Commentary by Lt. Col. Jasin Cooley
50th Security Forces Squadron commander
We use the terms “professional” and “professionalism” often in the Air Force, both during formal and informal communication. Yet how often do we stop to ask ourselves what these concepts mean?
Webster describes a professional as one who is “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a principal calling, vocation or employment.” This definition is a good start, but is inconclusive; the reference to “a principal calling, vocation or employment” implies that professionalism is dependent upon the context. In other words, the “ethical standards” of an Airman could be completely different than those of a doctor or teacher.
A check of Air Force Doctrine provides no more help. Air Force Doctrine Document 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, Organization, and Command uses the concept of “professionalism” freely and often, but provides no definition. Moreover, Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms offers no further guidance, nor does its Air Force supplement.
So where do we get our definition of professionalism? By deferring to Webster’s context-specific definition, I contend that we can construct our definition through the behaviors that are celebrated by our civilian population and by ourselves.
Vigilance: Our nation relies upon us to deter, detect and defeat any adversary who can threaten our interests and way of life; I suggest that there is no single entity that provides this service more in quantity or quality than Air Force Space Command. Despite the end of the Cold War, an increasing number of nations possess assets that could fundamentally damage the U.S., via kinetic or other means, and AFSPC will detect these strategic threats. In this environment, the American military simply cannot allow a sneak attack. Vigilance is more than keeping a watchful eye; we must stand prepared to quickly mobilize to defeat adversaries after or before they decide to threaten us. For the 50th Space Wing, vigilance translates into many tactical tasks. From scheduling satellite contacts to searching trucks at the gates to troubleshooting spacecraft anomalies; even staying atop one’s vaccination requirements impacts our vigilance. Our actions must be tempered by the knowledge that there exist threats, and our vigilance, preventing these threats from becoming existential, is measured in overall readiness.
Accountability: After reading the Feb. 20 commentary by 2nd Lt. Jason Gabrick, 50 SW Public Affairs, regarding his experience as a juror in a court-martial, I was reminded of the military’s responsibility and success at self-policing. As members of the American military, we have an identity to both internalize and project, that of stoic, righteous guardian of freedom, representative of, and accountable to the public. When 50 SW marched in the November Veterans’ Day Parade in downtown Colorado Springs, the cheering crowds were not there out of fear as in some other countries; they were enduring the cold and rain out of respect for the American military and the individual Airman, Soldier, Sailor and Marine. When we as individuals or as organizations fail to live up to the public’s or our own standards, our military justice system is remarkably successful at holding offenders accountable. Our ability — and privilege — to police our own is fundamental. Should we demonstrate an inability to hold ourselves accountable, we could lose that privilege to the civilian legal system, with catastrophic results in battlefield order and discipline.
Personal excellence: As members of an enormous bureaucracy, it can be very easy for us to aim for mediocrity. Yet throughout my career, I have been continually amazed by how many leaders of all ranks strive to make themselves and the service better. These Airmen see “good enough” as a cancerous philosophy. Moreover, their motivation cannot easily be attributed to personal gain. Whereas in many private vocations, personal excellence can have a direct impact on the bottom line, Airmen demonstrating personal excellence may only hope to have a better chance at promotion. Yet is it too much to expect personal excellence from Airmen when personal gain is not an option? Certainly not. Our role is far too important to expect otherwise; perhaps more pragmatically, we owe the taxpayer our best efforts. In an all-volunteer force, the taxpayer and thus, our leaders of all ranks should expect nothing less.
Integrity: We have been entrusted with great power via our weapons systems, which has come at great cost of public treasure; this is only possible because the public trusts us to do the right thing. In many other countries throughout history, this trust has not existed. Militaries have been feared by their own citizenry they were ostensibly raised to protect. Because we demonstrate an intrinsic integrity with respect to our promise to support and defend the Constitution, the public continues to grant us remarkable trust as we carry out our assigned duties.
While these four behaviors are certainly not inclusive, they are the most important for adding fidelity to our military-specific definition of professionalism. When I speak to members of the 50th Security Forces Squadron about professionalism, I specifically have these four behaviors in mind. I expect professional defenders to be vigilant to deter, detect and defeat tactical threats to Schriever resources. They are to demonstrate personal excellence by never using instructions as the minimum standard. Professional defenders are to hold accountable those who fail to adhere to laws or the installation commander’s policies, and are in turn held accountable when they fall short themselves. Finally, they are to demonstrate integrity by exercising their duties within the limits of federal law. I contend that all career fields within the Air Force could apply these four behaviors in a similar manner to produce a parsimonious, common understanding of professionalism.