OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --
As our world is dominated by COVID-19, it is easy to feel like our lives are a spinning compass. Constantly changing without a clear direction for the future. When asked to write an article on why I serve, it was an easy answer “For times like these.”
Our service in times like these is clear. People need support, help, guidance, resources, a lending hand, a listening ear and someone who will not give up. But let me back up, because the reason why I serve goes back a bit.
You see, there are three reasons why we go to work: to survive, to save and to serve.
To survive, well that’s simple, we work to meet our basic needs. When it comes to saving, some of us want to exceed making ends meet and expand our life with a financially secure future. But to serve, that comes down to making the world better than we found it.
Most Americans will spend their entire adult lives focusing on surviving alone, with a smaller number focusing on saving but those rare few who are successful (not just in terms of dollars), but truly successful in all aspects of our lives, keep the focus centered on serving.
People like us, the rare few, the roughly 0.5% of our nation’s population who join the military, don’t think much about the first two. Well sure, we will pay the bills and put a little away for a rainy day, but that is not our focus, is it?
We want to serve. It’s a feeling we can’t put our finger on or quite put into words sometimes, but it’s inside you and me. We’re feeling it right now as COVID-19 continues.
I’m blessed to work with an awesome group here at Offutt and when I walk through the squadrons, I ask young Airmen why they joined, the answers vary widely and include reasons like the adventure, an opportunity for education, the injustices of 9/11, following in family footsteps and the list continues. But, when I ask a seasoned NCO or officer why they stayed, it’s always centered on their role in the mission and the ability to serve.
Let me switch gears a bit … so hang with me.
Mottos are everywhere these days, they are all over commercials and online ads and we even have our own: Air Force – “Aim High”. What’s the purpose of a motto? Its purpose is to help focus a vision, objectives, or aim of an organization.
My family was on a walk some years ago and our oldest son asked out of the blue, “Dad, do you have a motto?” After a bit of panic as I pondered the question, two words just flowed out. "Others first”. I told our son, “my goal each day is to put others first."
Where did that come from?
Now, when it comes to the Air Force, I’m all in. I’ve been wearing a version of the Air Force uniform for 33 years and I have drank (it all in)…and I keep coming back to the fountain for more. With a motto though … I just hit another level.
For me, “others first” is more than a motto, it’s a mindset. It’s been building in me since I was young. It is has grown out of my character and guided me through the good and the bad.
I view our character as a moral fingerprint, unique to each one of us. We all desire to have components like integrity, loyalty, commitment, but depending on our life experience, some of these components haven’t fully developed yet at least not to their fullest potential.
In other words, we may not fully know our true ability to do what is right unless we are tested by temptation. We don’t know if we will fight or take flight until we’re faced with a moment of absolute fear. Moments like these shape and grow our character. Sometimes we fail, we disappoint others or worse, we disappoint ourselves but this is when the real growth happens.
I want to share where growth happened in my life, so please allow me to introduce a few folks:
Col. Ray Green:
A Vietnam-era F-4 pilot who taught Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, was a giant, both in size and in status, flawless in uniform and in his actions. He retired from being a wing commander at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, to help introduce teenagers to the military.
We had a number of students who came to school without breakfast, due to finances and poor home life and no matter what, Colonel Green bought or his wife made enough food to bring in every morning for these students for all four years I was there.
One summer he took seven of us across the country in a van he rented for a two-week tour of Air Force bases from North Carolina to Colorado and back. We chipped in a little, but he paid for most of the gas, food, billeting and most importantly he donated all his time. He just wanted to show us how cool the Air Force was. For this and much more, he taught me to serve those you lead.
Lt. Col. Mike Sutherland:
As a major in 2004, Mike was the first Air Force officer to deploy to Baghdad, Iraq to square the corner on these new radio-controlled improvised explosive devices emerging as the number 1 threat to American forces. This was before the days of armored or V-shaped hull vehicles and we were on our heels.
Mike taught our forces how to employ these vital new vehicle jammers and it was often his knowledge that protected many from harm. I deployed to Baghdad to take his place. Seeing how overwhelming the task was to get up to speed, he volunteered to extend to provide just-in-time training to me.
He was not going to let me fail, tirelessly going over the location of all the jammers, how to program them, and the best tactics for employing. From my view, I was horribly underqualified and underprepared, but Mike tirelessly ensured I was good to go. Through his actions alone, he taught me the greatest lesson in commitment.
