Diversity and Inclusion: An Interview with the Vice

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walt Napier III

Walter Napier: Today’s date is September 17, 2021.  My name is Walter Napier, and I am the 514th Air Mobility Wing Historian.  I am speaking with Colonel Erik G. Brine, 514th Vice Wing Commander.  Colonel Brine joined the Air Force in 1998 through Boston University’s ROTC program.  After commissioning, Colonel Brine served ten years on active duty, flying C-21’s and C-17’s, including 200 combat flight hours, and missions over the skies of 56 countries.  When Colonel Brine is not flying, he has a long history of engaging in various aspects of leadership, management, logistics and foreign diplomacy. 

Colonel Brine is currently focused on a new initiative, by taking the lead as the 514th's Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager.  The Air Force Diversity & Inclusion Mission is to attract, recruit, develop and retain a high-quality, diverse Total Force, ensuring a culture of inclusion in order to leverage the diversity of the nation for strategic advantage in Air Force, joint and coalition operations. The Air Force broadly defines diversity as a composite of individual characteristics, experiences, and abilities consistent with the Air Force Core Values and the Air Force Mission. Air Force diversity includes but is not limited to: personal life experiences, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural knowledge, educational background, work experience, language abilities, physical abilities, philosophical and spiritual perspectives, age, race, ethnicity, and gender. Inclusion is the process of creating a culture where all members of an organization are free to make their fullest contributions to the success of the group, and where there are no unnecessary barriers to success.

With the upcoming Air Force birthday, Colonel Brine was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss his role and vision for an increase focus on diversity and inclusion, while also looking into the past at some key examples of challenges and successes the Air Force has tackled in previous generations.  Colonel Brine, thank you for speaking with me today.

Colonel Erik Brine: Thank you for having me.

WN: Sir, tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to your current roles.

EB: As you mentioned, I started as an Air Force ROTC cadet back in the mid 90’s at Boston University.  I commissioned through that program, and I was lucky enough to be selected to go to pilot training.  Being a pilot was something I had wanted to do since I was five years old, so it really was fulfilling a lifelong dream for me.  I spent ten years in active duty.  I flew C-21’s in my first assignment, and then went on to fly C-17’s.  I left active duty close to the eleven year point.  I had an eye condition that I developed on an overseas flight, and that took me out of a flying role for a while.  In fact it looked like, as I left active duty, I probably was not going to fly again.  It was on and off for about four years before leaving active duty, and I left because it didn’t look like I was going to be able to continue as a pilot.  I wasn’t sure what my future was going to look like.  At that point, I moved over to the reserves and pursued a different part of my career.  I was hired in my first non-active duty role at the Pentagon, working in Air Force International Affairs [SAF/IA], and I had multiple assignments to include Air Force Public Affairs and Presidential Management Fellow in the White House. I continued to serve in my Air Force Reserve capacity alongside multiple civilian career opportunities. I learned early on, not only was the Air Force Reserve a place to continue service, but it was a place that offered a lot of different opportunities if you were willing to be a little entrepreneurial about it and explore different things.  I was able to fly C-5’s and become a squadron commander over in Westover [Air Reserve Base, MA] for a period. The Air Force provided me with more educational opportunities and sent me to the Naval War College for SDE [Senior Developmental Education].  That got me to where I am now, geographically.  Initially, my family did not want to go to Newport, RI, but once they got there, they loved it so much that they didn’t want to return to DC.  We ended up moving there permanently, leaving my role at the White House and moving into the academic space.  That is where I am now in my civilian capacity, working on research and development out of the University of Rhode Island.  I have had an amazing number of opportunities in the Air Force to do really different things.  My career has been a little bit non-linear because of the medical situation that I faced, but, all in all, it created great perspective for me by doing jobs I may have originally seen as outside of my skill set.  I am really excited now to bring those experiences with me, being back in an operational Wing at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.                  

WN: Sir, the Air Force celebrates its 74th birthday on September 18th.  The Air Force has a long history of diversity, including the first branch to become fully integrated, and the 514th was the first Wing to have a female reserve pilot, Colonel Kathleen (Rambo) Cosand.  Do the examples of the past inspire you?

EB: They absolutely do!  Unfortunately, I believe military organizations, the Air Force in particular, don’t always get the credit they deserve in leading in these socially challenging areas.  We have had a history of inclusion in front of what outside society is doing around us.  The Air Force, particularly, has consistently led in diversity and inclusion areas. But we still have a long way to go.  It was humbling for me, and a great opportunity, when I was out at the Wing Commander and Vice Commander course down at Maxwell, Alabama, to get to sit down and hear from our Chief of Staff [General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., 22nd Chief of Staff of the Air Force] on all of his background and experience and what this really means to him.  I have been lucky enough to serve under multiple secretaries of the Air Force who have been women.  I am excited to serve under General Brown now. I think we are showing our Airmen that regardless of your race, color, creed, religion or gender that there are opportunities for you to lead at the highest level of our Air Force.  And that just makes us better.  Part of what we are trying to do with the Diversity and Inclusion program is to make sure that people recognize, understand, and support that.  It is only going to make us an even stronger Air Force.   

WN: What do you think you can take from your former roles to be more effective in this new position as Diversity and Inclusion Program Manager?

EB:  The greatest benefit of all those experiences is seeing how other people do it. Being present and engaged in other communities and sectors, it gives me the opportunity to take what I have seen work, or not work, in other places, and put them to use in our wing and in the Air Force.  

