Interview with Gen. David Goldfein, USAF Ret.
General David Goldfein served as the 21st Chief of Staff of the US Air Force. He retired in 2020 after 37 years of service. The JAW was honored to interview him in the Fall of 2022.
General Goldfein, tell us about your personal journey to the Air Force.
My grandfather served in WWI. His family came from Kyiv. My father and uncles served in Vietnam. I have two brothers, and we all went to the Air Force Academy and went on to become fighter pilots. Now I have a daughter who’s currently serving, as well as two nephews, so by now it’s a family business.
But originally I had no intention of going into the military. I was attending high school in Germany where my father was stationed, and I decided to apply to every place that had a hang glider on the brochure, because I figured if they put that on the cover it must be a cool school. That’s how deeply I was thinking about my career. I also applied to the Air Force Academy. The Academy sent me a mimeographed paper that said, “You were not selected because…” Every box was checked—academic, military, athletic; everything.
So I wrote off the academy, and I got into the University of Wyoming to study forestry; I’d become a forest ranger and make belt buckles on mountaintops. But then I got this phone call from a guy in admissions at the Academy who said, “Are you going to take this scholarship to prep school that we’re offering? We haven’t heard back from you.” It turned out they had sent it to the wrong address. I told him, “Thanks, but I’m going to the University of Wyoming, so you’re too late.” I went home to have dinner with my family. My dad was reading the Stars and Stripes newspaper when I told him, “I got this funny call from some guy at the Academy, who mentioned a scholarship to a prep school. But I told him I’m going to Wyoming.”
I remember my dad put down his newspaper, looked at me and said, “Okay, let me see if I got this right: Somebody called you today and offered you money to go to school, and you said no, because you’re gonna use my money to go to school!” I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it that way!” So he said, “Let’s call the guy back.” And that’s how I ended up going to a preparatory school for a year and then to the Academy. I was definitely not one of those “driven from the beginning” kind of guys.
But flying was something that drove you from the beginning?
Eventually. I was originally interested in hang gliding—which incidentally I have never gotten around to doing. But I got so much other flying experience that I could probably check that box!
In reality, my first two years at the Academy were a pretty big struggle. At that halfway point, the Academy and I made a “mutual decision” that with a 1.9 GPA, I probably needed to get my act together. So I left for a year, got on a 10-speed bicycle and rode around the back roads of America. I came to the conclusion, based on all the people I met and the experiences I had, that this country was worth defending. I went back to the Academy with a completely different attitude. And as I tell the cadets: “I had two completely different journeys at the Air Force Academy. I had two years where I fought the system and it was miserable, and I had two years where I embraced the system and it was wonderful. Where are you on your journey?”
I can tell you that if you’re fighting it, it’s no fun.
It seems this strongly influenced your leadership style—moving from close to failure and then pushing yourself past the limits you saw within yourself.
Yes, it probably brought the appropriate level of humility to my leadership. There’s a certain amount of empathy that you bring to become real to people who are trying to decide whether they want to follow you or not. I’m a believer that leadership is a gift that’s offered by those you are privileged to serve and lead, and you gotta earn that gift every single day. I think not having been at the top of my class probably helped in that regard.
Let’s talk about flying for a moment: did you have a particular moment as a fighter pilot where you felt that you were able to truly excel, or was it more a compilation of your training and experience?
When learning to fly fighters, your glass ceiling, if you will—which allows you to transition between good and great—is actually not your stick and rudder skills. It’s your mental ability to absorb all the things that are going on at supersonic speeds: in your cockpit, around the plane, coordinate aircraft that are under your charge, to do a complex mission and come back as the mission commander and recreate what went on in the air, even though you didn’t actually see any of it. You heard a little bit here, you saw a little bit on the radar, you knew the overall game plan, and you reconstructed the whole thing from a bird’s eye 50,000- foot view. That’s what makes a great pilot, because you’re able to channel all your information—which is a massive overload of information—and be able to make decisions at the speed you’re operating at. That was the difference between good and great for all the pilots I ever flew with.
Personally, I was probably at the top of my game at the end of fighter weapon school. Each year 25 pilots are picked out of the entire population of F-16 pilots to go for six months of intense, doctorate-level training. The best I can compare it to is the Navy’s Top Gun—although theirs is 6-8 weeks long, while ours is 6 months. You get to a point where every mission you’re flying has 100 people involved, there are aircraft above and below you, folks on the ground, folks in waiting Naval assets, and your job is to orchestrate everything, to hold all that together—including space, and now cyber as well.
