Remarks to the University of Virginia AFROTC commissioning class – 2006

While cleaning out my closet I stumbled across this speech that I gave to the AFROTC commissioning class back in 2006.  I was just a Major, and it was quite an honor to speak at an event normally reserved for general officers.  I think you will enjoy this.

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Good morning.  Lt General North, Col and Mrs. Vrba, staff of detachment 890, Faculty and University officials, cadets, and most of all families, friends, and classmates of the 2006 commissioning class –

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to be here this morning.  I count this as a great honor, to return to the finest AFROTC detachment in the nation; to share in the excitement of this day – a day in which we will commission new lieutenants into the United States Air Force.  And to the families and friends of those about to be commissioned, thank you for your unwavering support to these fine Americans.

To me, it seems like only yesterday that these cadets were attending their initial orientation in preparation for their first year of college and military instruction.  In fact, there are even a couple of cadets seated here that I can remember interviewing for an ROTC scholarship.  And now, you are about to enter into the most exciting profession this nation can offer – and you are about to become leaders in a force unequaled in the world, and you are about to become defenders of a nation unequaled in human history.

So today, I am going to try to give you some advice – some encouragement, because I have little doubt that you have the skills, education and training to take on this higher calling.

Let me just give you some background on the Air Force you are about to become a member of.  It is a busy place.  We are operating all over the world, directly engaged in the global war on terror, most noticeably in Iraq and Afghanistan; relief efforts for various natural disasters; conducting joint exercises with allies across the globe, and monitoring and dissuading emerging threats in every theater.  In other words, the operational tempo you are about to become part of is extremely high.  We are doing more and more with a smaller force than we had in the past.  In such an environment, there is a premium on leaders.  We have to have leaders NOW.  As lieutenants you will not be afforded the luxury of easing into your jobs – the learning curve will be steep and you are going to be put into positions of authority immediately.

And so, to assist you in your transition, I want to give you some practical advice.  Some of the things that I think you need to know – and to think about, if you want to be a successful officer.

1.  You will be judged by performance.  This might seem obvious but it needs to be stressed.  The moment you enter active duty there is a new reality – performance in your job becomes the sole measurement of success.  I can tell you, that having great talent, having a great academic resume, having potential – all pale in comparison to how well you perform.  The sooner you realize that the better.  Invariably, I run into lieutenants who don’t fully understand this.  They are always shocked when a co-worker who went to a no-name school and squeaked by on a “C” average has suddenly become the best officer in the organization.  They are left asking themselves “how is it possible that I, who went to this elite university, earned a 4.0 in astro-physics, and served as the cadet wing commander at my ROTC detachment, am now being out-performed by THAT guy?”  Let me give you a reality check.  The only thing that matters is excellence and hard work – for the most part, no one cares where you went to school, what sports you played, and least of all what your Grade Point Average was (which I’m sure is a relief to some of you).

2.  Standards are NOT optional.   You’ve been trained on this – you know the core values and their importance.  Now it is time to apply them.  You will be tempted – sometimes by peers, sometimes by subordinates, and even sometimes by yourself – to bend the rules.  Or to relax the standards.  Typically, these temptations are camouflaged by things like expediency (hey, we need to get this done now), or cynicism, or false appeals to “cutting someone some slack.”  I implore you to ignore these voices.  The standards are not empty rhetoric.  They were not created by a Pentagon think tank in order to make life tougher than it has to be.  No, quite the contrary – the standards by which we conduct ourselves are the combined wisdom of military leaders through 6,000 years of recorded human history.  These are our ideals.  And as a wise man said “ideals are like stars.  You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the ocean desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.”

3.  Avoid the cult of micromanagement.  Yes, micromanagement is a cult.  It is not solely an affliction of the military.  No matter where you are or where you work, you will meet micromanagers.   These are the folks who will ask you why you aren’t using the new TPS cover sheet.  Over and over again.  Nothing robs the morale of your troops faster than asking them to do something and then squelching their creativity by endlessly suggesting stylistic improvements, asking for updates, leaving post-it note suggestions, etc.  When I was in the Army in a previous life, nothing made me happier than when my boss would say “Sgt Cheetham move your squad from point A to point B, and secure that location.”  And that’s it.   He didn’t say “move your squad this way; use this equipment; if you need to send out a recon party, have them follow these procedures first – oh, and throughout the process if you could provide me an update every 15 minutes, that would be great.”  Don’t get me wrong – you will meet micromanagers – but don’t become one.  Learn from bad examples and do not perpetuate it.  You will make everyone better.

