325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) – During his life, he was a dedicated member of the profession of arms and fervent military supporter who became one of the most iconic figures of Air Force enlisted heritage and culture – he was Paul Wesley Airey, the first Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force.
His death was announced March 11 to a mournful Air Force and nation. A memorial service in the Tyndall Air Force Base Chapel March 16 brought everyone from top military officials past and present to the newest Airmen. No matter the rank, they all came with the common purpose of paying respect to one of our service’s most beloved and cherished leaders.
Those attending the service made their way to the chapel flanked on each pathway by formations of Airmen from the Tyndall Paul W. Airey NCO Academy; upon entering the chapel, row after row of pews was filled with a sea of blue service dress uniforms. All eyes were led to the center of the chapel, where a painted portrait of Chief Airey was placed with flower memorials on each side. In front of the portrait stood a podium on top of which a solitary service cap faced forward to the audience.
Toward the front of the chapel sanctuary, a large screen projected images from the life of Chief Airey, as well as a tribute slide show developed by the students and staff of the Tyndall AFB Paul W. Airey NCO Academy Class 09-3. The first slide read, “On March 11, 2009, the Air Force enlisted members lost their father figure – Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Paul W. Airey.”
Once the general public was seated, the ceremony began with the official procession of the chief’s family, close friends and personal clergy. In all, more than 500 people were in attendance. Some Airmen even stood outside, enduring the showering rain, just to pay homage to the chief’s legacy.
After the singing of the first hymn of praise of the service, “Abide With Me,” Brig. Gen. Darryl Roberson, 325th Fighter Wing commander, introduced the chief’s family and friends, along with distinguished community and military members, including the current Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney McKinley, as well as the eighth, ninth, twelfth and thirteenth chiefs to hold the highest Air Force enlisted rank.
He was followed by members of the 325th FW Honor Guard who presented the colors, afterward which Lt. Col. Douglas Hall, 325th FW chaplain, offered a prayer.
Next to the podium was Chief McKinley, who spoke fondly of the man who set the precedent for the job he currently holds.
“If Paul Airey could look through my eyes, he’d smile because all he could see is Air Force blue,” he said. “… We can’t put into words how much Paul Airey meant to us. We’ve shed tears, but we should also rejoice. Back as a POW, he probably thought ‘what’s going to be my future?’ I bet he never would have dreamed he’d live to be 85 years old, but he did, and he didn’t just live or simply exist, he lived.”
Chief McKinley then noted how Chief Airey influences him almost every day.
He said he has a picture which hangs in the center of his office of Chief Airey; not of him as a young man, but much older, speaking to a crowd but still ‘full of piss and vinegar.’ “He motivated all of us,” he continued. “When I have to make tough decisions, I look at that picture and say ‘what would the chief do?’ He’d say ‘always do the right thing and don’t compromise your Airmen.'”
After scripture reading, psalm reciting and more hymn singing, Chief Airey’s son, retired Chief Master Sgt. Dale Airey, reflected on his father.
“Dad left this world the same way he led his whole life – confidently, bravely and with dignity,” he said. “He is immortalized as the epitome of what an Air Force NCO should be.”
He reminisced on his childhood and how he shared his father’s love for the poems of Rudyard Kipling, quoting lines from “Gunga Din” and “Mother of Mine.” He chose these because he said they reinforced how his father taught him duty to others, responsibility and zeal. “Dad put pride in people,” he stated.
As Chief Airey’s son took his seat, lifelong friend of the chief and the eighth Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, Sam Parish came up to speak. In what was perhaps the most moving event of the service, Chief Parish reminded everyone though they were there to mourn, they also were there to celebrate the life of Paul W. Airey. As a symbolic gesture, he asked everyone in the room for a round of “resounding applause” – the sound was deafening.
“The impact he had on me and the Air Force family is indescribable,” he said. “He was the epitome of core values long before they even were our core values.”
The ceremony closed with the singing of “The Air Force Hymn,” and people began their departures after the procession of the official party. As people made their way out of the chapel, an elderly woman smiling cheerfully uttered softly, “Paul loved the Air Force, yes, Paul loved the Air Force.”
With only a few simple words, she communicated a fundamental reason Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Paul W. Airey’s memory will live on in the Airmen who come after him. The love and dedication he gave the Air Force flourishes even further with each coming generation of Airmen. As Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff put it, “His legacy lives today in the truly professional enlisted force we have serving our nation, and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude.”
“Chief Airey is a true wingman, leader and warrior,” said Chief Master Sgt. Tim Omdal, 21st Space Wing command chief. “Anyone serving in the Air Force, and especially those with chevrons on their sleeves, owes a debt of gratitude to Chief Airey as he forged the path that all enlisted Airmen now walk upon. He carried the banner for all Airmen who have served. He was our advocate and advisor. Chief Airey let the public, congress and the officer corps know that the Air Force’s NCO corps were nothing less than a well-trained team of professionals. We continue to feel his influence today and I hope we all strive to do his legacy proud. One of our responsibilities as enlisted members is to look to those who went before us.”
Chief Airey’s interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., at a date to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked people to consider donations to the Air Force Memorial Fund, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Scholarship Fund or the American Cancer Society.
(Edited by 21st Space Wing Public Affairs)