President Joe Biden on Thursday formally nominated Air Force General Charles "C.Q." Brown, Jr., the first African American to lead a branch of the United States Armed Forces, to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
If confirmed, Brown would replace Army Gen. Mark Milley, whose term ends in October after he was named to the role in 2019 by Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump.
What You Need To Know
- President Joe Biden on Thursday formally nominated Air Force General Charles "C.Q." Brown, Jr., to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- He's been many firsts, including the Air Force's first Black commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and most recently its first Black chief of staff, making him the first African American to lead any of the military branches
- His nomination caps a four-decade military career that spans his commission as a distinguished ROTC graduate from Texas Tech University in 1984
- If confirmed, Brown would replace Army Gen. Mark Milley, whose term ends in October after he was named to the role in 2019 by Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump
Biden hailed Gen. Brown's accomplishments, particularly his 3,000 flying hours, including 130 combat hours, as well as his "unmatched firsthand knowledge of our operations, operational theatres and a strategic vision to understand how they all work together to ensure the security for the American people."
"He knows what it means to be in the thick of battle and how to keep your cool when things get hard," Biden said.
The Air Force fighter pilot about to be nominated as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got his callsign by ejecting from a burning F-16 fighter jet high above the Florida Everglades and falling into the watery sludge below.
It was January 1991, and then-Capt. CQ Brown Jr. had just enough time in his parachute above alligator-full wetlands for a thought to pop into his head. "Hope there's nothing down there," Brown said in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum last year.
He landed in the muck, which coated his body and got "in his boots and everything." Which is how the nominee to be the country's next top military officer got his callsign: "Swamp Thing."
"That's a lot of fun, huh?" Biden quipped as he recounted the story in the White House's Rose Garden on Thursday.
Brown has spent much of his career being one of the Air Force's top aviators, one of its few Black pilots and often one of the only African Americans in his squadron.
To this day, his core tenets are to "execute at a high standard, personally and professionally," Brown said this month at an Air Force Association conference in Colorado. "I do not play for second place. If I'm in, I'm in to win — I do not play to lose."
"That mindset is going to be an enormous asset to me as Commander in Chief and to the United States of America as we navigate challenges in the coming years," Biden said.
"While General Brown is a proud butt-kicking American Airman, first and always he's also been an operational leader of the joint force," Biden said. "He gained respect across every service, from those who have seen him in action and have come to depend on his judgment."
"More than that, he gained the respect of our allies and partners around the world, who regard Gen. Brown as a trusted partner, and a top-notch strategist," Biden said. "No matter how complicated the mission from helping build and lead the coalition, now more than 80 nations strong, to counter ISIS threats in the Middle East, to position in our Air Force for the future in the Indo-Pacific, Gen. Brown has built a reputation across the force as an unflappable and highly effective leader, as someone who creates an environment of teamwork, trust and executes with excellence."
"And someone who smokes a mean brisket," the president joked.
He's been many firsts, including the Air Force's first Black commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and most recently its first Black chief of staff, making him the first African American to lead any of the military branches.
"You've made history, and you have even made it as a 'Jeopardy!' clue," Biden said. "Did you know that? He made his a 'Jeopardy!' clue. The 'Daily Double,' no less."
If confirmed, he would be part of another first — the first time the Pentagon's top two posts were held by African Americans, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the top civilian leader. Brown would not be the first African American to be chairman, the Pentagon's top military post; that distinction went to the late Army Gen. Colin Powell.
Brown, 60, has commanded the nation's air power at all levels. Born in San Antonio, he is from a family of Army soldiers. His grandfather led a segregated Army unit in World War II and his father was an artillery officer and Vietnam War veteran. Brown grew up on several military bases and states, which helped instill in him a sense of mission.
His nomination caps a four-decade military career that spans his commission as a distinguished ROTC graduate from Texas Tech University in 1984 to his White House nomination Thursday. He was widely viewed within military circles as the frontrunner for the chairmanship, with the right commands and a track record of driving institutional change, attributes seen as needed to push the Pentagon onto a more modern footing to meet China's rise.