I knew I had made it when I could come back from leading a mission and could recreate everything that had happened around me for hundreds of miles and a hundred airplanes. And people would say, “Let’s talk about what happened in your cockpit,” and I would say, “I have no idea what happened in my cockpit. I was thinking for everybody else. I just took care of what happened in my cockpit automatically.” The next question was always, “Did you hit your target?” Yes, thankfully I hit my target but that was not the most important thing. I did a job in my airplane, but my main responsibility was to take care of everyone else.
That’s a fascinating concept because there’s an idea in Chassidic thought of “nullification of self,” and people usually think of this as losing oneself. But the truth is the optimal space is where your self is activated so that your ego does not get in the way.
That’s right. There is this sense that the more I focused on what I was doing in my cockpit, the less I could do outside of my cockpit. When you’re at your very worst, you’re totally focused on what we call “the radar display drool cup”: you can just stick around and drool all over it, and you completely forget what’s going on around you. That’s when you’re at the worst, because you’re channeled out of your focus and that’s all you can handle; you’ve gotta block everything else out. That’s why it takes a while to get experience in an airplane—we don’t put young guys and young women in the lead until they’ve got a certain number of hours and have shown that capacity to take in a lot more.
You’re officially rated for the T-37, T-38, F-16C/D, and F-117A—all extremely different types of aircraft, but we’re sure you’ve flown many others. What’s your favorite ride and why?
I think the one you take to combat the first time will always be your favorite. For me it was the F-16.
My career was such that from Desert Storm through Iraqi Freedom, I didn’t miss a fight. The timing worked out so that I just happened to be operational each time we went to war. Over the years, I served in the Baltics, Bosnia, Kosovo, and other war-torn places. So as Chief I really had an opportunity to focus on joint warfighting. Everybody brings gifts and gaps: the gifts are things you’re really good at, and the gaps are things that you know you’re not very good at. One of the gifts I could bring to then Chief’s job was the fact that I had a significant amount of experience in joint war fighting. And that’s where I focused for four years. My gaps were anything that happened academically, so I surrounded myself with really smart people.
You were shot down in combat over Bosnia, while you were the squadron commander. Did you ever feel like this event threatened your command? How did you overcome that?
No, I wasn’t the first to be shot down and I’m not going to be the last. The Vietnam guys got shot down. I’ve even met folks who got shot down three times over the course of one year in Vietnam. Do you know what they did when they got back home? They got back in the jet… quietly, with no book tours, no session with Oprah. Just quietly got back to the job. So when I came back from being shot down in Bosnia, I asked my wing commander, who was waiting for me on the ramp, “I don’t know if you had a chance to think about this, but I’m the squadron commander and I gotta get my squad back on the horse. And the fastest way I can do that is to get back in the air. So I’d like to fly tonight, if that’s okay with you.” My wife Dawn was on the ramp to greet me—which was odd, because we were fighting from Aviano Air Base in Italy, which was home. (That wasn’t in the brochure, by the way. It was like, “Go get shot at and come home and mow the grass; go get shot at and come home and take care of the kids…”) The wing commander looked at her and said, “If it’s okay with your wife it’s okay with me.” So I talked to her and she said okay, but I could tell that my 10-year-old daughter was really struggling with it. I felt I had a bit of a moral dilemma: I had an obligation to my squadron to get back on the horse that night, and I had an obligation as a dad to make sure my daughter is okay with what just happened to me. I decided to take one night off to make sure she was okay, and then I flew the next night.
I didn’t talk to anybody in the media about it for over a year, because as I say, it was my quiet way of honoring the Vietnam generation—to say, “This is how you did it. Just got back on the horse and back in the game, and that’s how we’re going to do it here in this next generation”.
Clearly, humility is a crucial element of who you are, not just in terms of how you align yourself, but what you appreciate in people before and your outlook. Tell me about that.
It’s certainly a key attribute in the leaders I admire and the ones I try to emulate. They were all humble men or women who stood for something much bigger than themselves, and I think that those who are privileged to serve in leadership positions appreciate that at the end of the day.
You’ve mentioned people going on Oprah and writing books. It seems like this upsets you, as though some of the warrior ethos of humility has been lost.
I actually don’t think it’s been lost in the US military. I saw a lot of humility at all different levels. Think about it: The young people who are serving today joined a nation at war; most of them are too young to have been around on 9/11. When I joined in ‘83, we were a peacetime force. We hadn’t been to war since Vietnam, and had nothing on the horizon. My pre-military sense of duty and commitment was completely different from those who joined up knowing that shortly after basic training there’s a good chance they’ll be sent off to fight. That takes a huge amount of commitment, so to be asked to lead those kinds of men and women who are willing to make that kind of sacrifice requires a pretty good dose of humility to do the job well.
