Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody discusses the way ahead with tuition assistance and efforts to review current physical training requirements and enlisted performance reports.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody discusses the way ahead with tuition assistance and efforts to review current physical training requirements and enlisted performance reports. (Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Just two months into his new job, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody has had to deal with such weighty issues as the suspension of tuition assistance for airmen, the service’s physical training standards and concerns about over-inflated enlisted performance reports.

“It’s pretty surreal,” said Cody, on returning in his current rank to Ramstein, where he began his first assignment in 1985 as an air traffic controller.

Cody, 47, hasn’t had much time for reflection since stepping into the senior enlisted role in January, just before the huge outcry from airmen over tuition assistance cuts.

That issue seems to be resolved, for now.

As part of a continuing resolution, Congress voted this week to restore tuition assistance through the end of September, a decision affecting not only the Air Force, but the Army, and Marine Corps, which also suspended the program. President Barack Obama signed the legislation on Tuesday.

During a stop at Ramstein — part of s tour of five bases in Europe — Cody spoke on Tuesday to a full house packed inside a C-130 hangar.

Reinstatement of the tuition assistance will likely come “fairly quickly,” Cody said in an interview with Stars and Stripes, but whether it will be restored to the previous level isn’t certain with the services waiting on guidance from the Pentagon.

“If we were to fund it at the same rate that we were funding it, meaning 100 percent, everybody’s eligible, the same rules apply,” he said, “we anticipate that bill would be between $75 and $90 million for the remainder of the fiscal year.”

More than 110,000 airmen were using tuition assistance, to the tune of about $107.8 million so far this fiscal year, Cody said. At that rate, the service was on track to well exceed its budget for the program over the next six months.

For the fiscal 2014, the Air Force has budgeted slightly more than $100 million for tuition assistance, Cody said.

“As we look to this for the long-term future, we absolutely have to look on the sustainability of the program and how we define eligibility.”

Will the program change?

“I can tell you that I would think that it must,” he said, “given the budget. But we could be told otherwise and have been told otherwise at different times.”

Cody said his message to airmen is that while the current financial situation means “things will change in the future … we’re still going to be OK. This is not something that we should get in a tailspin over. We have a great opportunity here to shape our Air Force for the future; to determine what things are the most important things to us.”

“We’re getting to the point, when you take the amount of resources that we will have into the future and the demands that will continue on our airmen; it’s a great sacrifice to serve and people understand that, but it has to be a sustainable life,” he said.

Temporarily suspending tuition assistance was a fiscal decision made “after we went into sequestration, which levied some serious bills to pay in a very short period of time,” he said.

“When you’re trying to balance ‘how do we maintain a ready Air Force to do what our nation is going to ask us to do?’ we really had to look at that benefit,” Cody said.

Cody, who in 1985 was an air traffic controller based at Ramstein on his first assignment, also addressed other issues such as the service’s physical training standards and enlisted performance reports, with reviews ongoing in both.

The Air Force has appointed a team of experts to evaluate whether the abdominal circumference measurement should be tied to the service’s fitness test, Cody said. Airmen must pass all four components of the assessment, which, in addition to waist measurement, are a 1.5 mile run, sit-ups and push-ups.

The Air Force has adjusted the program many times over the last 10 years “to try to get it right,” Cody said. The standards are clear and airmen are given ample time to prepare, he said.

But there have been cases of “large-framed people” whom “clearly present a very professional image,” Cody said, and could pass all components “of the physical part of the test without any difficulty” but “they were failing it because they had over a 39-inch waist,” the maximum measurement for men.

“When we’re looking at the health of an airman versus the fitness of an airman, there are some people who would tell you that your waist measurement is somewhat of an indication of your overall fitness,” Cody said. “There are some other people that might dispute that.”

Enlisted performance reports, criticized up and down the ranks for inflated scores, may be a tougher challenge to solve.

The system, as written, is a good one, that requires feedback, setting expectations, evaluating airmen to those expectations, and documenting their performance, Cody said.

“The challenge is we are where we are and we have to deal with that,” he said. “We are not coming out with the end result that shows … who our very best performers are and then how everybody else falls behind them.”

Supervisors “want to take care of their people” and it can be difficult to offer constructive feedback, he said.

Some of the system’s subjectivity may need to be replaced with more objective measures of performance, Cody said.

While the Air Force has many great airmen who are above average, “everybody can’t be No. 1,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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