Medal of Honor recipients offer lessons on leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Scott A. Dutkus
  • 347th Recruiting Squadron commander
In the last two weeks, I have had the distinct honor of attending two community events in Chicago, where in each one, the keynote speaker was a recent Medal of Honor recipient. The biggest take-aways I can give you from their speeches are:

1. While we lead our Airmen very well every day, leading Airmen in our recruiting environment is not difficult compared to the trials and tribulations associated with life and death situations and we need to not take things for granted.

2. We need to remember what greatness is and step up to the challenge as well as demand our Airmen strive for this greatness while we inspire and recruit the right people for the right place at the right time ... people like Army Capt. William Swenson and Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer.

Both Captain Swenson and Sergeant Meyer are riveting, yet humble, speakers. Captain Swenson was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the Chicago USO Gala, and Sergeant Meyer was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the Commercial Club of Chicago's Veteran's Employment Initiative luncheon. Both received their Medal of Honor for their actions in Afghanistan.

I strongly encourage you to learn their stories, honor their courage and deeds, listen to them talk, and apply their lessons learned in everything you do. They are true American heroes. I will not fully recite their speeches, but offer my take on their lessons learned as it applies to our environment and everyday life lessons.

We take too many things for granted. We describe our recruiting assignment as tough, we work too many hours, it is very trying and we are not appreciated. While we play a critical role to preserve the nation's Air Force accession goals and sustain the future success of the Air Force mission, we are not taxed too hard.

We need to look at the true situation and, using the old adage, "The grass is always greener on the other side," realize we are the ones with the green grass. Our fellow brothers and sisters in arms who are in harm's way are not sleeping in their own beds. They do not see their spouse and children almost every day. They do not have creature comforts. They are not invited to represent the military at sporting events or robotics tournaments.

They are, as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in the movie "A Few Good Men" said, standing on that wall because "we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns." Once we have the right perspective, then we need to reevaluate our environment and not take for granted our situation.

We need to remove our entitled attitude and appreciate what we have and what we provide. We provide the next generation of Airmen to enable our nation's continued freedom and defense. We are the gatekeepers. We are the key masters. We are the first step. We need to do it right or our nation will suffer in the future.

Not every applicant who walks into a recruiter's office is going to be a Medal of Honor recipient; however, we need to ensure every trainee we send from our offices is going to make a difference and is ready to go to training.

As we evaluate a future Airman we need to think about what they bring to the Air Force. What sets them apart? Why does the Air Force need them? Why do our nation's defense and our future success require them? What makes them great? If we have a hard time figuring this out, then, maybe they are not right for the Air Force.

Sergeant Meyer has a motto, which I have slightly modified to be relevant to our Air Force. It goes something like this: Good is the enemy of great, and if you accept good, you fail to achieve great and are failing to live up to the core beliefs and core values we fight for. Let's not fail to achieve great. Great (or excellence) is our standard, so we need to live up to it. Do not accept anything less than great.

As leaders we need to mentor our Airmen (whether they are on active duty, or about to enter active duty) on greatness and the need to sustain this level of greatness. The public demands the military to be great. Do you want to be the person who lets them down? Do you want to let your fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms down? I know I don't.

Sergeant Meyer also spoke about trials and tribulations. In his story, he tells of how he is fully aware that his toughest, most emotionally challenging days are behind him and from here on out things will be easier. Nowhere else will he be called upon to answer the call in a combat situation. Nowhere else will he be called upon to hear his team radio for air and artillery help, start calling out grid coordinates, and never get a chance to finish the call. Nowhere else will he feel ashamed he could not do more. He did everything he could.

Do you do everything you can? Yes, I know we are not in combat situations, but if we only give a half effort here, and make it a habit, what happens when we are put in a situation where we have to give everything we've got? You might not know how.

I know many in our recruiting environment have been there, done that, got the T-shirt and are trying to decompress. Thank you for your sacrifice. You are one of our nation's best. But, as we go about our mission, remember what it was like to be there.

What kind of wingman do you want next to your fellow Airman that is "there" now? We need to make sure we find the right wingman. We need to make sure that wingman is ready. We need to make sure that wingman exudes greatness. We need to make sure it is exactly who we would want next to us. We need them to be great.

As you go about your duties inspiring the next generation of Airmen, remember these lessons. We do not have it tough right now, and we cannot perpetuate a sense of entitlement in our current atmosphere. We must rise above good and become great. Don't accept substandard performances from your brothers- and sisters-in-arms, either. The bar is set high for a reason, now make sure everyone is over the bar.