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'I Am George Floyd:' Top Enlisted Airman Voices Outrage, Calls for Justice Review

Oriana Pawlyk

Hours after Defense Secretary Mark Esper called American streets "the battlespace" for which the U.S. military should preserve dominance amid protests and riots across the nation, the Air Force's top enlisted leader published an emotional post likening himself to African Americans who died as a result of police brutality, and asked fellow leaders and citizens to work toward "making things better."

In a lengthy Twitter thread posted Monday, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright encouraged "everyone to fight, not just for freedom, justice and equality, but to fight for understanding." He also called for an "independent review" of the military justice system, saying equitable justice was an area in the service where progress has lagged.

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"Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd ... I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice," Wright began his thread. "Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks ... I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes."

Wright, who's set to retire in coming months, noted that racism, discrimination and exclusion "does not care much about position, titles or stature, so yes, it could happen to you," he said.

He added that while he fears being wrongly shot by police during a routine traffic stop or other encounter, he worries more for young black airmen under his command who may become the next casualty.

"This, my friends, is my greatest fear," Wright said.

"You might think you know what it's like to grow up, exist, survive and even thrive in this country as a Black person, but let me tell you, regardless of how many Black friends you have, how Black your neighborhood was, or if your spouse or in-laws are Black ... You don't know.

"As I struggle with the Air Force's own demons that include the racial disparities in military justice and discipline among our youngest Black male Airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks ... I can only look in the mirror for the solution.

"I, the [chief master sergeant of the Air Force], must do better in ensuring every Airman in our ranks has a fair chance at becoming the best version of themselves. While this is a complicated issue ... I, along with every other leader across the force, am responsible for making sure it becomes a reality," he said.

In light of recent events including Floyd's May 25 death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Wright said he'd come to the realization that he personally needed to do more.

"I spent the last week, 'plotting, planning, strategizing, organizing and mobilizing' just as Killer Mike, the popular Atlanta rapper and activist encouraged us to do," he said. "Twenty-five of my closest friends (White, Black, Asian, enlisted, officer and civilian) and I have an ongoing dialogue where we began by acknowledging our right to be angry about what is happening."

While Wright and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are working to improve disparities in racial representation across the service, Wright said more must be done, and emphasized it must be done collaboratively.

"I'm working with General Goldfein, first and foremost, to have a full and thorough independent review of our military justice system. We will look to uncover where the problem lies, and how we can fix it," he said. "We are also working to improve the diversity of our force, especially within the senior ranks. I hope this message triggers responses and ideas from each of you on things we can do better."

Wright, who's been in the position since February 2017, regularly communicates with airmen on social media, and has advocated for a number of changes -- such as amendments to the enlisted airman promotion system -- during his tenure.

Airmen have seen these revisions as a positive first step toward reforming archaic practices, and given Wright his popular Internet nickname, "Enlisted Jesus."

Wright has also been outspoken about a recent spike in suicides.

Last year, Wright called for a "tactical pause" in Air Force units to address a rise in suicides across the force, stating suicide had become the leading cause of death in the service -- and claims more airmen's lives than combat. His plea was to keep asking fellow airmen how they're doing, and to keep the dialogue open.

On Monday, he made a similar request.

"We didn't get here overnight so don't expect things to change tomorrow ... we are in this for the long haul. Vote, protest peacefully, reach out to your local and state officials, to your Air Force leadership and become active in your communities ... We need all hands on deck," he said.

"Like you, I don't have all of the answers, but I'm committed to seeing a better future for this nation," he added.

Read Wright's full message on Twitter here, or on Facebook here.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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