TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Wow! It’s hard to believe two months ago hallmarked my 28th year of faithful service to the U.S. Air Force. Dawning the Air Force uniform every day for that many years kind of makes you think.
As I settled into my moment of reflection, two things came to mind; first was “Damn I’m old.” After that, I pondered what it was that made me bleed blue for so many years, raise my right hand and recite the oath of enlistment each time the Air Force allowed me to. I will be the first to admit I didn’t join the military as a selfless act of patriotism, proudly ready to give my life for duty, honor and country. My path to service was much simpler and probably not far off from why many of us initially joined. The allure for me was that of a steady job, free education and all the extra benefits. I’ll take it a step further and divulge that even though I joined the Air Force in 1989, I didn’t truly “join the Air Force” until 1992 when my second supervisor taught me a little something about pride and professionalism.
My epiphanic moment was as a young senior airman working at a cryptologic equipment depot while stationed at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas. To simplify things for the non-geeks out there, I basically soldered and repaired circuit cards that went inside widget X, Y and Z. The job was quite mundane and my daily focus was to “yellow tag” as many widgets as I could, while keeping one eye on my soldering iron and the other on the clock. I viewed my commitment to the Air Force as no more than a basic 9-to-5 job.
This went on for some time until a new rater was assigned to me. Staff Sgt. Singleton introduced himself and immediately sat down with me for a long overdue feedback session. A few minutes into the session he asked me if I was proud of the work I was doing and if I even knew what the heck those widgets I cranked out on a daily basis were used for. At first I was a bit apprehensive, thinking this was some kind of trick, but then acquiesced to his line of questioning by simply replying, “No, I don’t.” He enthusiastically grinned and told me I should take great pride in the work I do every day because not only does my squadron’s mission depend on my duties, but there are Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen overseas supporting the Gulf War that depend on the operation and reliability of the widgets I repair. If this equipment failed, critical communications could falter and lives may be jeopardized. He went on to state that there are very few people in this world that work in a profession with an “unlimited liability clause,” an ethos that says you are willing to give your life in service to your country. It doesn’t matter if you work in this depot cranking out widgets or fly an F-16 over Iraq, your overarching mission is inextricably intertwined and every Airman plays an important role. Singleton demanded I no longer think of the work I did as merely a job, but rather a profession that requires continual commitment to training, professional development, and readiness if and when, I was called into harm’s way.
As I reflect back on that feedback session with my supervisor, I can honestly say that single interaction resonated with me throughout my entire Air Force career and shaped me into the proud servant leader I am today. I challenge all supervisors, raters and mentors out there to take the time to sit down with those under your charge and fully immerse them in what their profession really means to the Air Force. I have talked to many junior enlisted, noncommissioned officers and senior noncommissioned officers throughout my tenure in the Air Force and have found if you can get them genuinely invested in what they do, pride in ownership goes a long way toward mission success. Pride in your profession begets attention to detail and the desire to continually strive to perfect your craft. Instilling pride in our members also encourages a healthy spirit of competition and process improvement. Introduce them to, or re-acquaint them with the Profession of Arms and impress upon them that they no longer have just a job. They are now part of a unique profession where less than 1 percent of the civilian population serves, but they are responsible for the life, liberty and freedom of over 318 million people.
We all join the military for our own unique reasons and it matters not whether your premise was selfish or selfless. The fact that you joined sets you apart, and you are now obliged to serve a higher calling. I was blessed early in my career to have a supervisor eager and willing to share his perspectives and wisdom. And now, as I reflect, the last 27 years of service and the reasons I kept raising my right hand and proudly reciting the oath boiled down to one five-minute conversation years ago. Current and future leaders, I’ll leave you with this short phrase: “Never underestimate the power of instilling pride and professionalism in your Airmen.”