At 27 years old she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following a biopsy we were called in for the results and as we waited to hear the official news from the doctor, she looked at me and said she knew it wasn’t going to be good news.
The doctor confirmed our fear, but I have tell you without hesitation, she made the decision to undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. We had a 7-month old son at home and she told me she was going to give it everything she had. And fight she did.
She became very ill, she lost a lot of weight, she lost her taste and all of her hair, but she didn’t lose her beautiful smile and she beat cancer. She wears the cape in our family and has taught me to be courageous.
Lt. Col. Jamie Griffin:
Sometime after midnight in April 2005, I was dropped off a helicopter solo on a dark landing zone outside Fallujah, Iraq. My instructions were to head toward the light. I spun 360 degrees around to find a single bulb about 200 meters away. With all my gear, I headed that way and when I approach the shack with the bulb on it, I hear “you Dayton?” I said “yes” with relief and followed his footsteps until we got into a truck.
Once inside, I could make out it was a Marine named Lt. Col. Griffin, call sign “Gov” and he had been in the Corps for 30 years. I was assigned to II Marine Expeditionary Force to get after their IED problem after my time in Baghdad the year prior. Gov knew from the beginning that I was a fish out of water.
How did an Airman get stationed with 10,000 Marines in Fallujah? No matter the threat, convoy or helo, Gov could make anyone feel at ease and he did not leave my side as we trained Marines on countering IEDs across the Al Anbar province. It didn’t matter that we wore different uniforms, Gov taught me true loyalty.
Chief Master Sgt. Ken Carter:
I met Ken when he had already been a First Sergeant for 7 years. I’m sure you will agree shirts are superhuman and can do any task. Ken was our shirt when I was a squadron commander and I truly wish everyone had the opportunity to meet this man. He is hands down the finest Airman I have ever met, officer or enlisted.
He promoted to Chief, was selected to be the First Sergeant for U.S. Strategic Command and went on to become a command chief twice. He earned annual awards at the squadron, group, wing, NAF and major command levels. But all that didn’t mean a thing to Chief Carter, in fact he never displayed one accolade in his offices, just the unit guidon and the U.S. Flag.
His sole purpose was to serve and teach Airmen. When we lost funds to mow the grass during sequestration and everyone else enjoyed their time off, Ken brought his personal lawnmower to the squadron and took care of it.
As the STRATCOM First Sergeant as a chief master sergeant, he would arrive at work at 4 a.m. on days that it snowed in freezing temps to shovel each of the sidewalks and help clear the parking lots alongside others. When he finally retired, you would think a person of his accomplishments and elevated position would have a large retirement ceremony with a big band and a long list of distinguished visitors attending, but not Ken Carter.
He kept it on the down low and on his last day of active duty, at 4:25 he planned to quietly walk out of his office, put on his cover, and make the solo walk to the base flag pole arriving just in time for Retreat. He rendered one final salute and went home. No one has taught me more about the importance of humility in leadership.
Service, commitment, courage, loyalty and humility. These are quality standards modeled to me and truthfully I work to measure up each day. These qualities are the foundation to my motto of “others first”.
These people I’ve mentioned are life changing and have permanently altered my foundation. Some of you have examples like these in your lives that have heavily influenced your path. For others your path is still being built, and that’s okay.
But why am I talking about mottos and foot-stomping character?
Over the past 20 years, it is readily apparent our Air Force places importance on your ability to succeed and lead no matter the environment. They place value in your ability to elevate the warfighters around you, no matter the uniform.
The Air Force our new Airmen enter today is rapidly integrating into all the other services. We will be tested to know our service’s capabilities and those of the joint force more so than any time in history. We will be assigned with and/or deployed with joint forces that look to us as an Airman, no matter what Air Force Specialty Code badge we wear.
We know how to bring the lethal and non-lethal effects of the Air Force to bear in a specific fight and they don’t care where we went to basic military training, technical training or were commissioned.
All that matters is the flag on our right shoulder and the tape on the left side of our uniform that starts with U.S. We are Airmen in the most lethal Air Force the world has ever known and our character must be ready.
So what’s your motto?
I challenge you to find one, internalize it and use it to positively influence others. Remember, it has nothing to do with rank or accomplishments. To have true influence, all you have to do is serve.