The Air Force’s First Female Enlisted Leader Broke the ‘Brass Ceiling.’ Here’s Her View on Retirement.

by Braxton Taylor

AURORA, Colorado — JoAnne Bass recalled getting a phone call on her birthday, one that would change not just her life and career but also history.

It was July 15, 2020, and she was waiting for a phone call from then-Air Force Chief of Staff Charles “C.Q.” Brown, who was tasked with selecting the next chief master sergeant of the Air Force. She realized she hadn’t thought about what she would say if she was told she hadn’t gotten the job — then her phone rang. Brown told her she would be the first woman in the history of the Department of Defense to be the senior enlisted leader of a service branch.

“It was emotional,” Bass recalled, tears welling in her eyes. “I said, ‘You made the right damn decision, sir.’ And then we hung up, and then I bawled.”

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It has been three and a half years since that phone call, and Bass will be stepping down as the Air Force’s top enlisted leader next month. While her presence alone broke barriers for women in the military, she also wanted to make the culture of the Air Force more accepting than the one that brought her up — a task she said was simply “the right thing to do.”

“Did I experience barriers? I’m certain I have,” Bass said. “But if I ever experienced barriers myself, what it caused me to do is want to help make sure that there weren’t barriers for others around me and everybody can just serve to their fullest potential.”

In an exclusive interview with Military.com at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Warfare Symposium conference at Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center, Bass took a moment to reflect on her career, the policy changes she made, and what the future holds for her.

She joined the Air Force in 1993 and started as an operations system management journeyman for the 74th Fighter Squadron at what was then called Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. It didn’t, at first, seem like it would be her calling.

“I joined our Air Force to get a GI Bill and figure out life,” Bass said. “My dad was not going to pay for college. I wasn’t mature enough yet, and so I really needed to figure out life.”

Four years later, Bass said she rejoined because she needed to pay off her Honda Civic. It wasn’t until she hit the eight-year mark, around 2001, where she was stationed in Germany and had served deployments supporting operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, that she realized she was in for the long haul.

“I understood that wearing our nation’s cloth is way more than getting a GI Bill, way more than paying off a Honda Civic — that it’s a calling and it’s really a way of life,” Bass said.

Her leadership expertise eventually landed her a job in the Pentagon in 2016, where Bass was the chief of Air Force Enlisted Developmental Education. In that job, she worked alongside two other future senior enlisted leaders: Roger Towberman, who would become the first chief master sergeant of the Space Force, and his successor, John Bentivegna.

Bentivenga said those interactions with Bass influenced him a lot, and her expertise was vital for setting up a new service.

“Me, [Towberman] and Chief Bass would spend many hours contemplating about the challenges of the enlisted force and what we can do to make a difference for them,” Bentivenga told Military.com in May.

Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who researches military culture, told Military.com that Bass, in many ways, was absolutely the right person for the job and her tenure broke a long trend of men leading in the position.

“It’s striking when you go into the air hall in the Pentagon or you go to the Air Force Academy and go to club there, and you walk in and see the photos of every person who has ever served in the role of chief of staff of the Air Force and chief master sergeant of the Air Force, and it’s striking. There’s one woman on that wall,”Kuzminski said. “The term ‘brass ceiling’ is even more pronounced on the enlisted side … so I do think it’s a powerful image to see.”

Showing Up

Bass has taken on many policy changes during her tenure, such as allowing Air Force women to wear their hair in up to two braids or a single ponytail; updating tattoo policies; and examining and reforming a variety of barriers to service based on race and gender.

“We are potentially losing high-quality airmen to a policy that has not kept pace with the times,” Bass said in a Facebook post last year. “This is about evolving standards … not lowering them. And this is about bringing in the talent we need to build the Force of the Future.”

Kuzminski said Bass’ ability to communicate on social media and discuss issues not just online, but also in person, has been one of the highlights of her tenure.

“At a time when we were dealing with the recruiting challenge and also the conversations about broader quality-of-life issues … she brought a sense of professionalism and a call to living up to the Air Force’s values and standards,” Kuzminski said. “And at the same time, she was very approachable and, so when she was out in the community, she was truly meeting with airmen across the force.”

As she walked around the Air and Space Forces Association’s conference this week, Bass handed out challenge coins and patches and took numerous pictures and selfies with young airmen.

That representation means a lot to them, especially young women in the ranks.

“I gave a patch to a young lady, a Staff Sgt. Black, yesterday, and the team came up to me afterward and said, ‘After you took a picture and gave her your patch, she bawled,'” Bass told Military.com, getting emotional herself retelling the story. “They see or they aspire to be something that they think they couldn’t do.”

Access to leadership means a lot to young airmen. Bass has made engaging in social media — whether it’s sharing policy changes, posting about her famous lumpia recipe, or sharing stories of enlisted airmen on Facebook. But it goes beyond the internet. In her role, she has traveled to dozens of bases and met with the enlisted force.

Bass said each of those interactions has had an impact on her, but one particular story came to mind. This past year, she had a phone conversation with a young airman who lost a child and, while her leaders were listening, she was in a mostly male career field and felt disconnected. The young airman wasn’t sure she should remain in the service.

“She didn’t see a way out. She didn’t see a way to serve,” Bass said. “Me being able to connect with her helped open her up. She ended up finding a path where she can keep serving, and we had an opportunity to engage and put her into a different career field. So, even during the tragedy of a lost child, she could still be a parent and a spouse and still serve. Those are the things that matter.”

The Next Chapter

Chief Master Sgt. David Flosi, who is currently stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, was chosen late last year to be the 20th chief master sergeant of the Air Force, replacing Bass.

Bass said she believes Flosi is a great enlisted leader as the Department of the Air Force prepares to reorganize, rebrand and refocus all of its efforts from training to deployments on a potential fight with China.

“David Flosi is absolutely the best leader at this time to be able to lead at a time like this,” Bass said. “He brings a very diverse background and a very strategic one with his nuclear background.”

Looking back on her career, Bass is happy with what she accomplished but points out that there is still more work she wishes she could have done, adding that the Air Force needs to do more for its people.

“We’ve moved the ball on policies that impact the everyday life of our airmen,” Bass said. “We are still too slow, and we’ve got to figure out how to be more agile in this very complex and big organization.”

One major initiative that she wants to see accomplished is taking a holistic look at military pay and compensation. The Air Force hasn’t seen a targeted pay raise since 2007, she said.

“Last year we celebrated 50 years of an all-volunteer force. Our goal should be that we’re celebrating 55 years, 60 years, 70 years, but that is going to take a holistic look at how we compensate the military today,” Bass said. “Nobody joins to get rich, but we absolutely are in a race for talent.”

On Tuesday, during her last time on the Air and Space Forces Association’s conference stage, Bass received a standing ovation from a crowd of airmen and Space Force Guardians.

Bass told Military.com that, after she leaves the uniform behind, she plans to travel a lot with her husband and family. But she also recognizes she’s an airman for life and she’ll miss interacting with them.

“To make sure that I’m still plugged in, you’ll see me wandering around the commissary or the [base exchange] with the retiree hat on, randomly talking to people,” Bass joked.

Related: Air Force Announces Its Choice for New Chief Master Sergeant in Charge of Enlisted Force

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