GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — In my position as the command chief, I always take advantage of the many opportunities to speak with Airmen. I often ask them several canned questions just to get the conversation rolling. “Where are you from?”, “Why did you join the Air Force?”, “Have you called your mom and dad lately?”
And finally I like to ask, “Why are you here?”
With this last question I have found each of us joins the Air Force for different reasons. But it is important that we get to the bottom of why our Airmen are actually here.
So far in my 28 years of Air Force life, I have held many jobs: maintenance, personnel, teaching, group superintendent and now command chief. The point here is not that I can’t keep a job, rather in each of these jobs, I have felt no less a part of the Air Force than in any other one of these jobs. As a young Airman, I was taught to look at the Air Force from a holistic point of view. We all fit in there somewhere and if our jobs weren’t important to the mission, they simply wouldn’t exist.
That said, I also enjoy the good natured banter and competition between Air Force specialties. When I was a mechanic, we always complained about the electricians taking so much time on our engines. We used to say, “Sparky is holding us up again.”
We always knew we needed their skills to complete our mission, but we all enjoyed picking on each other’s AFSCs. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy picking on pilots? Heck, I work for one, trust me it can be fun. However, the very second anyone of these conversations turns into a battle of who is more important to the Air Force mission, we have drifted into dangerous airspace. Bottom line: we should all respect the training and work we, and others around us, bring to the fight.
In November, I had the opportunity to attend the Enterprise Leadership Seminar at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. During the seminar, our senior mentor, retired Gen. Gregory “Speedy” Martin, asked us a question that really stuck with me. But it wasn’t until lately, with recent events here at the Air Force, that his question hit home with me. His question was, “Are you laying bricks, building a wall, or protecting the castle?”
To me, this question should make everyone take stock in what they bring to the fight for themselves, their wingmen, work center, squadron, group, wing, major command, Air Force and nation. As a young Airman, I never would have thought about my service on this level. But, as our Air Force continues to get smaller with the current force management reductions, I think we all need to stop for a moment and consider where we fit into the big picture.
Let me explain a little further. When I was the Force Support Squadron superintendent in Guam, there was a young Airman working the grill in our dining facility. One day, I asked him why he was here. He said, “Chief, all I do is cook eggs for people’s breakfasts.” I quickly realized he didn’t understand the importance of his place in the Air Force. He could not see past the end of the grill. He was not aware, or did not believe, the breakfasts he prepared every morning fueled the fight. To him, he was simply laying bricks and didn’t know why.
Later that morning, I was speaking with this Airman’s NCOIC and I asked him the same question. His answer was, “I close out the breakfast meal and get ready for the lunch crowd, every day.” I pushed a little further and asked why he was important to the wing’s mission? He said he didn’t really think he was since, “there were plenty of other people in the flight who could open and close the dining facility”.
It was obvious to me this staff sergeant believed his purpose was simply to ensure all the brick layers (chefs) were performing their duties so he could open and close the dining facility on time. To me, he viewed himself as the guy building the wall. But he also lacked the understanding of why this wall needed to be built. No wonder his Airman was confused about the same subject.
Shortly after these incidents, one of our “friends” in Asia started acting up so we stood a few B-52s on alert in case they were needed, subsequently they were. During this time, I stopped in the dining facility and saw that same Airman and staff sergeant. They were fired up and motivated and were telling me about their importance to the wing’s mission. I honestly thought someone was playing a joke on me. It turns out the dining facility manager, Tech. Sgt. Johnson, had a sit down with his staff and discussed the importance of their work to the wing’s mission. He quickly and easily made a direct tie between the grill and every position on base, to include the pilots flying those B-52s. You see: He got it! He understood his chefs weren’t just laying bricks or building a wall. He was able to make them see they were helping to protect the castle. We can’t all have those military-sexy jobs the recruiting commercials show. However, those commercials don’t really show every AFSC, but if you listen closely, they do speak to the importance of every Air Force member.
Again, as the Air Force continues to get smaller, it becomes even more critical each Airman understands the importance of their daily work. Recently departed Maj. Gen. A. J. Stewart once said, “The U.S. Air Force is concerned about quality of character, quality of effort … if you want to just get by, don’t come to the U.S. Air Force.”
You see, General Stewart also got it. With his quote in mind, we need to work harder at building stronger relationships between each other and with our community partners. Specifically, we need to do a better job looking out for each other in terms of stopping all unprofessional behavior, including sexual assaults and intoxicated driving, to name a few. This is yet another way we protect the castle.
In order to build these relationships, it is imperative that we quickly understand, acknowledge and execute our duty to intervene. If we see fellow Airmen about to do something stupid, we intervene and stop them. If we happen upon information concerning an event that has already taken place, we stand up and do the right thing, we don’t remain silent. Covering up for your buddy is not being a Wingman – it is being an accomplice to wrongdoing and should be dealt with accordingly. Intervening is clearly an additional way in which we protect the castle.
In the end, I guess it really comes down to my original question, “Why are you here?” I hope you now realize this question is a little deeper than you might have originally thought. Are you the one who will be in a position to help save someone, but will choose not to? Or, are you the one who can’t see the bigger picture and doesn’t realize how important your job is to the Air Force mission. Are you simply laying bricks and building a wall or are you here for the right reason — protecting the castle. I hope this is why we are all here!