POZNAN, Poland -- With just one month on the job, Senior Enlisted Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) Ramon "CZ" Colon-Lopez, has set an ambitious goal to visit with the other services' top enlisted leaders, as well as those at the combatant commands, to discuss ways to learn from one another and solve critical issues for the troops.
Born in Puerto Rico, Colon-Lopez, an airman, has served nearly 30 years and has a robust special operations background. He said he sees his latest mission as being the chairman's "sensor, synchronizer and integrator" when it comes to the enlisted force.
An observer can easily note his knack of connecting with those he meets, which may help him clue the military's top brass into what's on the minds of rank-and-file troops.
Ever since Colon-Lopez became an E-4, he's been "bred in the joint environment," working for Navy and Army commanders, he said. He believes that's why Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley picked him for the job.
"I'm sure the special operations background helped, but the most important thing was the fact that I'm most comfortable at the back of a cargo plane, on ship deck, or just patrolling the ground with any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, out there on a deployment," he said during an interview. Military.com sat down with Colon-Lopez during a recent USO tour to Romania and Poland.
Shortly after 9/11, he deployed numerous times as a pararescueman to Afghanistan, where he found himself in ground combat and earned the Air Force Combat Action Medal, as well as the Bronze Star with Valor. Colon-Lopez also worked the security detail for Hamid Kharzai, who was elected president of Afghanistan in 2004.
It was evident during the USO tour that the SEAC doesn't always mean business. While there were moments soldiers and airmen gathered round to get Colon-Lopez's perspective on decisions being debated by the Pentagon, he capitalized on the opportunity to relate as a peer, playing the guitar, hanging on a sign to show his "human flag pole" skills and breakdancing for a large crowd to give service members a laugh.
At the end of the day, Colon-Lopez said, he and the top brass must give troops honest answers.
"When we start talking about what the troops need, I think that one of the most critical things that we can do is just make sure that they're properly informed at the speed that news moves nowadays; sometimes, things get ahead [of them]," said Colon-Lopez, the first airman to hold his position. He was previously U.S. Africa Command's senior enlisted leader.
"I think it's important to just go ahead and bombard them with the facts just to keep them focused on what they need to do," he said.
In a recent conversation with Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, Colon-Lopez said the core of keeping the enlisted ranks focused stems from accountability -- from the lowest levels to the upper echelon. His advice? Accomplish everyday duties, "but blaze [your] own trail."
"Always act on the next expected rank," he said in Wright's podcast, "Blueprint Leadership."
"Keep on working forward. … If you’re a master sergeant right now, start looking … at what it means, and what it takes to be a senior master sergeant," he told Wright.
Accountability also includes calling out toxic leadership or anyone who purposefully makes service members feel undervalued.
"If you decide to stand up against them … you can always reach out to me anytime,” he said, quoting his email address. “If you have an issue and you want some advice, reach out to me.”
Wright joked Colon-Lopez's staff will need to "create another mailbox."
Colon-Lopez plans to bring together the other services' senior enlisted leaders and combatant command leaders by this spring to discuss gaps in the force, focusing on where they can improve individually and collectively.
"I owe the chairman a good assessment of where the enlisted force [stands] today when it comes to employment, footprint, readiness, availability and sustainment," he said. "What I need to do as an integrator is collect those best practices and start asking each service, 'Have you ever tried to do X and see what we can learn from each other?'"
One idea is to improve morale and efficiency across the special operations forces by using them only as needed, he said.
Colon-Lopez doesn't foresee special ops missions changing dramatically, even as the services juggle the decades-long wars in the Middle East while preparing for a potential fight with Russia or China.
"When it comes to training and the way that we employ forces, that's not going to change," he said. "What I do believe will change is making sure that we place conventional units in places where special operations forces are not needed."
For example, the Air Force has been prepping small-scale squads with fundamental survival drills to be ready for anything, anywhere in the world.
"Security force assistance brigades, Marine Corps advisory groups -- we have a lot of these units that are able to go abroad and train, advise, assist [because] do we really need special operations forces doing this? I don't think so," Colon-Lopez said.
He added that he's impressed with the services' various approaches to setting up troops for success.
The Army's recent move to the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) sets soldiers up to be "more combat-derived, and basically gives soldiers a purpose to train because it's related to [their] duties," he said. His new boss, Milley, pushed the change through when he was the Army chief of staff.
Colon-Lopez said it's more crucial than ever for the military to capitalize on talent from every demographic. That especially applies to women who may want to join the front lines, he added.
"What I tell [critics] if they think that women do not belong in the battle zone [is] they are a bunch of fools," he said. "Because we are totally disregarding one pool of talent that we will not be tapping into as Americans."
Colon-Lopez continued, "The [training] standards have been better defined here since that [Army] gender integration study came out [in 2015]. It's not easy. But by all means, if they have the talent, regardless of gender, they should be able to walk through [these] doors."