Commentary by Lt. Col. Lester Lorenz
50th Operations Group deputy commander
Many years ago, a friend of mine aspired to cross-train to become a combat controller. It had been his life’s goal even before joining the Air Force. You know the type, snake-eater mentality, overly competitive, patriotic, dedicated, idealistic and optimistic to a fault, fitness freak and I believe loved pain. His first assignment as a missileer was simply a temporary delay in pursuing his dream.
He continued to prepare himself for what he knew to be his destiny and applied several times before being accepted to the combat controller school. This school melds elements of all the other tough military schools into one 35 week program… survival training, combat skills training, airborne training, combat diver training, etc., with an attrition rate of up to 80 percent.
After he departed for training, periodic reports confirmed he was voted class leader and the top grad in each phase of the program. He was crushing one of the most difficult courses in the military and on his way to fulfilling his dream.
Late in the program, during the dive-training phase, he was conducting a night underwater navigation mission…dumped several miles offshore as part of a team navigating to the objective. The rules at the time permitted use of one glow stick to illuminate the map/compass under water. Unfortunately, his vision was not perfect, and he was unable to see clearly in these conditions. His team completed the task because other members were able to navigate the team to the objective.
After the drill, and despite the objections of the team, he reported his problem to the training leader and was scored a no-go. He was given one more chance to pass and informed that it is very rare for washouts to ever be re-admitted.
On the eve of the recheck, his guys again begged him to simply follow the team to the objective; it was a team test, and they felt success or failure was predicated on the team’s performance. Besides, nobody would ever know. My friend wanted desperately to graduate the course and was facing quite an ethical dilemma.
Many of us are goal-driven type-A people, like my friend. Our drive for improvement, perfection, and mission success can boarder on obsession. At the office, in a shop, on an ops floor, or during deployment, dedication and drive are key components of success. However, it’s important to remember our efforts should support the goals of the larger team be it a flight, squadron, service or country.
At times we may need to sacrifice personal desires and success for the greater good of our team. Many of us make these trades on a daily basis often without knowing it; allocating funds and resources to areas that had been mismanaged over successful areas more deserving of reward, directing training on weekends, and making manpower decisions which hamper individual progression but balances the team’s overall strengths, are but a few examples.
This was clearly on display as Schriever AFB ramped up and hosted the IG team where we were compelled to prioritize our efforts toward the success of the team (think exercises, lockdowns, CBTs, etc.) often at the expense of our own important programs, personal preparation, or family time. While we may not have agreed with the established priorities, it was clear everybody pulled in the same direction when the time came.
I would run into people at all hours of the day and night working hard to prepare. Discussions with some of them revealed they personally decided to go the extra mile and do the right thing for the greater good. Few were told they had to be there. They had better places to be, likely more important things to do, yet they still took the initiative to do what was most important for the team.
Two small examples come to mind; new lieutenants and young Airmen running, yes running, around buildings 300 and 400 securing doors during an exercise. Nobody told them they had to run, but they did. Similarly, one of the Operations Group’s teams, knowing they were mostly exempt from inspection, still worked nights and weekends along with everybody else to prepare. They were demonstrating support for the larger team while sacrificing precious time needed for what was likely more important to them.
Overall the base made sacrifices for the greater good, and we were successful because of these sacrifices. In my mind our collective efforts embodied the Air Force Service Before Self core value culture on an individual and organizational level.
According to regular Gallup polls, the military has ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in their annual “Confidence in Institutions” list almost every year since the measure was instituted in 1973. Furthermore, we have been No. 1 continuously since 1998 above teachers, clergy, and even first responders. The American public respects and trusts us to do the right thing even if the right thing is difficult, and we almost always deliver. We didn’t cut corners on IG prep, we don’t skip checklist steps for convenience, we struggle to take comp time even when it is more than deserved, we don’t spend government money just because we can, we abhor wartime “field justice” even when it appears justifiable, and we salute and move out when told even when we don’t agree with the decisions. In short we always do the right thing almost to a fault. This is our culture, this is who we are, this is what bonds us, and this is what you hear many retirees and those who have separated talk about when expressing regret after leaving the military. They yearn to be part of this culture again, knowing we take care of and watch out for each other, and that we are directly working towards a higher calling…a greater cause.
With this backdrop, you can imagine my combat controller friend was grappling with all of these issues as he contemplated his actions. He and his team knew that combat controllers would be a better team with him, but at what expense? What impact would his actions have on diluting the core value culture of the Air Force and more importantly the culture of trust necessary for those working together regularly in harm’s way?
His team again passed the navigation test but he declared himself a no-go and again admitted his shortcoming to school leadership. He was washed out of the program and returned to his old unit. He never regretted his decisions and re-committed himself to his old job. He also spent the next year lobbying for a change in policy that would accommodate those with vision problems (two glow sticks, prescription goggles, lasik surgery, etc.). He understood his individual goals were trivial, and although he could make the combat controllers stronger as a team, his actions would weaken the larger Air Force culture of integrity and trust.
This culture was forged by preceding generations of fighting men and women, and he was not going to dilute it for his own selfish gain. So the next time you find yourself facing an ethical dilemma or simply a dilemma of properly prioritizing your actions to benefit yourself, or your team at the expense of the larger organization, consider this story.
By the way, my friend’s persistence led to a change in policy, he was re-admitted about a year later and was ultimately the distinguished graduate. He has been in special ops for more than 15 years now, promoted early, and now a group commander. While deployed in Afghanistan last year, I ran across several members of his unit. They looked sharp, motivated, and their eyes lit up when they talked about their commander. He was clearly instilling the Air Force core values in the next generation. I doubt they know this story about their boss, but it stands to reason my friend’s subordinates, and many of us, are a product of the Air Force core-value culture forged by years of exemplary leaders doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking.