Academy's command chief reflects on 30-year career

  • Published
  • By Gino Mattorano
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
As Chief Master Sgt. Todd Salzman puts on his uniform and reports for duty for the last time today, he'll reflect on a career that spanned three decades and supported operations on nearly every continent.

As the Academy's command chief, Salzman spent the last three years helping to mold future Air Force leaders and ensuring they understand the role enlisted Airmen play in the nation's defense.

As the son of an Air Force chief, Salzman knew from an early age that he wanted to be an Airman.

"Growing up, I remember my dad always working on his uniform every night, and I went with him to work and saw the people he worked with and what that meant to him," Salzman said. "To me, that was it -- the professionalism, the camaraderie, the uniform, the mission and all that. I'd go out on the flightline with him, and the B-52s would be doing engine runs, and I just thought, 'you've got to be kidding me, man. This is awesome.'"

Salzman joined the Air Force in 1982 and went to his first assignment at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., as an administrative support specialist, where he quickly decided he was in for the long haul.

"I knew early on that I was going to become a chief like my dad or stay in until they kicked me out," Salzman said.

Airman Salzman was one of a few Airmen assigned to 8th Air Force Headquarters, so he lived in an aircrew dormitory, where he learned about enlisted flying jobs.

"I figured out that those guys were going TDY a lot more than I was, so I started looking for an opportunity to fly," Salzman said.

Thanks to some mentorship and advice from a chief who worked at the headquarters, Salzman retrained as a KC-135 boom operator in 1986, and spent the next 19 years as an aerial refueler.

Salzman credits his success to the senior NCOs and officers he worked for as he progressed through the ranks.

"Everywhere I went, I always had someone teaching me," Salzman said. "And when they moved on, I became that guy teaching the more junior person and pulling them up, and so when I moved up I knew they were ready to fill my shoes.

"I learned so much from just watching and listening to that inner circle of experts and senior leaders in my career field. And over time you gain experience and you find yourself moving closer to the center of that circle.

"Especially in this computer age we live in now, we need to focus on analog leadership. We don't spend enough time with good old fashioned watching and learning, and I think that's vitally important to the development of our people, both professionally and personally."

Salzman was selected for his first command chief assignment in 2005 at the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. His success in that role paved the way for an assignment as the 13th Air Force command chief at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and his current command chief assignment here at the Academy.

The chief challenges senior NCOs to always be searching for new opportunities.

"Once you're a senior NCO, there isn't always going to be someone analyzing your career to make sure that you're the most qualified person for the job," Salzman said. "They're going to look at you and say, 'look, he's got a roof on top,' and expect you to do whatever needs to be done at that moment. And that's what our senior NCOs do. Always look for something else to do and continue to gain experience. That experience is what is going to get you through whatever challenges lie in your path.

"Getting to know and understand people and getting to know what makes them tick goes along way," he continued. "It goes back to what we always hear -- if you take care of people, they will take care of the mission. And I learned that from watching leaders in action throughout my career and just trying to be like them."

For Airmen who are looking for the key to a successful career, Salzman offers this advice:

"One great thing about the Air Force is that if you show that you've got the some drive, some ability, they're always going to give you opportunities to perform," Salzman said. "Every time you exercise those opportunities, you hone those skills a little more. I think by virtue of the fact that I got put into jobs where I had zero comfort level, and had no idea what I was doing, or something was broken but needed to be fixed, but I think that's gives you the ability to walk into a situation, and while I'm not going to say you're not scared, you have so much experience dealing with the unknown, and if you just go into it with the confidence in your abilities, you'll be successful."

When the chief found out his last duty assignment would be at the Air Force Academy, he knew it would be the ideal way to finish his career.

"I have spent the last three years preparing future officers to be the kind of leaders that I had the privilege of working for, and that has been so rewarding," Salzman said. "To be able to take my experience and help educate these young men and women has been priceless. I couldn't have planned that any better.

"What I think is the most important thing we do here is to bolster the military side of their training and educate them on the situations they're going to find themselves in. I think we do a great job giving these young men and women opportunities to bolster their critical thinking skills, work with people, and provide them with leadership opportunities. The more opportunities we can provide them in this sterile environment, the better prepared they'll be to lead. What's funny is I don't think they know how ready they are."

Over his career, Salzman has seen manpower and budgets shrink, and a steady increase in operations tempo, but through it all he's seen Airmen rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done for the mission.

"We're at a point where we're tired of being at war, we're tired of being away from our families, and we're tired of losing money, and not always having the right equipment," Salzman said. "And in the midst of all this turmoil, of all this chaos, we've forgotten how good we are at fighting through this adversity, no matter what the challenge is. We're so good at what we do, and we can't lose sight of that."

Salzman challenges Airmen to study their history to gain perspective on how to handle adversity.

You'll find that throughout history, no matter what situation you're facing, there's a parallel you can draw from," the chief said. "Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his men were running out of ammo while defending Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, and when his men asked him what they were to do, he told them to fix bayonets and charge.

"I tell Airmen all the time, 'Well, we don't have enough people, and you're not going to get any more money, but I still expect you to get the job done.' Fix bayonets. It's what we've got. We're the military. We don't just throw our hands up and say, 'It's too hard.' This is what we do."

At the same time, the chief also challenged Airmen to take pride in who they are and remember the legacy they carry.

"I never want our Airmen to forget what they represent, and that's honor, sacrifice and integrity," Salzman said. "Whenever we do something that's dishonorable, it negates all the good we do. People look to you because of the amazing things you do every day. We can pick up armies and move them around the world, effortlessly. Every Airman should be proud to know they're part of that capability.

"I will really miss working with this team."