For the past two years Brown has pressed "Accelerate, Change or Lose" within the Air Force. The campaign very much has China in mind, pushing the service to shed legacy warplanes and speed its efforts to counter hypersonics, drones and space weapons, where the military's lingering Cold War-era inventory does not match up.
In person, Brown is private, thoughtful and deliberate. He is seen as a contrast to Milley, who has remained outspoken throughout his tenure, often to the ire of former President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers.
"He's not prone to blurt out something without some serious thought in his own mind, some serious kind of balancing of the opportunities or options," said retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, who knows Brown from when Brown worked for him as a member of the Air Staff.
Biden hailed Milley on Thursday for his service to the country: "Our entire country is grateful."
"As chairman, you've led our military through the most complex security environment our world has faced in a long, long time," Biden said of Milley. Tthrough everything, [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin and I have had candid and direct counsel. I valued his insight, and more than that, I truly enjoyed working with you. I trust you completely, completely. You've helped set our country and our military on a course that will put us in the strongest possible position to succeed in the years ahead. I'm looking forward to continuing our work together as you finish your term and prepare to pass the baton to your successor."
Brown has more than 3,000 flying hours and repeat assignments to the Air Force Weapons School — an elite aerial fighting school similar to the Navy's TOPGUN. Only about 1% of Air Force fighter pilots are accepted, Moseley said.
When Brown had to eject from the burning F-16 in 1991, after the fuel tank broke off mid-flight, he said the timing couldn't have been worse.
"I was a bit frustrated because it happened just before the selection for weapons school," he said at the Aspen forum. He said he had to apply three times before he got in, noting that it's "pretty competitive."
But he rose to the top there, too, earning a spot as an instructor, "which is like 1% of the 1%," Moseley said.
Brown returned to the weapons school as its commandant. By then it had expanded from fighter-only exclusivity to teaching combined airpower operations, with tankers, bombers and cargo planes.
Brown saw that the school "required a different approach and attitude," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bill Rew. Earlier commandants had tried to institute a new mantra, "Humble, Approachable, Credible," but it had not taken root.
Under Brown the cultural shift took hold and remains in place today, said Rew, who was one of Brown's instructors at the weapons school and wing commander during Brown's time as commandant.
"It takes a certain kind of leadership, that doesn't force cultural change on people but explains it and motivates them on why that change is important," Rew said.
In June 2020, Brown was just a week from being confirmed by the Senate to serve as chief of staff of the Air Force when he felt the need to speak out on George Floyd's murder.
It was risky and inopportune time for the general to draw public attention and pull back the curtain on his private thoughts. But he did so anyway, after discussions with his wife and sons about the murder, which convinced him he needed to say something.
In a June 2020 video message to the service titled "Here's What I'm Thinking About," Brown described how he'd pressured himself "to perform error-free" as a pilot and officer his whole life, but still faced bias. He said he'd been questioned about his credentials, even when he wore the same flight suit and wings as every other pilot.
It's been 30 years since Powell became the first Black chairman, serving from 1989 to 1993. But while African Americans make up 17.2% of the 1.3 million active-duty service members, only 9% of officers are Black, according to a 2021 Defense Department report.
"I'm thinking about my mentors and how I rarely had a mentor that looked like me," Brown said in the video.
"I'm thinking about how my nomination provides some hope, but also comes with a heavy burden — I can't fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.
"I'm thinking about how I can make improvements, personally, professionally and institutionally," so all airmen could excel.
His decision to speak out did not cost him. His Senate confirmation vote was 98-0.
Biden did not address the video in his remarks on Thursday, but his top spokesperson, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, spoke about it at a press briefing earlier Thursday — three years to the day since Floyd was murdered.
"He has been an important voice helping make our armed forces more inclusive, including through the video he recorded three years ago just after the murder of George Floyd that went viral," Jean-Pierre said, adding that the video "struck a chord with Americans ... across the country."