INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — You could say that my Air Force career has revolved around a red pen since I joined in July of 2004.
I grew up in the world of aircraft maintenance as an Electrical and Environmental Systems specialist, always with a “red” stuck in my sleeve in order to “break” an aircraft with a crimson “X.” Now, as a public affairs officer, I have an “editing tool” of the same color handy to mark up articles and photo captions as necessary.
You might be wondering where I am going with this, and how a summary of my career should matter to you.
Well, the point is not about what I did, or do, or how I went from turning wrenches in the bitter cold on an Alaskan flightline to writing this commentary in an office in Turkey. It’s about the process of breaking something down in order to build it up to be better and stronger than before.
When a pilot, crew chief or other maintenance person notes a critical discrepancy on an aircraft, they will mark a red “X” on an aircraft’s form. The jet is then considered broken — non-flyable. The point is to alert the maintenance crews to a problem, but it doesn’t stop there. They don’t just shrug their shoulders and walk away, leaving the jet to rust. Rather, they take the necessary actions to correct the deficiency, “clear the X” and get the plane in the air again so it can accomplish the mission.
When one of my photojournalists brings a product to me for editing, I don’t simply “bleed” all over it and let them publish it as is. The intent of the markings, verbal feedback and subsequent edits are to ensure you, the reader, receive an error-free, informative product.
It’s no different with us and the various forms of feedback we receive. Whether it’s an official feedback, a performance report or even a form of non-judicial punishment, it about the process of breaking down and building back up — or at least it should be.
From the outset of our military careers, various aspects of our lives, habits, language, respect for authority, etc. — were targeted by our Military Training Instructors and/or flight commanders, and we were broken where needed so they could build us back up better, stronger and ready to execute the mission. However, that focus is sometimes lost and the value of those lessons can be forgotten as time-in-service points accrue and initial-issue uniforms fade to grey.
If you have received feedback that had more negatives than positives or a performance report you felt should have required all the fingers on one hand to count the score but didn’t, realize that this “breaking down” is meant to build you up. How can we expect to improve without first being shown what our weaknesses are?
Maybe you’ve messed up big time, and you’re in dreadful suspense waiting to find out which letter of the alphabet is going to follow the “LO.” Or, maybe you’re the supervisor writing that paperwork. Don’t forget it’s about rehabilitation, not hammering someone just for the sake of punishing or giving them what you think they deserve.
What we all deserve is the opportunity to be resilient and bounce back from the valleys we sometimes find ourselves in. From Airmen basic to four-star generals, we all make mistakes. The difference between an Airman basic who makes chief or a butter bar who makes general and those who find themselves being escorted out the gate as a “mister” or “misses” is often times how they deal with being broken down. Are they willing and patient enough to be built back up? Are you?
As for me, I will continue to watch as my Air Force life orbits around a red pen and do what I can to learn from my mistakes, receive negative feedback graciously and strive to be stronger, better and more prepared to accomplish the mission. What are you going to do?