There is an Air Force legend that you buy a bottle of scotch for the unit of PJs who rescued you, every year on the anniversary of the date that you were saved. It recalls the very Jewish ideal of Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good that others do for us. Can you talk about that? What led you to this tradition, and do you continue it— and why—long after the individuals who rescued you have retired?
It’s become a fun tradition over the years because it’s a way of reminding myself that I get to enjoy every day as a result of others. And it’s a reminder to them that what they do is important. They have a motto, “These things we do so that others may live.” I always go back and say, “Who knew that the guy you picked up that night was going to be Chief of Staff?” Not a bad career move!
I just delivered my 23rd bottle; not the same kind every year. I started trying to find a single malt scotch that’s 20 or 21 years old—they don’t often make them like that. But my favorite is Macallan, so it generally is a bottle of Macallan. This year we did a reunion with several members of the rescue team. We opened the bottle together and had a big barbecue with the current serving members. It was really cool.
As a senior O6, you wrote a book called Sharing Success, Owning Failure, aimed at squadron commanders. Can you talk about the themes of that book, and what personal experiences led you to write it?
I wrote it when I was in a course with the State Department called the Senior Seminar. There were 31 of us in the class, mostly foreign service officers who had been overseas for upwards of 20-25 years. Now they were about to become ambassadors and represent a country they hadn’t lived in for a quarter of a century. The whole course was about what is America? What makes America tick? They gave us a month to write a paper about a specific topic. I knew I was going to be a group commander, which was the next level of command, and wanted something I could give to my squadron commanders as a mentoring tool. It would not be a how-to manual—I don’t particularly care for those anyway. This was senior commanders telling war stories about things we screwed up so that you can make your own mistakes and not repeat the ones we made. I went to all my buddies at the time and asked if they would consider contributing a story or two about things that they flunked at. It’s storytelling with a theme — and that’s how most of us like to learn.
It started out much longer than it turned out to be. As I worked on it, I was reminded of the old quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” So I knocked it down to a really quick read. The stories hit a chord; it’s had 13 printings, and now they give it to every squadron commander.
One of the most uncomfortable areas for Jews in uniform has to do with the anti-semitic canard of dual loyalty toward the State of Israel. You had very strong relationships with the IDF. Can you talk about that?
I used to joke that, if you can imagine, with a name like Goldfein, I was pretty popular when I got to visit Israel! I actually became really close friends with IAF Commanders Amir Eshel and Amikam Norkin.
One cool moment was when I was at the change of command ceremony when Amir Eshel turned over the responsibility to Amikam Norkin. We went into a nice room with a big, beautiful buffet and were about to have a sip of wine. I looked at Amir and Amikam and asked, “Would you honor me by allowing me to say the blessing?” They looked at me and they said, “You can?” I said, “I can!” And I said the blessing over the wine in Hebrew. As you might imagine, that became a pretty big deal.
But I used to joke with them and say, “When I’m in the tank—where the Chiefs of Staff meet with the president—I have a bracelet I wear that says ‘WWID’, or ‘What Would Israel Do?’” But seriously, in some ways, Israel has become the gold standard for using the military appropriately. There are things that I just love about the Israeli military. It would never work in the US to have a conscript force where everyone has to serve, but that idea that everyone contributes to defending the nation in a rough environment, in a rough neighborhood, builds a collective sense of purpose that’s pretty incredible.
Dawn and I were once in Israel on vacation during the country’s Memorial Day, where everybody stops for a moment of silence and the horns blare and everything. We were there when the whole nation came to a stop. Later, Amir Eshel took me up to the memorial where the stones contain the names of those who have been lost in all the wars. He would touch a name and tell me about this person, that person, and so on. He said, “Dave, I interview every squadron commander before they assume command. I tell them that one of their obligations is to take care of the families of those who are on this stone, as a lifetime commitment. Because this person’s life stopped while they were part of a squadron, and his family is going to be connected to the squadron forever, because that’s where their loved one was lost—in combat.”
Anyway, that was one of many lessons I learned from the Israeli Air Force that I have applied to the US Air Force wherever I could.
Was that one of the lessons you alluded to when you used your influence to push command and personal connection down to the squadron level?
Yes. At the Squadron Commander course, I would talk to them about our blue star or gold star families. I would say, “Part of your command tour is taking care of the families of those who were lost while wearing your badge/patch. I don’t care how far back; some of you have squadrons that go all the way to Vietnam and even earlier. I don’t expect you to spend all your time on it, but that’s part of who we are, part of our soul, as a service.” I believe a big part of the Air Force experience has got to be the sense of family and purpose.
