Air Force Times
May 21, 2012
Welsh is recognized as committed and talented leader of airmen
Gen. Mark Welsh III is soft-spoken, but you want to hear every word he says.
Described as an inspirational speaker and a charismatic leader, Welsh is President Obama’s nominee to become the next Air Force chief of staff.
“He really does care deeply about his people,” said retired Lt. Gen. Jack Rives, who has known Welsh for 20 years. “He tends to know them by name, and he’ll remember personal anecdotes about them that tell them they’re not just somebody who’s doing something for him, but he cares about them, he cares about their families.”
Rives remembers talking to a sergeant who was stationed at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea when Welsh was a wing commander there.
“He said he [Welsh] was the most charismatic, effective leader he had ever been around,” Rives said. The sergeant also recalled how everybody at Kunsan would listen to Welsh’s weekly radio show. In the course of the hour program, you would laugh and then tear up during poignant moments, but he always left you with a positive message.
Welsh’s gift for oration was on full display when he spoke to Air Force Academy cadets in November. After jokingly asking how many cadets had said “this place sucks” recently, he moved effortlessly into serious territory, spotlighting airmen who had been killed or wounded while serving their country.
One of them was Tech. Sgt. Christopher “Matthew” Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician who lost his left arm and left eye, lost sight in his right eye and suffered injuries to his neck and face when a bomb exploded 2 feet from his face.
“Are you ready to lead him?” Welsh asked the cadets.
In a quiet but intense voice, Welsh told them that they had better be getting ready to lead airmen as soon as they graduate.
“If you’re not, rededicate yourself to the effort,” Welsh said. “Try your leadership skills here. If you fail, learn and move on, try again. That’s what this environment is for. If you’re still saying, ‘this place sucks,’ leave. We don’t need you. We don’t want you. Don’t have time for you.
“Because when you leave this place and I put you in command and supervision of people like Matt Slaydon, if you let them down, I will track you down and I will hurt you, and that’s going to be really embarrassing considering how old I am. Is that fair?”
Welsh’s confirmation would mark the return of a fighter pilot to the chief’s post, after being led for four years by Gen. Norton Schwartz, a mobility pilot and the first nonpilot to hold the job since 1982.
Welsh was born in San Antonio, and his father was an Air Force fighter pilot. In a speech at the Squadron Officer College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., Welsh described growing up in the fighter community.
“My dad flew fighters for 35 years,” Welsh said. “I lived in a circle of 21 houses at a place called Cannon Circle in RAF Wethersfield, England, when my dad was flying F-100s, and in four years we were there, 11 dads out of the 21 died.” A 1976 Air Force Academy graduate, Welsh has logged 3,400 flight hours primarily, in the F-16 and A-10, and commanded an F-16 fighter squadron during the Persian Gulf War.
Since then, he has held assignments in acquisition, intelligence and surveillance and was commandant at the Air Force Academy. His military awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster.
He has commanded U.S. Air Forces in Europe since December 2010. Prior to that, he served under Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the CIA.
Panetta, who was head of the CIA when Welsh was associate director of the agency’s Military Affairs Office, announced Welsh’s nomination to succeed Schwartz at a May 10 news conference.
“Over the course of our time working together, I developed a deep appreciation for his wisdom and his counsel,” Panetta said. “A former Air Force Academy commandant, I believe that he has the right leadership qualities and distinguished background to follow his extraordinary predecessor, General Schwartz.”
In a news release announcing his nomination, Welsh said he was “deeply humbled.” “It’s always a great day to be an airman … but this one is extra special for me. I came into the Air Force because I was in love with the airplanes; I stayed in because I fell in love with the people,” he said. “Being allowed to continue to serve them, our joint partners, and the nation in this role would be the privilege of a lifetime.”
‘Passion to duty’
In 1999, while serving as commandant of the Air Force Academy, Welsh gave another speech in which he told cadets just how personal war is.