WN: During your Air Force career what kinds of changes have you personally seen in the realm of Diversity and Inclusion?

EB: I have seen a lot.  Specifically in the number of women we have in the Air Force.  In my career I have seen the transition of women being allowed in combat roles.  I was lucky enough to work closely with the first female Thunderbird pilot [Nicole Malachowski, call sign “FiFi”].  She was an absolute inspiration.  FiFi is still a friend, and she is a phenomenal officer and pilot, and she continues today as a motivational speaker and an inspiration to so many people.  Not only did I see the transition of women into combat roles, led by the Air Force ahead of other services, but one of the most inspiring times for me was when I was working in the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs office in the Pentagon press briefing room.  During the time I was in that assignment, we had the change to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy [H.R. 2965 – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010].  Real acceptance and integration of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community into our ranks in a way that had not been done before.  I knew many members throughout my career who really hid who they were in order to have a military career.  I was personally always incredibly offended and hurt seeing how difficult it was for some of the people I worked with and cared about, realizing the sacrifice they made personally just to continue serving.  So that change, for me, was the biggest one I have seen in my time to be more inclusive.  That is important, because we need to treat them equally and make sure all the same opportunities are available; they are a significant part of the population.  We are doing ourselves consistent harm, over the arch of our history, by not accepting the numerous communities that make up our nation.  We cannot afford to recruit from a smaller population.  We have that challenge for so many other reasons.  We need to make sure we are reaching out to everyone in society to get the best talent that we can for this organization.   

WN: Yes sir.  What, specifically, do you see as the biggest shortfall the Air Force is facing in terms of diversity and inclusion?

EB: I believe the biggest short fall, is ensuring there is a diverse population across leadership at all levels.  I am personally seeing more diversity among the ranks of the Air Force.  We are definitely seeing leaders rise that represent diversity and inclusion, but it is not at a large enough number yet.  It is not enough to truly be representative of the population, because, in reality, the Air Force is a microcosm of society.  We should look a lot like how society looks, just by the numbers.  While I am seeing that growth throughout the Air Force, and I do realize it does take time, I would love to see a greater representation across all the ranks. 

WN: Sir, I believe you have already answered this next question, “what, specifically, do you see as the greatest strides the Air Force has made in the realm of diversity and inclusion?”  You seem to have hammered home in a previous question that the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is the greatest stride the Air Force has made in your career.  Is that accurate?

EB: It is.  Especially because of the dramatic way it has affected so many of the people that I know and care about, both in uniform and out of uniform.  I think that is the most important change that I have seen in my career.   

WN: What actions do we need to take as a wing to foster an inclusive environment?

EB:  Thanks, that is a great question.  I think that is what Major Talavera [Major Lillian Talavera, present for the interview and a key partner in the Wing Diversity and Inclusion program] and I are just starting to undertake.  We need to develop a local Diversity and Inclusion plan now.  We need to reach out to all of the members of our wing and Air Force now; they have more of those answers than we do.  So the first thing we really need to do is listen to them, get feedback on what the group thinks, and what they need from us.  We have a focused plan, and we need to get moving on it.    

WN: Unlike Active Duty, Air Force Reserve members can learn and bring to the force models and practices from outside the military.  Because of this, do you feel the Air Force Reserve may be the ideal place for diversity and inclusion improvement?

EB: Thanks; that is a great question.  Our Airmen are diverse in so many different ways.  Like you mentioned, skill sets and experiences outside of uniform just make them that much better.  For that very reason, we are a place that should be able to advance faster than other parts of the service.  We are a very heterogeneous organization and look a lot like our community.  People tend to stay in the same place; they come from that community, and they don’t move around as much as, let’s say, those on active duty.  At JBMDL, in particular, we are close to some large population centers that have a really diverse community; we have the ability to draw from that community.  So I think it is a really good opportunity for us as the Reserves, and specifically for us in the 514th to lead in this way.  So I think yes, we have some advantages there, and we really are a great place for that.  

WN: Sir is there anything I did not cover that you would like to discuss?

EB: I think the only thing I would say is that I want to reach out to our Airmen and ask for their support in this.  Their good ideas, their suggestions of not only what we can do better, but also to highlight what we do wrong, because sometimes it is not just a matter of adding things.  Sometimes it is a matter of taking away things as well.  I look forward to working on this.  Major Talavera is going to be a huge help in this area as we move forward on diversity and inclusion in the 514th.  I am really excited about the support we have from the boss, Colonel Gutermuth [514th Wing Commander Colonel William H. Gutermuth], and the rest of the staff.  And I appreciate the time you have taken today to recognize this important effort we are taking leading up to the Air Force birthday.

WN: Sir, one quick follow up.  You mentioned the importance of having the Airmen reach out.  Do you have a specific contact, like an email you want them to reach out to?

EB: We are still in the initial stage of planning for implementation.  There are two ways we would like to start getting input from our Airmen; first, we are going to come by every squadron [within our wing] on base to have a conversation.  We want to listen directly to our Airmen.  Secondly we are going to put out a short survey with open ended entries, so that if people don’t want speak out in a group format, they will have that capability to have a different avenue, but still an open forum to provide feedback to us as we get this program kicked off.   

WN: Colonel Brine thank you for your time today.  I also want to thank Major Talavera for her time.   

EB: Thanks so much.

Interview Complete.