission of defending the nation. I am Chief Master Sgt. Rob Tappana. I am a crew chief on the human weapons system, and so are you.