A Contagion Spreads: Air Force Kudzu

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael J. Underkofler
  • 22nd Air Force

The zealous desire by some Airmen to acquire then boastfully use post-nominals is as noxious and invasive in the Air Force as the destructive weed kudzu is in the American countryside. It detracts from the study of the profession of arms, hampers the delivery of required services, and delays individual mastery of core career field competencies. Quite possibly, it also makes us look like an organization full of self-absorbed and self-promoting Airmen, not wanting to be known as combat-ready warriors, but rather as civilian-certified specialists who wear slightly off-colored business suits.

Post-nominals are letters, or initials, that appear after a name to denote the awarding of a degree, certification, or honorary title. The letters O.B.E., for example, stand for the Order of the British Empire, a knightly award for outstanding work. For the rest of their lives, recipients of the O.B.E. attach these letters to their names in both correspondence and social settings. These particular post-nominals are known not only within the British Commonwealth, but throughout the world as they signify a lifetime of service to others, artistic accomplishments, major discoveries, or similar.

In America, we rejected the monarchy and for more than two centuries did the same with posh post-nominals used elsewhere, preferring professional ones like M.D. or R.N., for medical doctor or registered nurse. Those who earned ecclesiastical or academic terminal degrees, like the doctor of theology or doctor of philosophy, Th.D and Ph.D respectively, more often than not self-limited the use of their post-nominals, reserving them for the signature block of required core professional documents, not everyday mail.

Recently there has been an exponential growth in the number of Americans graduating from colleges and the number of degree programs, most noticeably terminal ones where once a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree were the standard requirement for entry into one’s profession. Pharmacy, physical therapy, and nursing practice programs, for example, now produce doctors. These, like many of the other new degrees, have their own set of post-nominals.

Similarly, many careers now have certification programs. Purveyors of certification programs tout the specialized training as a way for graduates to rise above industry peers.

Programs range from medical to information technology, trades, and broad management. They last in duration from a few hours to a few years. Some require examinations whereas others award a certificate for sitting in a classroom or completing an on-line course. Each allows practitioners to add an alphabet soup of post-nominals to correspondence, most of which are unknown and possibly unappreciated by those outside the field.

Extra post-nominals -- beyond rank and USAF in a signature block -- are authorized for only a few, most notably medics to identify their specific corps, guardsmen who include state affiliation, and reservists who until just recently styled an "R" after USAF. Yet, many Airmen now add them to emails and memorandums and on business cards.

Why do I need to know someone is a Fellow in the American College of Health Care Administrators, signified by the addition of FACHCA? Or that the optometrist has an MBA, the travel voucher specialist a civilian financial certification, or that a recruiter has Certified Project Manager status? The rationalizations offered by our learned colleagues would be amusing if they didn’t appear so unabashedly self-focused.

Some career field leaders are highly encouraging or are outright requiring the completion of civilian certification courses for military progression. Have instructors at our technical and professional military education schools been prevented from including current or applicable civilian information into courseware? Even if civilian credentialing is necessary, the unchecked addition of post-nominals to correspondence is potentially damaging. It can set off a chain reaction of unbridled post-nominal envy wherein the acquisition takes priority over mission goals, readiness training, and time with family. Determining the patient-zero career field, or the epidemiological start of post nominal envy doesn’t matter as we now have a contagion in the Air Force.

Our sister services seem to have avoided the disease. I don’t know if they have inherent cultural immunity or if their leaders quickly excise the malignancy when initially detected. I’m pretty confident I’ll never see MBA affixed to the signature block of a U.S. Marine. Americans know what it takes to become one and the warfighting skills each possesses. They don’t need post-nominals certifying leadership, teamwork, or project management skills.

Our new Air Force Chief of Staff announced he’s attacking queep, the term coined to explain pervasive growth of additional duties and self-completed administrative tasks. By fixing our squadrons he’ll give time back to Airmen. Let’s give them and their families even more time back by de-emphasizing the collection of civilian post-nominals.

Some suggest once the genie, or in this case post-nominal envy, is out of the bottle you can never put it back. I counter using the example of kudzu, the fast-growing vine that was initially brought to this country to help curb soil erosion as an example of post-nominal infestation. Despite the best intentions, this weed enveloped millions of acres of farmland and forests making it unproductive. Nothing seemed to eradicate it and hope was nearly lost in the battle.

Fortunately, the most basic, low-tech tool was employed: goats. Simple goats are now eating away the problem and regaining land for farmers and foresters. We need to pull out one of our more basic, low-tech tools: prioritized leadership, and adhere to what we know to be correct. There’s no place in our emails or memorandums, or on our business cards, for anything after our name other than rank and USAF. The last four letters being the only post-nominals we care most about as they denote a life of integrity, service, and excellence.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Air Force Times used an edited version of "A Contagion Spreads" in the October 3, 2016 publication.