Air Combat Command, which makes up about a quarter of the active duty Air Force, will hold open ranks inspections for all units in the next month, and both medical and religious shaving waivers will be reviewed, according to a memo circulated online from the ACC commander.

Close to 70,000 Airmen can expect a surge in ‘back to basics’ uniform inspections and a full court press on shaving rules in the next month according to a memo and orders issued by the commander of the Air Force’s largest command. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, who took over as the commander of Air Combat Command in February, issued orders Friday that every unit under his command — about 20% of all active duty Air Force members — will refocus on “standards of conduct, dress and appearance, physical fitness, and the observance of customs and courtesies.”

That will mean open ranks uniform inspections at every unit in the ACC, a review of shaving waivers issued on either medical or religious grounds, and mandator shaving classes for any airmen seeking a waiver.   

“While the vast majority of Airmen maintain professional standards, I am concerned by a discernable decline in the commitment to, and enforcement of, military standards,” Wilsbach wrote in a memo labeled ‘for distribution.’ “This will change.”

In a longer memo of specific orders, Wilsback laid out three central areas of concern: “Adherence to standards,” “Unit inspections,” and “Shaving waivers.”

Shaving waivers — both for medical and as a religious accommodation — have leaped in the Air Force in recent years. According to data first published by Military.com, waivers for medical reasons have doubled across the Air Force since 2021.

Leaders have noticed and not all have been happy about it.

In a widely seen Facebook video chat in March 2023, then-Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Ramón Colón-López, a career Air Force pararescueman, unloaded on beards in the force. 

“If you want to look cute with your skinny jeans and your beard, by all means, do it someplace else,” Colón-López said in response to a question submitted by an online audience. “But quit wasting our time on something that doesn’t have anything to do with kicking the enemy’s ass.”

His comments drew smiles from the Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force and Space Force on stage with him, but no disagreements.

“In some ways this is very silly thing to be worried about,” said Space Force’s Roger Towberman in the same chat. “We’re not here to be fashionable.”

A document that appears to be the orders behind the standards push — dubbed a “communication plan” — was posted on the popular Air Force amn/nco/sno Facebook page. An email asking to verify the document to ACC headquarters was not immediately returned to Task & Purpose.

In a discussion of military discipline and standards, the document cites George Washington’s Continental army and its initial reputation as “misfits,” a label shed once a Prussian officer, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, was hired as the first Inspector General of the Army.

The memo instructs leaders across the ACC to hold open ranks inspections for their units by July 17.

“Over the next month, commanders are expected to conduct a multi-layered unit inspection of all assigned military members,” an ACC press release on the orders said. Along with open ranks uniform inspections, the review will include “records inspections, in which commanders must review all military members’ personnel records to ensure medical exemptions and religious accommodations are current and valid.”

The definition of “current and valid” is not addressed in either memo, though the communication plan indicates that Wilsbach may anticipate commanders revoking or otherwise questioning religious accommodation requests, known as RARs.

RARs can cover shaving and beards as well as certain exemptions from some uniform and hair rules. RARs are also the primary route military members have used to request exemptions from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. RARs are issued by commanders after a review of a member’s personal religious beliefs and commitment by a chaplain.

“Although approved RARs last for the duration of an Airman’s military career, DAF policy allows commanders to reassess whether circumstances have changed that necessitate a re-evaluation, such as permanent change of station, deployment, new duties, etc.,” the memo said.

Task & Purpose emailed questions to ACC officials asking for clarification how a unit commander might review the “validity” of a previously approved RAR, and how a “change of station, deployment, new duties” or other workplace factors might affect religious status, but did not receive a response.

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