“He was having a really hard time,” the general said during an interview at the Pentagon, his voice catching. “We had a pretty emotional conversation.”
“I just remember feeling so emotional over the shared experiences that we’ve had,” said Ross, who was a college student in St. Louis in 2014 when the police killing of Michael Brown Jr. in nearby Ferguson, Mo., triggered weeks of unrest.
The general, then commander of Pacific Air Forces, or Pacaf, said he wasn’t sure how he should respond to the killing of another Black man by police. Not yet confirmed as chief, he did not want to get in the way of anything the Air Force’s top leaders had planned, he said.
But then his son asked, “ ‘Dad, what is Pacaf saying?’ ” Brown recalled. “Which is code for, ‘Dad, what are you going to say?’ ”
Over the next day or two, Brown wrote a script about his experiences and recorded it in front of a dark backdrop. He recalled being the only African American in his squadron, the only African American in meetings of senior leaders, and having a colleague question whether he was a pilot.
He spoke about the Constitution, which “I’ve sworn my adult life to support and defend,” and about his sons, Ross and Sean, 27. He and Sharene prepared them “to live in two worlds,” he said.
The video, which went viral after it was published on social media June 5, addressed another issue: the “immense expectations,” Brown said, that come with his historic promotion, “particularly through the lens of current events plaguing our nation.”
Brown, who goes by “CQ,” was confirmed by the Senate with a 98-to-0 vote four days later. He took over the Air Force on Aug. 6 in a ceremony at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland in which he recognized Black pioneers in U.S. military history. While Army Gen. Colin Powell served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, no Black officer had ever led a branch of service.
Brown, 58, will lead the Air Force through a period of transition that includes preparations for the rise of China, the establishment of the Space Force from Air Force personnel, new realities created by the coronavirus pandemic and long-standing racial equality issues within the service.
“There were great leaders ahead of me,” Brown said. “But sometimes there wasn’t the window to do some of the things and to make some of the changes. And I think that’s what I’m looking at: There’s a way to accelerate some of the change that we’ve often talked about because of the current environment that we’re in.”
The general’s peers lauded him as well-prepared for his new job.
“He’s one of the most pragmatic, thoughtful officers I know,” said Gen. David L. Goldfein, Brown’s predecessor and friend. “He’s one who will poke and prod and really take the time to listen to all elements of a particular issue. And then when he comes forward with a recommendation, you know it’s been really well thought-out.”
Joining the Air Force
Brown’s rise through the military can be traced back to Texas.
As the son of an Army officer, he lived in California, Virginia, Oklahoma and Germany. But he spent the most time in the Lone Star State and decided to attend Texas Tech University on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship rather than accept offers to the Army and Air Force service academies.
Early in college, Brown wasn’t sure that ROTC life was for him. But he developed an interest in flying during summer camp after taking a ride in a T-37 jet used in training and pursued a career as a pilot.
In late 1986, when Brown was a lieutenant in fighter pilot training at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, he visited family for the holidays outside Washington. An Air Force friend suggested they attend a New Year’s Eve party, and he hit it off with the host — Sharene.
He was about to be assigned as a new fighter pilot in South Korea, and she was preparing to take a job teaching English in Tokyo. They went on a couple of dates before each moving to Asia, visited each other abroad and got married 31 years ago at Fort Monroe, Va.
“I found out about a year ago that I actually crashed that party,” he said with a smile. “Because I was not invited.”
Brown was reassigned in 1988 to Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., where he served as an instructor pilot.
On Jan. 15, 1991, he and three other pilots were returning to the base south of Miami when they saw a flash of light — believed to be lightning — and heard an explosion. The fuel tank attached to the bottom of Brown’s F-16 was destroyed, and a fire spread across his aircraft. He ejected at more than 300 mph, he said.
“Everything goes in slow motion,” said Brown, who was a captain at the time. “It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I could see the condensation come in, and I could see some papers flying. The next thing you know, you’re in the chute.”
