Commentary by Capt. Angelia Sanders
50th Space Wing Command Post
The Schriever Air Force Base Company Grade Officer Council was privileged to have Will A. Gunn, General Counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs, speak and provide mentorship. Gunn spoke at the Air Force Academy during the 19th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium and made a stop here Feb. 23.
He spoke on overcoming leadership challenges we all face. One particularly profound statement he made that stuck out was: “Make a decision to stay in the Air Force.” This piece of advice came from a pamphlet titled “Letters to a New Lieutenant.” Gunn read that pamphlet when he first entered active duty. He added to the letter and said, “You need to do everything in your power to make yourself as competitive as possible.”
He said when Airmen treat their service as a way of life rather than just a job, they are successful. If the Air Force was only going to keep one person in your career field, you want to be that person. You can’t just compare yourself to your co-worker and think that you are better, because you don’t know what the rest of the people in your career field are doing or how they are performing.
The other new perspective Gunn laid out was how to look at setbacks. Instead of looking at a setback as a bad thing, look at it as a set up for a big come back. Gunn addressed three specific setbacks he had experienced throughout his career. First, he failed his first math class as a freshman at the Air Force Academy. This meant he could not go home during summer break and had to attend summer classes instead. He could have looked at this as a big setback. However, over the course of the summer, he put his energies into studying hard, which ultimately gave him the foundation to graduate from the Air Force Academy.
Second, he applied for a masters program that started immediately upon graduation, but was denied. This forced him to take a step back to examine who he was and what his life goals were. He eventually decided to pursue a career in law and applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted. However, he was not selected by the Air Force for the legal study program, so he requested a deferment from Harvard for a year. Undeterred, Gunn continued to excel in his job and was selected by the Air Force the following year for the legal study program. He graduated cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School in 1986. He was also elected President of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the nation’s oldest student run legal services organization.
Third, Gunn was named first-ever Chief Defense Counsel in the Department of Defense Office of Military Commissions. He did not ask for or seek this duty. In fact, he was advised by many of his colleagues to turn it down. However, he accepted the position and gave it his all, as he had done throughout his career. His personal moral compass, as well as his abiding faith in the U.S. Constitution, allowed him to excel in what was a very difficult position.
Throughout Gunn’s career, his advice can be surmised in these basic statements; make a decision to stay in the military, do the best you can do, stand for what you believe in, focus on the strong foundations and look at setbacks as a set up for a big come back.
Listening to Gunn was somewhat of a “re-blueing” moment for me. His comments made me realize that I, 18 years ago, did make the decision to stay in the Air Force. There have been times when things did not go my way, but I realized, looking back, those setbacks have been true setups for a big come back. I will continue to do the best I can at every job and I will also continue to challenge myself and encourage others to do the same.