TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - It was a cool, crisp fall day in west Tennessee as I climbed into my Ford pickup truck.
Only minutes before, I had signed up with the Air Force under the Delayed Enlistment Program at the Armed Forces recruiting station near my hometown. I could hardly contain myself during the drive home as I imagined what life would be like as a member of the United States Air Force.
I had taken a big step, but literally had no idea just how much that simple act would alter the course of my life. Six short months later, I quickly found out the moment I stepped off the bus after arriving at Basic Military Training.
My fellow trainees and I managed to survive the disorienting standard BMTS greeting from our military training instructor that night. After a week or two, we gradually learned to adapt and actually function as a team.
During the third week, my training took another step as I was made dorm chief. From that point on, I experienced many lessons in leadership as I was accosted by our MTI almost daily, not only for my own occasional failure to meet standards, but for the rest of my flight’s as well.
Over the course of the following weeks, our transformation from civilians into Airmen was so subtle, we hardly recognized it until we were approaching the end of our training.
I was 27 years old and in great shape, so I didn’t mind marching everywhere, but after conducting drills under the warm Texas sun then scarfing down lunch, we were primed for a nap. Naturally, this would be the time the Air Force would have us sit in a comfortable classroom for academic modules.
Staying focused was sometimes challenging, but I always made a concerted effort to pay close attention during these academic instructions. One lesson I found particularly interesting was the module on Air Force core values: integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.
The reason why the core values resonated so much with me was because of their similarity to some of the “rules of behavior” my parents had taught me and my siblings. In my family of 10, I was number seven of eight children. With a family that large, we had to learn to get along and play together.
The rules were not cosmic, but simply common sense ways to conduct ourselves when interacting with others. Oddly enough, some of them closely matched the core values.
The first rule I learned growing up was “always tell the truth and do the right thing.” This is what the core value “integrity first” is all about. It incorporates honesty, courage and accountability. Do the right thing even when no one is watching.
While not universal, this is probably something we all learned in school, church or the home we grew up in. A person with integrity will invariably behave in a manner that is forthright and truthful, which is the ideal for all Airmen. When subordinates, peers and leaders see us as being honest and accountable for our actions, we earn their trust while providing a model of behavior for them to emulate. We must always strive to have integrity both at work and off duty, regardless of the situation or circumstance.
The second rule was to, “make personal sacrifices for the good of others.” Sacrifice is synonymous with the core value “service before self.” It incorporates duty, loyalty and respect.
Staying true to this value can be easier said than done. I cannot think of a nobler calling than to sacrifice one’s time, energy and personal desires so our fellow Americans can enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It may sound like a cliché, but this is the guarantee our selfless servicemen and women make to our countrymen.
It’s important to understand that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves and to serve our country is an honor. We will always be loyal to the United States and our Air Force. Our charge is to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary, for the good of our nation. An unwavering dedication and commitment to this ideal is a testament to one’s character.
The third rule was to, “always do your best in everything you undertake.” It is equivalent to the core value “excellence in all we do” and incorporates mission, duty and teamwork.
We must be technically proficient and do our best every day to ensure we are able to execute the mission. With the importance and complexity of our jobs, we can’t afford to complete it twice. We have to do it right the first time. This may mean thinking outside the box to solve problems that impact mission effectiveness.
Almost any issue can be overcome by a team of motivated professionals who embrace change rather than accept the status quo. Our core values provide a moral compass to keep us headed in the right path both on duty and off. I don’t see them as a set of restrictions on our behavior, but more of a guide that helps keep us on track with Air Force standards and expectations.
Now, as I sit here 28.5 years later, I reflect back on the lessons I learned in basic training. The Air Force holds every Airman accountable to its core values and empowers each of us to tactfully address indiscretion by subordinates, peers and leaders, whenever and wherever it happens.
We serve in the profession of arms and are dedicated to a culture that is held to a higher standard. As such, our behavior must be above reproach at all times.
Each of us must internalize and commit to the guiding principles that shape who we are. Our core values make us better Airmen, better citizens and enable us to achieve future success in the Air Force and beyond.