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Leaders seek relief for the busiest, most stressed airmen

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Enlisted explosive ordnance disposal airmen deployed an average of 220 days in fiscal 2013.
Enlisted explosive ordnance disposal airmen deployed an average of 220 days in fiscal 2013. (Capt. Kinder Blacke / Air Force)
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Busiest airmen

For the average total days that airmen, by specialty code, are deployed, click here.

Staff Sgt. Jason Ostberg watched the birth of his son over FaceTime from an iPhone in Afghanistan. It would be 3½ more months before father and son could finally meet.

Ostberg, who has been deployed about as much as he’s been home over the past five years, says it’s just part of being an explosive ordnance disposal, tech, one of the Air Force’s busiest airmen.

“My wife and I came to an understanding. We’ve talked about it before, when I’d be home and when I wouldn’t be,” said Ostberg, who is assigned to the 355th Civil Engineer Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

EOD techs, contracting officers, and enlisted airmen in medical specialties were among the most deployed airmen in fiscal 2013 — they were away from home for contingency operations and exercises an average of 170 days or more. Pilots, maintainers, nurses and financial management officers also led the pack, according to fiscal 2013 deployment averages provided by the Air Force Personnel Center.

The Air Force, in line with the Defense Department’s objective, has been trying since 2010 to alleviate the stresses that come with deployments. Leaders look not just at the number of days deployed, but the number of days airmen are back home, called the deploy-dwell rate.

The current goal is for all airmen to have a 1:2 deploy-dwell ratio, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said. That means airmen who deploy six months would be home for a year before deploying again.

And a new DoD policy guidance, issued Nov. 1, calls for all of the services to reach the 1:2 deploy-dwell rate. It calls for commanders “at every level to ensure individual service members, regardless of unit or assignment, are not repeatedly exposed to combat, do not experience disproportionate deployments and do not spend extended periods away from” their homes or station unless necessary.

Career field managers have been working to increase the number of airmen in the busiest specialties and offer incentives to keep airmen already in those jobs from leaving, and those efforts may give the airmen more time at home, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody, in a Nov. 6 interview.

But it’s never easy.

“There is an insatiable demand for some of these ‘high demand, low density’ skill sets,” Cody said. “If you bring in more [airmen] and you are able to retain more, that solves a lot of the ‘low density’ issue,” he said. “To be honest, today we’re not able to meet all the combatant commanders’ requirements.”

How often, how many days

Of the airmen who deployed in fiscal 2013, 90 percent of them met the deploy-to-dwell goal of 1:2, or better, Tingley said.

The reasons the other 10 percent did not meet that expected rotation goal depends on individual circumstances.

“In some cases, airmen volunteer to deploy prior to achieving a 1:2 ratio,” Tingley said. “In other cases, home station operational commitments reduce the rotationally available pool, which may require some airmen — but not the entire career field — to deploy prior to achieving 1:2 ratio,” she said.

A major challenge has been recruiting and retaining these skilled and highly trained airmen, said retired Maj. Gen. James Poss, former assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“It takes a unique airman to be able to even pass initial technical training, let alone pass the security clearance, let alone qualify to fly in an aircraft, and be brave enough to engage in direct combat,” Poss said in an interview.

Deployed and stressed

Not surprisingly, the most frequently deployed airmen are often in the most-stressed fields in the Air Force. Those AFSCs whose operational demand has been deemed problematic are either on a 1:1 deployment ratio or are combat enablers, who are critical non-combat troops specializing in areas such as intelligence and explosive ordnance disposal.

All career fields have some stress, Jerry Diaz, chief of the Air Force’s force management analysis division, said in a statement to Air Force Times. But to determine which are facing troubling levels of stress — and may need help — the Air Force measures career fields’ manning levels, frequency of temporary duty and deployment, retention, and deploy-dwell ratio. For example, career fields that are on a 1:1 deployment ratio will end up on the stressed list if their manning levels, retention and frequency of TDY and deployment are deemed “moderately healthy” or “unhealthy.”

The Air Force uses a variety of tools to try to relieve the stress on those fields, such as approving enlistment, re-enlistment or retention bonuses; increasing promotion rates; increasing non prior-service accessions; allowing prior-service accessions; or increasing retraining quotas.

The Air Force has struggled for years to turn around some stressed career fields. In an email, Chief Master Sgt. Adam Watson, the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance career field manager, said the operations intelligence career field has been the most stressed ISR career field “for over a decade.”

“It is the most deployed of our enlisted AFSCs, and a very marketable skill in the civilian community,” Watson said. “It drove retention down for several years. Our airmen, at a 1:1 dwell, were tired and could not see an end in sight. These airmen were eager to serve, but deploying for six months, home for four, training for two months then off to another six-month deployment was too high an operations tempo for some.”

Operations intelligence specialists are enlisted airmen who help analyze intel and evaluate its accuracy to find key information that will help plan and execute combat missions.

But last October, the operations intelligence field finally came off the stressed list. Watson said the Air Force increased its enlistment of new operations intelligence airmen and increased retraining of other airmen over the past several years, and promoted those airmen above the Air Force average.

