Brown and Bass discuss PT tests, empowering Airmen and leading during pandemic

With the future threat and fallout from coronavirus still uncertain, the Air Force will continue exempting Airmen from PT testing until Jan. 1, 2021, Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass confirmed Sept. 16.

“We are pushing the PT testing to 1 January and that’s really for the safety of our Airmen,” Bass said in response to a question during a media briefing with Brown that coincided with the Air Force Association’s 2020 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

Brown and Bass said the extension was warranted and they said that a broader review of what it means to be “fit” in the Air Force should be examined. Until Wednesday’s announcement PT testing was scheduled to resume Oct. 1.

“As we got closer to 1 October that’s when the Chief and I just got into our jobs so there wasn’t much time for us to assess and put our stamp on the way forward,” Brown said during a 40-minute session with reporters.

“As Airmen I would like to see us in a place where we’re not so much focused on the PT test as we are more about fitness and readiness. That is the continued message we push out as leaders that we need a fit force, we need a ready force and we need Airmen who are doing that regardless of a PT test,” Bass said.

“In the meantime, we are also taking looks within on (the question) what does fitness look like for our force?” she said.

While that larger question remains open, Brown said that the way PT tests are conducted will change when they resume next year.

“We have to do it differently in a covid environment,” he said. “For example, we will not be able to do the waist measurement. We’re basically going to give everybody full credit for waist measurement but you still can do push-ups and sit ups.”

In addition to the discussion of fitness and testing, the session also touched on issues ranging from the force’s resilience and mental health, to how the Air Force will cope with budget uncertainty this fall and winter, diversity, and how to reshape the service to confront peer adversaries, among others.

Brown conceded that it’s too early to know precisely what will be included in the short term budget known as the Continuing Resolution that will keep the government open past Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. He said, however, that the Air Force will communicate clearly with Congress about its needs.

He acknowledged that beyond the actual budget number, “The unpredictability (means) you can’t do pretty much anything new and it slows us down. … That is something that doesn’t help us accelerate change or being able to do things faster with some predictability,” he said.

“I wish I had a crystal ball to be able to tell you” how the budget debate would play out. “It would make my job a lot easier but I don’t,” he said.

In response to a question about suicides and mental health, Brown said there have been 98 suicides in the Air Force this year, which is about the same number as this point the year before.

But this year coronavirus is making it even harder.

“The stressors that we have this year are much different than the stressors we had last year. We don’t have a chance for our Airmen to connect and be close to the folks they work with on a day to day basis. That creates a challenge,” he said.

“We are pushing out a playbook to our leaders in the field to help them work through some of this. The other aspect to this is our ability to do mental health via tele med. … We’ve got work ahead, I’ll be honest with you. We’ve made some progress because the stressors are different but there’s still much work to be done,” he said.

In his opening remarks, Brown praised the quality and dedication of Airmen across the service, saying he “appreciates how awesome they are.”

But he acknowledged that this year has been difficult for reasons that few could foresee – a pandemic that to date has killed 196,000 people in the United States. Wildfires of historic proportions are raging across the West at the same time that multiple hurricanes have already landed in the U.S. and the economy is gripped in recession. That’s in addition to difficult conversations and heightened awareness of racial disparities.

Brown said that even with those challenges he and Bass are working to make sure that Airmen know they are valued and how each Airmen fits into the larger goals and purpose of the Air Force.

“When I talk to Airmen I want them to understand the National Defense Strategy and how they connect to the National Defense Strategy. We need to understand how we generate air power … and how they contribute to generating air power,” Brown said.

“This is a goal for me personally; I want to be smarter at the end of the day than I was when I walked in the door. I want all our Airmen to feel that way; that they learn something every day when they come to work. Bottom line, we want to develop and empower our Airmen to be leaders. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.

The Air Force Association 2020 Air, Space and Cyber Conference graphic. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario

The Air Force Association 2020 Virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference is an annual meeting of aerospace professionals, Defense Department, industry, academia and international partners. The 72nd conference and professional development event is being held remotely for the first time from Arlington, Va., Sept. 14-16, 2020. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)

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