You have an intense appreciation for balance, as shown by the time you spent with your daughter after you got shot down. Understanding that family is an internal system that makes us tick, how did you and how do you suggest people deal with that need for balance between family and duty to serve, within deployments, training, and so on? What’s your secret for this?
First and foremost, I will tell you that it is not a math equation. If you look at it from a perspective of, “I want to spend X amount of time at work and X amount of time with my family,” you need to get rid of that. Because defending the nation is actually hard work. It’s been hard throughout our history, and it’s no easier now.
I’d say the only way I got through it is with focus, presence. What that means is when you’re at home, be at home. Be 100% present. Don’t be physically at home and mentally at work. That’s where we go wrong sometimes. That’s much harder to do with the electronic ties that ping and beep and buzz. By the way, I’ve gotten this wrong too, but I work on it. How many times have you told your child, “Can you hold on for one minute? Let me just get this email out.” We’re all guilty of that. Think about how we’re sending a message of priorities, that this thing I’m working on my phone is more important than whatever it is you’re asking me to do right now. Just put everything away; lock it up if you have to. As soon as you walk through that door, be present for your family. It’s the greatest gift you can ever give them. You’re never going to give them the amount of time that you want, because you’re helping defend the nation. The math is never going to work out, but as long as you can focus on being there when you’re really there, it’ll work out just fine.
That brings to mind another Chassidic term, a “Pnimi,” referring to that rare someone who is internally aligned. The definition is exactly what you described—wherever they are, they are fully present.
Your leadership is well known to have elements of a people-first perspective. Do you have anything to add to your insights regarding the balance between “service before self” and “self-care?”
When I would talk to the squadron command especially, I’d say there are five things you can’t delegate as a commander: mission, culture, fitness, family and fun. Everything else, you probably can delegate, but every one of those five is your job. You gotta understand your mission, and you have to define the culture of your organization. If you don’t take fitness seriously yourself, why should anybody else take it as seriously? I don’t know when I’m going to deploy you and your squadron teammates to Djibouti where it’s 120° on the ramp at 120% humidity, and ask you to work for 18 hours in that environment, because the nation or alliance depends on it. You have no idea when that will be. But you have from now until that moment to get your squadron fit, and it starts with you. So fitness has got to be a priority that you cannot delegate.
Taking care of the family is entrusted to your care, that’s a command responsibility. And the last thing I would say is, “What do you have to offer a young airman and their family on why they should stay in the Air Force?” After all, we put about $2-3 million into their training, which is Mom and Dad’s tax money. And when that person walks out the door, that’s the investment walking out of the door. It will take another $2-3 million to train their replacement. So why should they stay? Make sure the family knows how valued they are.
You can’t offer them any more money, because that’s Congressionally mandated, based on their rank. You can’t really offer them less time at work because defending the nation’s hard. What do you have to offer? I’m not talking about mandatory fun. But if you’re walking around with your head down and the world’s crushing your soul, why would anybody want to hang around long enough to do that? So you gotta be having some fun—not every day, but most of the time command can be a lot of fun. And you gotta make being in the organization fun too.
You’re given the opportunity to command for a set period of time, but life didn’t start when you took over, and life will not end when you get out. You’re just going to take this wonderful organization in whatever state it was given to you, and you’re going to hand it off in two years, hopefully much better than the condition you got it in, regardless of what that was.
Can you tell us about your current position with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab?
I’ve built a portfolio of things that would be interesting to me in chapter two of my life. This chapter’s about solving big problems with people I really like working with. At Johns Hopkins APL, they do a lot of research. I’m not a technical guy, it’s not my strength, but I can look at technology and sometimes find useful ways of employing it. And that’s what I do at Johns Hopkins.
You told me that you say the Shema prayer every night before you go to sleep. What does it mean to you and what does that simple sentence speak to you?
It’s a connection to that side of my family and that history. I learned that growing up, and it has stuck with me. That’s how I started.
I guess you are saying that it comes down to connection: who we are as a people, as a nation, as a Force; those connecting pieces drive us, bring us together, give us meaning, purpose, and elevate us. But as a society, we seem to be seriously struggling with disconnection.
Yes, I think we’re in some tough times, but I absolutely believe that we are not in the toughest of times. This nation has been through some really tough times—go back to 1968! The world was coming apart: Two assassinations of political leaders, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King; riots across the country, and the world was coming apart. But as tragic and terrible as it was, we came through that stronger as a nation. We learned, and we grew. I’m confident that we will be able to come out of this the same way. We don’t know what it’s going to take, but I do believe that the nation has every right to demand character and competence out of its leaders, and a good dose of humility. In the long period of history, we’ll get back. We always do.
General Goldfein, thank you for sharing your time and wisdom with us!
Originally published in the Chanukah 2023 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.