Brown landed in a muddy marsh as his plane crashed elsewhere in the Everglades, according to an Air Force report detailing the incident. A Coast Guard helicopter picked him up, and he was back to flying a week later.
'He was calm, collected'
In following years, Brown earned a reputation as a thinker and a doer who would make changes that he saw as necessary, even if criticism might follow, said Jack Forsythe, a retired colonel who first met Brown at Homestead.
Forsythe recalled a years-old conversation in which Brown said leadership requires “making decisions without flinching,” even if all of the information isn’t available.
“You’re going to have to make decisions as a commander and leader, and you’re going to have to withstand the heat and just make the decision to move on and execute,” Forsythe said, describing Brown’s thought process. “If you get more information and need to change, you can make new decisions.”
In November 2009, Brown was promoted to brigadier general while serving as the commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy. He had a central role there in building up military forces rapidly for the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya in March 2011, said retired Gen. Frank Gorenc.
“It really demonstrated to me what his potential was,” said Gorenc, who oversaw Brown in two different roles. “In the end, it always comes down to how we are going to execute in combat.”
Within months, Brown was on Marine Gen. Jim Mattis’s staff at U.S. Central Command headquarters as the future defense secretary oversaw operations across the Middle East. Brown became a key liaison for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose elite forces needed approval from Mattis to carry out raids and strikes.
“He was calm, collected, but he was always on and he was always incredibly responsive,” retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who was then in charge of JSOC, said about Brown. “He earned this level of trust with the people on my staff, and that translated over to me.”
Brown ascended to two-star general in 2013. Two years later, he became the commander of the Air Forces Central Command, putting him in charge of the air war against the Islamic State. By July 2016, he was serving as the deputy commander at Centcom, under Votel.
The week he took responsibility of the Air Force felt “like a blur,” Brown said, and it included a surprise.
Two days earlier, Brown visited the White House complex with expectations of meeting Vice President Pence, he said. Ten minutes ahead of time, however, the event was shifted to the Oval Office, where President Trump greeted Brown, his wife and their sons.
“There’s only one Oval Office,” Trump said. “I said, ‘This the big leagues, and we have to have you and your family over to celebrate.’ ”
Pence swore in Brown as Trump, Goldfein, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and a handful of other administration officials watched. The move was symbolic: The Pentagon left Goldfein in charge until the ceremony at Joint Base Andrews.
As he settles in, Brown said he sees circumstances that create opportunities for improvement. He cited the Pentagon’s China-centric defense strategy adopted in 2018, the Space Force and the possibility of shrinking defense budgets in coming years as circumstances force the service to change.
In his confirmation hearing, Brown warned about what he called “choosing not to choose.” Asked about that in the interview, he cited what he heard from a senior officer years ago.
“He said, ‘Anything we don’t want to do, we study,’ ” Brown recalled. “So you just go, ‘Oh, go study that some more.’ That’s a way of delaying a decision. There’s a risk in taking a decision, and there’s a risk in not taking a decision. In choosing not to choose, it defers a chance to move forward.”
Among the issues the service is expected to address this year is racial equality.
In June, Air Force officials directed an inspector general review of racial disparities in military justice, including statistics that show Black airmen historically have faced court-martial more frequently than their White counterparts.
Brown said he wants to address the issue through the development of young leaders, who handle many disciplinary issues. If they ask more questions about what led to misconduct, Brown said, they may give an airman in trouble the benefit of the doubt.
He also is considering introducing cultural awareness training at home, citing instruction that service members receive before deploying overseas. All airmen have some common values, he said, but they grew up in different parts of the country and see the world differently.
Brown said he’s already talking to other senior Air Force officials about making changes.
“It’s not just me doing this. I think it’s the senior leadership of the Air Force, and we’ve got to be in this together,” Brown said. “Most of the senior parts of the Air Force are not African American, and so they’ve also got to buy into this as well.”