June 3, 2006:
The U.S. Air Force has been considered the "comfortable" service (in terms of career opportunities and creature comforts). It's managed to maintain it's re-enlistment rates despite five years of war. Before September 11, 2001, 84 percent of career air force personnel were reenlisting, and 52 percent of first term people were. Currently, nothing has changed for the career personnel, and even more ( 55 percent of) the first term people are staying on. And it's not been easy to re-enlist, as the air force has been shrinking (nine percent) over the last ten years, and now has fewer people (351,000) than at any time since 1941. While the air force has not been as involved with combat as the army, about 20 percent of air force personnel are overseas at any given time, and about a quarter of those are in or near a combat zone. The air force tends to send its people overseas 3-6 months at a time. So in a four year enlistment, you have a better than fifty-fifty chance of going overseas.
Casualties have been very low, with more losses suffered on the ground, escorting convoys in Iraq, than in the air. The air force safety record has been getting better, year by year, for over half a century. No one else has been very successful at shooting down U.S. Air Force planes, and few have bothered to even send many aircraft up to try in the last few wars with the USAF. Thus there are no more aces (pilots who shot down five or more enemy aircraft) on active duty. Most Americans don't realize how dominating the U.S. Air Force has been since World War II. The air force doesn't let its people forget this, but has to fight a constant battle with Congress to prevent their budget from getting complacency cuts. Many members of Congress, and the public, have started to take it for granted that the USAF (with the help of naval aviation) rules the air, so why give them more money for new aircraft? This was the same kind of thinking that resulted in the United States going into World War II with inferior aircraft, because there was no money to keep up with rapidly advancing aircraft technology. The air force has not forgotten, but has a hard time keeping everyone else in touch with this reality.