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20 Years Post 9/11: What Motivates The Next Generation of Airmen?

375th Operations Support Squadron Graphic

A graphic on the mission of the 375th Operations Support Squadron. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Shannon Moorehead)

“Why are you here Basic Cadet Booth?”

The phrase, delivered forcefully inches from my 18-year-old face, is one I vividly remember nearly 20-years ago during my in-processing to the United States Air Force Academy.

Knees buckling under the Colorado heat, and hands nervously tapping my outer thighs, I uttered out: “To serve my country Sir!” A truly unoriginal, and uninspired answer. The upperclassman rolled his eyes and moved down to my classmate Jeff.

Once again, the same question, but Jeff squared him in the eyes, and said “To make them pay, sir.”  He had watched the Twin Towers fall from his high school classroom window only a few months before.  Inside those towers were members of his family, church, and childhood. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 affected us all, but for many it was their motivation to serve.

Now, 20-years later, the last American C-17 departed Runway 29 at Hamid Karzi International Airport, made a right turn out, and officially ended the United States military efforts in Afghanistan. Perhaps in time, history will determine if we “made them pay” as Jeff would have wanted. With so many of our young Airmen raised without a memory of that tragic day, nor the deployment taskings to match, what are their motivations to serve?  More importantly, do we, as leaders, take the time to connect to these?

I have had the honor to serve three months in command, and I find our youngest Airmen are not only motivated, but also far more capable than I was years ago. The research shows the same. In a September 2017 article, Forbes magazine stated the generation that encapsulates our youngest Airmen are digitally native, highly competitive, and often motivated by a strong desire to belong to a worthy cause. Additionally, many of the most talented young Americans are skipping college to enter directly into the enlisted force. These reasons account for what I know first-hand: if properly motivated and enabled, our Airmen are key to innovation, adaptability, and mission success in the future fight. Consequently, dated leadership paradigms may no longer be effective for our junior enlisted corps. 

How many times in your Air Force career have you heard the answer to a “Why” question met with “because that’s the way we have always done it?” That just won’t suffice. Our junior Airmen really want to know the “why” behind their tasks, and they need to connect emotionally to what they are doing and to know they are personally making a difference in an organization that supports a cause they believe in. In addition, I have seen the Airmen of our squadron light up when enabled to independently apply the technology they know best to a given problem set. If leadership, at any echelon, fails to properly enable or connect the individual with direct mission impact, we risk losing the innovative edge our youngest generation offers.

This point was made clear by the commander of Air Mobility Command, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost in her April 2021 paper Accelerating Change for Rapid Global Mobility. She states, “the talents of all Airmen [must] solve the command’s most difficult challenges and advance its warfighting comparative advantages.” If we are to incorporate all Airmen into the command’s most difficult solutions, a deliberate effort must be made to answer the “why” questions with something far better than “because that’s what we’ve always done.”       

As military leaders, we are responsible to grow the next generation of Airmen through training, motivation, and most importantly defining their relationship to the greater mission. The events of Sept. 11 are no less tragic today than they were 20 years ago, but we cannot rest on that memory; instead, we must find new connection points with the next generation of Airmen if we are to remain relevant.