“Some people say ‘once a chief, always a chief,’ but we don’t wear these uniforms forever,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher August, 8th Fighter Wing weapons manager. “The scariest thing about making chief is having an expiration date. When I sit in a job interview after I retire and introduce myself, I can’t say ‘I am Chief August,’ they would look at me weird, but if I said I am African American they would say, ‘Yes, you are!’ And every day, the moment I drive off base, I am no longer a chief, I am Black and that will never change. It is inescapable.”
August is an African American country boy from Oklahoma who joined the United States Air Force. In honor of Black History Month, August shares his story to inspire future African American leaders.
“I don’t have a problem being vulnerable and sharing my story – that I am a product of welfare, violence and sexual assault,” August said. “Growing up Black and poor, I faced a lot of adversity, but it made me who I am now.”
August was raised by his single mother and grandmother until he was 15, at which point he moved in with his father in New York.
“My mother’s side of the family was like a bucket of crabs,” August said. “Anytime someone would try to go somewhere, there was always someone who would pull you down. It was different with my father, with him there was stability. I never worried about not having heat, lights or food.”
After high school, August attended Norwich University in Vermont on a football scholarship for three years, and pursued a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering.
“I realized I was not going to become a professional football player, and I knew the military was going to provide economic stability, like it did for my dad,” August said.
August’s father served and retired from the U.S. Army and advised a young August not to join the military, but if he did, to join the Navy or Air Force.
“Seeing what the military provided for my father through housing, income and even commodities like the gym, I decided to drop out of college and walked into a recruiter’s office. As an engineering major, I had a love for electronics. When the recruiter read the job description for a [munitions system specialist], I was hooked and never shied away.”
August shipped out for basic military training (BMT) at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in September 1995.
“I was always one of two or the only Black guy – in college, BMT and tech school,” August said. “All the ignorance, questions, perspectives and stereotypes didn’t stop in the Air Force. I was in places where I thought hate groups didn’t reach or exist, but I was wrong. This was a different time in the Air Force.”
Through all the racial subtleties, August was able to excel, making dorm chief in BMT, being the red rope in tech school, and performing well as an aircraft armament systems Airman.
“In being the only Black person, you become a spokesperson for the Black community,” August said. “I feel like I was built for the difficult conversations and engaging with social injustices, largely due to my upbringing. My ability to stay calm and my passion for people and learning, helped me grow and be a better person. The Air Force fed into it, and I found my voice to be their voice.”
August originally wanted to pursue finishing his degree and become an officer but he met a chief who inspired him to take care of people through the enlisted ranks.
“The chief told me an officer will have impact on systems but will rarely know individuals that the system affects,” August said. “He said ‘as a chief, I will impact individuals or the masses.’ That alone made an impact on me. It changed the course of my career and my goal became making chief before I retired.”
After over 20 years in the Air Force, August realized this goal by achieving the rank of chief master sergeant in 2019.
“A few days after I was notified I made chief, I was pulled over by a cop, even though I followed all the traffic laws,” August said. “I share this story and reflect on how none of my successes mattered the moment I was off base. As a Black community, we have had to make almost a mental note like a ‘Black Handbook’ to help us rebound and filter moments like these. Having these conversations help us understand it’s not what you hear, but it’s how you act.”
At the end of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement escalated and spread throughout the United States. This created a lot of tension on social media and among American citizens and service members, leading to the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordering a Stand-Down on Extremism in the Ranks.
“There was no handbook on Extremism,” August said. “Everyone was forced to come together to resolve an emotionally charged issue and not be emotional. There was and is plenty of work to still be done through conversations and small groups about diversity and inclusion in the Air Force.”
The Department of Defense has made a conscience effort to be more diverse in its inclusivity of people with different backgrounds by improving force development progression.
“Seeing diversity in leadership is important because it enhances the decision making across the Air Force,” said Senior Master Sgt. Philip Dayton, 57th Maintenance Group weapons standardization superintendent and long-time friend of August. “It brings together leaders from different backgrounds, experience, demographics and perspectives to accelerate change or lose. If we have diversity in leadership, it inspires men and women, from all walks of life, to strive to also become leaders later in their careers.”
According to the Air Force Personnel Center, in September 2021, only 15 percent of the Air Force is made up of Black personnel, which is second to the 71 percent of White members.
“The Air Force is a great service which has improved so much since I joined,” August said. “I have faced much subtle disrespect regarding race. However, when I questioned if it would affect my career, I came to trust those above me and remember my core values. Now I make sure I mentor and advocate for any group or individual that may feel unrepresented.”
As a chief, August is expected to serve as a mentor for non-commissioned officers and junior enlisted members, and to serve as an adviser to unit commanders and senior officers. No more than one percent of the Air Force enlisted force may hold the rank of chief master sergeant.
“For the past 26 years, Chief August has never slowed down,” Dayton said. “There was not a task, assignment or deployment that he did not take in stride or without a smile on his face. August is a chief who inspires Airmen to be successful in life. His personality and leadership styles are infectious. Leaders like him pave the way by putting the time in to care about the Airmen, which in the end, ensures our future leaders are prepared for the next challenge.”
Chief August expects to retire in 2025.
“I am proud and humbled to be a Black chief,” August said. “People would say ‘you’re at the top’ but I would say, being chief is the midway point. The only way I’ll be remembered is from the people who will help me down this mountain, the same people who got me up there – my team.”