The Air Force must accelerate change to take on future challenges, the service’s new chief of staff said during a historic ceremony in which he became the first African American to lead a military branch.
Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown became the 22nd Air Force chief of staff at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, replacing Gen. David Goldfein, who’s retiring after 37 years. Members of Congress and Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, were in attendance. Brown’s wife, Sharene, and their two sons looked on.
The event was done on a much smaller scale than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. Guests and some Air Force musicians wore masks, and chairs for the smaller-than-normal crowd were spaced apart.
Brown not only credited his family’s support for contributing to his success, but other Black military leaders such as the Tuskegee Airmen, who broke barriers and paved the way for officers like him.
“This is a very historic day for our nation, and I do not take this moment lightly,” he said.
Brown took the helm after most recently leading Pacific Air Forces, where he oversaw more than 46,000 airmen operating out of Japan, Korea, Hawaii, Alaska and Guam. He also led the air campaign against the Islamic State as head of Air Forces Central Command.
The general is an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with nearly 3,000 flight hours, of which 130 were in combat.
He said he’ll continue to build on the three focus areas Goldfein set during his four-year tenure as chief of staff: revitalizing squadrons, strengthening joint leaders and teams, and advancing multi-domain command and control. Brown also pledged to develop and empower leaders and prioritize quality-of-life initiatives for airmen and their families.
“No doubt, there are challenges ahead that will be difficult but not impossible,” he said.
Brown also said he’d provide the Joint Chiefs with his best military advice on the challenges the U.S. military faces today and in the future. He is the first Black member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since retired Army Gen. Colin Powell served as chairman from 1989 and 1993.
He’s stepping into the role as protests continue across the country following the May death of a Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody. He addressed the incident in a video message just days after Floyd’s death, sharing how race played a role in his own career — experiences, he said, “that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
Esper said Brown is exceptionally qualified to serve as the next Air Force chief of staff.
“I’m confident that you will take the Air Force to even greater heights, and I’m excited to watch you lead,” he said.
Goldfein led the service during the fight against ISIS, the creation of the new Space Force, and the start of a global pandemic.
“His leadership was crucial at laying the foundation for what is now our sixth and newest military service, the United States Space Force,” Esper said. “Gen. Goldfein was at the right place at a very important time as the department laid out the national defense strategy in 2018 — the first revision of its kind in a decade.”
Goldfein led the development of the B-21 Raider, the super-secret future bomber, and pushed to boost the number of Air Force squadrons to 386, up from 312. He also led efforts to ready the force for a future fight against near-peer threats after decades of operations in the Middle East.
Goldfein survived being shot down in an F-16 while flying over Serbia in 1999, an experience that shaped his leadership style for decades to come.
“We don’t know, especially as officers, when some young airman is going to risk everything to pull us out of bad-guy land or a burning truck or an aircraft or you name it, and risk everything to save us,” he said in a July interview with Military.com. “All we know is, on that day, we better be worthy of their risk.”
Esper presented Goldfein with the Defense Distinguished Service Medal on Thursday. Goldfein was a bold advocate for empowering airmen, the citation states, and his dynamic leadership led to outstanding achievements during both war and peace.
“Because of Gen. Goldfein, the core fighting units of the Air Force are much stronger, and airmen are better prepared to lead in a joint environment,” Esper said.
Goldfein said the Air Force and airmen will flourish under Brown’s leadership.
“I could not be prouder that a true warrior, leader and personal friend will be taking his first ‘walk of the chief’ [in the Pentagon] tomorrow,” he said. “… The future of our Air Force has never looked brighter.”
Goldman was once thought to be next in line to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but President Donald Trump ultimately picked Army Gen. Mark Milley for the job. Goldfein told Military.com he didn’t take the decision personally.
“I’ve never looked back on that,” he said. “The president has the absolute right and responsibility to pick the … military adviser that he wants. And he picked the right guy.”
Goldfein on Thursday said he hopes Americans are inspired by the selflessness of troops and their families, and remain hopeful for the country’s future.
Though his speech was apolitical, in keeping with military tradition, Goldfein stressed that service members swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. It’s the same message Milley relayed in a recent speech after he was photographed in uniform near the White House, where federal police officers used force on peaceful protesters ahead of a presidential photo opportunity.
The image raised concerns about the military’s involvement in nationwide protests in the wake of Floyd’s death, as well as domestic politics. Milley later apologized and said he shouldn’t have been there.
Goldfein on Thursday referenced Milley’s speech, reminding troops that “the principle of an apolitical military “is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic.” Civilian and military leaders must work as a team, he added.
“Neither one can bring lasting change alone,” Goldfein said. “It’s the ultimate team contact sport and a relationship that both must work equally hard to establish that level of trust and confidence that the institution and the nation deserve.”
— Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.