The Year in Special Operations: You have been in the U.S. Air Force since 1987, and have more than 5,000 flight hours in transport aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy and C-130 Hercules. What do all those years and that experience tell you about what you need to do today at AFSOC as the senior enlisted advisor?
Command Chief Master Sgt. Matthew M. Caruso: Having been an Air Force maintenance airman and then a career enlisted aviator on conventional and SOF [special operations forces] platforms, I think it certainly prepared me for leadership challenges of today and in the last few years. Having a humble foundation as a maintainer and also traveling around the world and the Air Force in the first half of my career gave me an excellent perspective on how it really takes the entire team to get the mission done. Today, myself, my boss, and the command realize just how critical the entire DOD [Department of Defense] is to the success of SOF and how we execute our mission with precision anytime, anyplace. I believe the other piece of gained perspective is that I had to really work hard, study, and persevere to follow my dream to become an Air Commando. Once I received an assignment to the MC-130P and the 9 SOS [Special Operations Squadron], I felt right at home and tried to do the very best I could to accomplish the mission as a flight engineer and take care of people and the unit as an Air Force NCO [non-commissioned officer]. Those years in the Combat Shadow and many of my leaders were instrumental in helping me be prepared to lead our AFSOC airmen of today. I can only hope to do the best I can for them.
AFSOC has changed a great deal since you entered the force in the late stages of the Cold War. What are the biggest changes you have seen from a personnel standpoint during your career?
As an Air Force, we are the smallest we have ever been but by far the busiest and most tasked. The Air Force and AFSOC are so very different than [in] years past. While we still hold dear the competencies and culture that got us through tough times in our history, airmen continue to answer the nation’s call whenever and wherever they are needed. Incredibly, but not surprising, I feel that the Air Force is stronger in character, commitment, and loyalty than ever before as well. This is nothing new to SOF units as we typically thrive when faced with challenges and adversity. We are small, light, and lean and like it that way. However, based on the things we see and what we hear from the families and airmen in AFSOC, we are certainly stretched thin in a few areas of AFSOC. The key is to figure out how to balance mission, home station training requirements, family, and personal time in our lives. The commanders and all the command chiefs and SELs [senior enlisted leaders] spend a lot of time focusing on balance and wellness of the force. Much of this has to do with prioritizing and slowing down enough to be more deliberate in our day-to-day decisions, in my view.
In the last 15 years, the Combat Controller community within AFSOC has developed a truly awesome reputation across the entire U.S. special warfare community. What has been your view of this community’s rise in pre-eminence, and its finally being given a combat wing – the 24th Special Operations Wing (SOW) – of its own?
It speaks to the level of competence and professionalism of the Special Tactics community in the special operations battlefield. These Special Tactics [ST] airmen; Combat Controllers, Special Operations Pararescuemen, Special Operations Weathermen, and Tactical Air Control Party airmen have proven the value of integrating air power in the ground battlespace with precision and courage. The growth of the Special Tactics community and stand-up of the 24 SOW showcases the incredible demand for these ground special operators within the Air Force. For example, in May, the 17th Special Tactics Squadron, which supports the 75th Ranger Regiment, will have been at war continuously for 5,000 days. To me, that says the rest of the military sees how valuable we are, and as awareness grows, the demand for Special Tactics will grow. The next step is to focus on growing more ST airmen into leaders as we are very young in rank and leadership experience in the ST NCO corps. There is a lot of development to do in this area to grow our ST teammates and retain them past 10 years in service. That goes back to my previous point about balance in our lives. All these young airmen know is deployment after deployment. Retainability of our best and brightest will continue to be an issue if we do not address this with the ST community from a strategic perspective.
During your career, what improvements have you seen from a “quality of life” standpoint (base housing, base shopping facilities, schools, etc.) at AFSOC bases around the world?
AFSOC has always placed significant importance on the health and welfare of our Air Commandos – it’s essential for our success. One example is that for the first time in over 50 years, AFSOC has all new housing areas going up at Hurlburt Field [Florida] and Cannon AFB [New Mexico]. It’s been incredible to watch these wonderful neighborhoods go up so our airmen and their families have a modern, spacious, and safe place to live on base. Another example would be the introduction of 24/7 access to fitness centers and other work-out facilities at both our wings and for our overseas airmen as well. After Air Force completed a study validating their use, AFSOC immediately implemented the 24/7 concept and it has been a huge success. Secondly, we know that food helps make the airman. In 2015, Hurlburt Field won the Air Force Hennessy Trophy for best Food Service Operation for the Eastern United States and Europe – the third time in the last five years. Additionally, Cannon AFB is currently restructuring their food service operation to be more like a campus. The transformed delivery model will provide a wider selection of dining locations and menu options. We expect that to be in place October 2015. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is AFSOC is steadfast on creating an environment for all our airmen and families to thrive. There is much work to do in this area however.