Showing the cadets a picture of the “Highway of Death,” a road used by retreating Iraqi troops that was heavily bombed during the Persian Gulf War, Welsh announced, “I killed people here.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “Me.”
“I’d killed people before in this war, but this time I saw them,” he continued. “I saw the vehicles moving before the bombs hit. I saw people getting out and running, and then I aimed at them with CBU [cluster bombs] and dropped hundreds of bomblets on their head to make sure they wouldn’t get away.
“War is a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. There is nothing good about it, but it is sometimes necessary, and so somebody better be good at it. I am. … You better be.” One cadet who heard Welsh’s speech was impressed.
“I think what I took away from it was more about the person he is versus what he was talking about,” said the airman, who did not want to be identified because he is still on active duty. “I just took away an extreme sense of passion to duty, passion to the Air Force, to the military, to the country, to his fellow airmen. I felt that he felt that he stands on a level playing field with every airman, from airman basic up to the chief of staff of the Air Force.”
A retired chief master sergeant who has known Welsh for 15 years described Welsh as “the greatest leader I have encountered in my career.”
“With Gen. Welsh, you have a sense that he is genuinely concerned with two simple things: taking care of his people who take care of the mission and hearing the truth,” Joe Kost told Air Force Times.
“I’ve never seen or heard of him getting upset with the messenger because the message is bad, but I have known him to become irate because the messenger doesn’t disclose the truth and facts about a situation.” While other officers read books about how to be a good leader and motivator, it comes naturally to Welsh, Kost said.
“He is definitely the kind of leader we need at this point,” Kost said in an email. “Every promotion I have had was quickly followed by a note from him congratulating me and thanking me for my continued service. Again, that isn’t a learned behavior. It is a natural leadership style that motivates, inspires, and pushes people to do things and accomplish acts that they had no idea they were capable of.”
Kost first met Welsh years ago when he arrived at Kunsan. Welsh was the first person who airmen assigned to the base would meet after their 14-hour flight and fivehour bus ride.
“During the few words he spoke to all of us, he emphasized that Kunsan was not a great place,” Kost said. “We didn’t have the best facilities. We worked longer hours than most. We were truly an isolated, remote tour. And he said this, and I will never forget this: ‘This place sucks! But, it sucks equally for all of us. We are all in this together and we are all we have for the next year. No one has it better than anyone else so let’s make sure we take care of each other and make the most of our situation.’ ”
Retired Air Force general officers also praised Welsh’s nomination as the next chief of staff.
“This is the perfect pick,” retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap said in an email. “Gen. Welsh is the most charismatic officer in the Air Force; he literally writes the book on leadership. People really want to listen to him, and will walk through walls for him — he’s that kind of person.
“At the same time, he’s a combat pilot with authentic global experience, yet is also a respected veteran of the interagency and interservice battlegrounds. As personable as he is, he is a reader and deep thinker who can reinvigorate strategic thought in the Air Force.”
Retired Gen. Roger Brady, former head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, called Welsh “an extraordinary leader.” “He has a long history and a really extraordinary reputation for being an inspirational leader, and this is going to be good for our Air Force,” Brady said.
If he is approved by the Senate, Welsh will face three major challenges as chief: budget, budget and budget, said Mark Gunzinger, who served as a senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
“With the procurement of the F-35 and the new tanker and the new bomber all coinciding, [they are] going to be some significant tradeoffs that may have to be made over the next decade to afford that,” said Gunzinger, who works at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.
Facing resistance from Congress over plans to cut spending, the Air Force needs to develop a coherent vision for its future to show lawmakers why new and emerging threats require making new capabilities a priority over existing ones, Gunzinger said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Welsh is up to the task.
“I know Mark well. I know about his courage in combat, his acumen in acquisition and his passion for developing future leaders. Mark is ready to join the ranks of renowned airmen like Carl Spaatz, Curtis LeMay, David Jones and also his immediate predecessor, Norty Schwartz.”