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Self-Care requires agency available only to the privileged


Recently the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) posted on her Facebook page that "self-care is a necessity, discipline, and non-negotiable." This opening line was against the backdrop of the picture above.

The CMSAF later went on to state that "it's only been over the last 5-6 years that I've learned that. Prior to that, I would pride myself in getting only a few hours of sleep...I thought sleep was for the birds. I didn't spend enough quality time with the family, I would skip out on PT, and feel guilty about leaving work for things I had to do." (emphasis added).

First, if you've been a long-time reader and/or listener of the 20 Years Done Podcast you know that I champion for these exact things to become a reality for maintainers. So it might come as a surprise that I have a bit of criticism for the CMSAF's self-care post. Allow me to explain.

I've spent the last 3 years discussing and analyzing the culture in maintenance; how that culture perpetuates psychological harm and is fomenting a manpower and experience crisis in maintenance running parallel with an on-going pilot retention crisis. As these two interdependent issues degrade, ops tempo will increase exacerbating the root cause: work/life imbalance.

So while I want all of the things the CMSAF recommended today, I recognize three truths. The first, is that these "non-negotiable necessities" are anything but non-negotiable as she would have you believe. The second, is that most maintainers are not in a position, where they can control their work/life balance or self care at all. And third, the CMSAF is in a unique position where she can actually effectuate change in the enlisted force to promote "self-care." However, from the looks of things, she doesn't understand the issues facing most career fields; and certainly not maintenance.

So first I want to address whether self-care in the Air Force, and aircraft maintenance, is a necessity; and then whether it is non-negotiable.

Self-care is absolutely a necessity. Moreover, the more stressful the job, the more self-care is required to off-set that stress. Which is odd, because in the Air Force, the more stressful the job the less self-care is available. Let's take physical fitness as an example. In the white collar world of the Air Force, physical fitness during the duty day is commonplace. While these jobs are important, most times a mistake in finance or MPF won't result in someone dying. I mean if that were the case, maybe suicide wouldn't be the leading cause of death in the Air Force, finance mistakes would be. So while I wouldn't want to work at finance, the stress of working in finance definitely doesn't compare to working on the flightline. The same examples could be made for weekend duty, deployments, long-hours, etc. The high-stress career fields have the least amount of time for self-care.

The second issue is whether self-care is non-negotiable. I think this is where I agree with the CMSAF however I come to the opposite conclusion. Self-care in maintenance is non-negotiable but not in a positive way. Rather, your unit and supervisor allocate what little time you have to your self care and 90% of maintainers have no power or agency to negotiate their self-care. Which means the mission comes first and self-care falls under the explicit domain of your unit leadership, who are at the mercy of their available resources.

Furthermore, the CMSAF also lists "discipline" in her initial statement about self-care. This idea is that it takes discipline to carve out family time, PT, enough sleep, etc. For my maintainers, do you feel like you lack the discipline to spend time with your family or get enough sleep? I know I never felt that way, because it isn't a thing. At all.

However, if you have agency over your life and how you spend your time, then sure discipline makes sense. The CMSAF said she claimed this discipline "5-6 years ago." Looking at her bio, 5-6 years ago she was a Command Chief at Goodfellow AFB a training base in Texas.

Which brings me to my final point. Do you want to know why people on the flightline seek promotion? Whether they realize it or not, they want agency: the ability to exert some control over their daily life. It's why maintainers apply for special duties, instructor positions, support, UDM, MOCC, cross-training, early retirement, and the list goes on. It's why so many seek MSgt without even realizing it's their driver. Because as a SNCO your shifts are either set (Pro-Super) or you can control your hours (Section Chief - while not absolute, certainly more control than TSgts and below).

So, for the CMSAF to feel so compelled to share her secrets to self-care that it was posted on her Facebook page, it belies someone that is out-of-touch with the working class career fields that are the backbone of the service. That she thinks it's a matter of discipline and is non-negotiable shows a leader divorced from the realities of service in the lower-tier trenches of the Air Force. Finally, it is the narrative of the privileged. Someone that has agency over her professional and personal time, of which a scant few can claim.

I would argue in this case discipline is the principle issue at hand here. A lack of discipline of senior military leaders to take bold steps to address on-going systemic issues plaguing the military. To listen to the field when they are overwhelmed. To take affirmative steps to address suicides in specific career fields. I think she's right, there is a discipline requirement for self-care. It's just not ours, it's hers.

But lucky for her she has agency over her life. Which is good. If you want the same, I suggest you make Chief, because clearly Air Force leadership isn't going to give you any.


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