Why did you swear?

by Lt. Col. Tony Schenk
76th Airlift Squadron commander

“Tribe three-zero, runway one seven right, winds one-nine-zero at 10 knots, cleared for takeoff.”

We ran the lineup checklist as we taxied onto the runway as lead of a three-ship C-17 formation. As we applied takeoff power, all radios seemed to scream at once, command post, ground, tower ― all of them. Hearing “takeoff clearance canceled” through the garble, I initiated an abort call to our wingmen and then took a strategic pause. After a few moments, tower instructed us to taxi back to parking and shut down the engines, no questions asked. I’m sure the two student pilots saw the bewildered look on my face as we taxied back to parking ― no questions asked.

We returned to the 58th Airlift Squadron at Altus Air Force Base on Sept. 11, 2001, just in time to see the second aircraft hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. Forty-seven minutes later, that tower was the first to collapse, trapping thousands within. Many more would die that day in the north tower, in the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa.

In the coming months, the reasons that brought me to join the Air Force would pale in comparison to those that kept me in following that event.

Ten years later, our collective commitment and service is just as important as it was immediately after the attacks. The importance of our core values and personal character has never been greater. 

About the importance of character, Gen. Mathew B. Ridgway, later supreme commander of the United Nations Forces in Korea stated, “During a critical phase of the Battle of the Bulge, when I commanded the 18th Airborne Corps, another corps commander just entering the fight next to me remarked, ‘I’m glad to have you on my flank. It’s character that counts.’ I had long known him, and I knew what he meant. I replied, ‘That goes for me too.’ There was no amplification. None was necessary. Each knew the other would stick however great the pressure, would extend help before it was asked, if he could, and would tell the truth, seek no self-glory and everlastingly keep his word. Such trust breeds confidence and success.”

As commander of the 76th Airlift Squadron, I have the honor of seeing several crew members in process our unit every month. During our initial meeting together, I outline the squadron’s mission and how they fit into the bigger picture as an essential ingredient to our success. That’s the easy part. The more challenging part of the discussion is about exemplary character and setting clear expectations both on and off duty ― what I expect of them and what they can expect of me as their commander.

I trust that every Airman arrives at Ramstein with the intent of serving honorably and in an outstanding manner. Over time, though, some of our Airmen lose focus. You can flip forward a few pages in this paper every week to the blotter to see what I mean.

Most likely not their intention at the time, their actions bring dishonor upon themselves, their squadron, our wing and our nation. They tear at the fabric of our host-nation relationship and require us to spend a substantial portion of our collective energy punishing and rehabilitating instead of training, upgrading and promoting. It affects our focus, our reputation and even our combat power.
Every Airman has a story to tell about why they took the oath. I grew up on a ranch in Texas, watching T-38s streak overhead at 500 feet every day.

Continuing a family tradition of military service, I joined the Air Force to fly, but also to serve a higher calling, to belong to something bigger than myself. For more than 19 years now, the Air Force has been that calling, and I am indebted to our nation and Air Force for the opportunities I’ve had while serving.

And every one of us has their own unique story. So, the question is, how do we maintain that sense of purpose and passion every day, to keep sight of our unit and personal goals, to ensure we fulfill our promise to the nation?

The honest truth is that our individual efforts matter only in their relationship to our team’s success. A team’s victory belongs to all of its members, but so does a failure ― even if from a single individual.

One of Aristotle’s five military virtues was obedience. Indeed, we as human beings generally dislike the concept because it means giving up a portion of our personal freedom. Whether you call it obedience, compliance or simply discipline, it’s the bedrock of an effective military force, the virtue that separates those who wear the uniform from those who don’t.

Through following Air Force instructions, aircraft checklists or simply wearing a uniform correctly, we either demonstrate ― or don’t demonstrate ― this virtue every day. And it’s a virtue that each of us should be proud of.

As we turn our attention to the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I ask you, why did you swear to support and defend? How often do you remind yourself of those reasons? Do you remember your personal feelings seeing our citizens being flown helplessly into the twin towers to their certain deaths?

No matter how menial the task, how junior your rank, how insignificant you think you may be, you are a key part of our team. Don’t let the daily minutia cloud your commitment or judgment. Be excellent, be proud and be humble. It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about our Air Force team. From Afghanistan to Libya, to continuing worldwide humanitarian operations, our nation needs us now more than ever.

Each of us is responsible for a small piece of the overall mission, and it is pass-fail. Gen. George Kenney, commander of Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, said it this way: “Air power is like poker. A second-best hand is like none at all — it will cost you dough and win you nothing.” We are the world’s greatest Air Force, but to retain that title, we need committed Airmen who do the right things every day. No matter the rank, character matters.

In the end, we get one ticket on the ride of life, in the Air Force and even during our assignment at Ramstein. Years from now, each of us will reread the chapter we wrote here. Let’s make sure the chapter is one we can be proud of.
9/11/01 ― never forget.