4.  Maximize your training.   I’ll be honest with you – sometimes training is boring.  When you are sitting through your seventh straight hour of power-point briefings – you will probably find yourself exhausted.  And you will tune out.  This is when you have to steel yourself.  I remember having a moment of clarity during Operation DESERT STORM where I wished that I had learned more BEFORE I got there – I wanted to remember ALL my training.  A leader has to maximize training – and ask questions, learn as much as possible, because you are going to find yourself wanting knowledge when you are making decisions.  And you owe it to your airmen to train hard. 

5.  Three important words:  I Don’t Know.  The next principle follows closely on the heels of training – and that is learning three very important words:  I DON’T KNOW.  I say this all the time – (although I’m not sure I like admitting this with the 9th AF commander in the room).  One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with lieutenants is pride.  If you don’t know the answer, say so – or ask someone to help you.  This is how you will learn.  Go out and find the answer and then that is one thing you DO know.  But never never never guess – you will invariably be wrong, get yourself into trouble, or even worse endanger mission accomplishment and personnel.

6.  Understand the rewards of your career.  This is critical to your mental health.  You will not get rich serving in the United States Air Force.  Except in rare circumstances, you will not be famous.  But let me tell you what you will get.  When you are in the twilight of your life, you will be able to look back on this time in your life and say that you did something great with your life – because the mission of the Air Force IS great.  To me, the mission of defending our nation and our families against people who want to knock down our buildings and kill our families is inherently great.  I can’t imagine anything more important or more rewarding. 

7.  Finally, if there is only one thing you remember about today, remember this:  You have a responsibility to safeguard and honor the memory of those who served before you.  Not only the officers, and not only the Airmen, but anyone who EVER served in the United States military.  I’d like to share a story with you.  My brother Michael, who is a Lt Commander in the Navy, is now serving in Baghdad – working with the Civil Affairs teams trying to bring order to the nation of Iraq.  This past Tuesday, Michael sent me a note, and I immediately knew it was something I wanted to share with you today.

He wrote:

Dear Christian,

Shane, a US Army Captain, was in my Civil Affairs Class at Ft Bragg.  He was in Iraq two weeks when his Humvee was hit by a roadside IED.  Three were killed instantly.  Shane, though critically injured, survived.  Two of the three killed were on their final mission in Iraq.

We heard Shane was in a Baghdad hospital.  When Shane saw the three of us walk up to his hospital bed he grabbed a notepad and wrote DON’T LET THEM SEND ME HOME.  His wounds and the tubes down his throat prevented him from speaking.  The most severe wound were to his lungs.

We communicated, him writing, us talking.  His concern was for his wife.  He wanted his Dad to be notified so that his family could notify his wife of his situation.  He asked about his army friends’ whereabouts.  If we knew, we told him.  Hank joked with him and actually got Shane to laugh as he lay on the bed.  His was a silent laugh and was probably painful; but that was Shane.  Good natured and happy.  We all laughed loudly with him.  Tears escaped the corners of his eyes and our eyes.  He then wrote WILL I RUN THIS FALL?  Meaning in the marathon he was training for.  We assured him he would make a full recovery and he’d be back 100%.  I then prayed with Shane, I had closed my eyes and I felt his hand grab mine firmly while we prayed.  I knew I was in the company of a hero.

Sadly, Shane passed away yesterday.  He is being sent home after all.  Although now there will be no joyful family reunion.  There will be no kiss for his wife, no hugs for his two young children.  Instead there will be only tears and memories.

Shane died on freedom’s frontier.  His body returns to freedom’s homeland.  His soul now resides with freedom’s Author.

Cadets, soon to be officers, that is quite a standard that this brave young man set for you – but I am holding you to it.  What we do is rewarding and exciting.  But it is serious business.  I need you to have your game faces on from day one of your career and I need you to NEVER forget the sacrifices of those who came before you – not just in the War of Terror, but in Vietnam, Korea, the World Wars – in every conflict America has had heroes like Shane.  Those heroes weren’t much different than any of you when they fought at a frozen Valley Forge with blood-soaked frost-bitten feet; or when they charged up San Juan Hill; or liberated Europe and Japan.  Today, these heroes of America’s history become your comrades.  DO NOT LET THEM DOWN.

Today, you become freedom’s warriors.  I am honored to serve with all of you.

 

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