The end of the war in Iraq and reduction of forces in Afghanistan also helped take the pressure off of operations intelligence airmen, Watson said. That career field has seen “a marked reduction in ... deployment requirements” recently. And the Air Force has been using airmen in other ISR career fields to take over some jobs that had been filled by operations intelligence airmen, further relieving their burden.

There are incentives

An incentive for some airmen in the busiest career fields is a faster promotion rate. For example, enlisted airmen in intelligence or medical careers who were selected for promotion consistently had some of the lowest average times-in-grade in the Air Force, according to an analysis conducted by Air Force Times in August. It’s whether or not they’re willing to be retrained into a challenging and in-demand job.

Hefty re-enlistment bonuses often go hand in hand with high deploy rates, though the list of jobs eligible for the bonuses is getting smaller. EOD Explosive ordnance disposal airmen, for example, can get bonus multiples of up to 7 if they re-enlist. The same goes for the frequently deployed special operations weather and pararescue airmen.

And in June, the Air Force announced massive $225,000 retention bonuses for fighter pilots who agree to stay on for nine more years. The Air Force in April added fighter pilots to the list of stressed officer fields, partly due to their high op tempos.

But other changes also are putting a strain on the ranks of fighter pilots. Col. Doug Nikolai, director of operations force management, said in an email that force structure reductions over the past decade have eroded the Air Force’s ability to train new fighter pilots and get them necessary experience.

Nikolai said the Air Force has increased its fighter training unit production capacity over the past two years to try to fix this problem, which he said is starting to show results. He also said the active-duty Air Force will work more closely with reserve-component fighter squadrons to increase its capabilities.

Remotely piloted aircraft pilots were also added to the stressed list in fiscal 2013. Nikolai said that is largely due to the relative newness of that career field. The Air Force is experiencing the “typical growing pains” that come with refining a brand-new training program, he said. He also said the Air Force is trying to improve recruitment and screening to get the most motivated and qualified people into the career field.

“The [Air Force] stood up the formal training pipeline for this new career field only three years ago, so it will take time to produce the numbers necessary to meet requirements,” Nikolai said. “Currently, pilots from manned aircraft are filling some of these positions until the new career field is healthy.”

And the military’s growing demand for special operations forces during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars helped land special operations combat systems officers on the stressed list in January.

“These overseas contingency operations demands outstripped the ability of the [Air Force] to produce enough CSOs for the special ops career field,” Nikolai said. “We have increased the number of CSOs we track to the special ops field and improved training efficiency” to try to relieve the strain on that career field.

Demands of war

It is impossible to say exactly which AFSCs will be in the most demand after 2014 because the demand for airmen will be based on “what takes place around the world and what our nation asks us to get engaged in,” Cody said.

Airborne ISR operators and airborne crypto language analysts, for example, will more than likely always have jobs that take place overseas, even as the nation winds down in its war efforts, Poss said. These career fields have almost 2,000 airmen.

“I would hope that when we pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 or 2015 even, that we’ll see a big drop off in deployment requirements for these airmen,” Poss said. “On the other hand, they’re just so valuable to the overall war effort that you could see them going to another theater.”

Pilots may see a drop in combat requirements after 2014, but it’s too early to say whether their operational tempo will change, said Master Sgt. Randy Redman, spokesman for Air Combat Command, in an email.

“In general, drawdowns in combat operations will decrease demand for combat airpower, although air assets often remain operating in theater well after the departure of the majority of ground forces,” Redman said.

The demand for ISR aircraft and aircrew remains high, he said.

“Additionally, combat operations over the past decade have come at the expense of other operational commitments such as coalition exercises, partnership building, deterrence operations, etc.,” Redman said. “Depending on other COCOM requirements, it may not be that pilots deploy less, but rather, that they deploy for other missions, and for different durations.”

What's next

It will be up to unit leaders to keep an eye on airmen to make sure they are not being called upon too often, Tingley said.

“Commanders review deploy-dwell ratios before selecting airmen to deploy and they give airmen as much time off between deployments as possible,” she said.

Airmen in these units, however, are subject to frequent deployments until they are re-assigned to a new unit, Tingley said.

Poss suggested if the service cannot reach a goal to deploy fewer combat forces, a possibility would be to promote some of these positions to send fewer of the same airmen forward.

“It sets off alarm bells for personnel folks if we go over a 1:1 dwell. In other words, six months preparing to deploy or deployed versus six months staying at home,” he said.

For Ostberg, who has deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan in his nine years as an EOD tech, the time away is part of a job he loves. He’s gotten used to being home eight to 10 months between deployments since the tempo picked up in 2007.

He’s just back from Afghanistan, but while he’s at home, he will be sent on routine TDYs with the Secret Service.

“I’m going to stay for 20 [years] no matter what,” Ostberg said. “I just love what I do ... the camaraderie in the EOD career field is awesome. I just [knew I] never wanted to sit behind a desk.”

As far as his next deployment, “they just kind of tell us when we’re leaving, either three months before or a couple days before,” Ostberg said.

But his deployments have never been pushed back.

“When they tell you you’re going, you’re going,” he said.

He expects another deployment. It’s just a question of when and where.

Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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