Airman-to-Airman, this is for you

Airman 1st Class Stephen Harper (U.S. Air Force photo/Shauna Heathman)

Airman 1st Class Stephen Harper (U.S. Air Force photo/Shauna Heathman)


When I first came to Charleston, I had no idea what to expect. I had just returned from leave, and all I really knew about my job was what I learned from tech school.

So was I nervous? Heck yeah, I was! But during the next few hours, the butterflies in my stomach quickly died away. I was introduced to an event called a "Combat Dining-In," a time-honored tradition that not only motivated me, but also revealed to me how awesome the squadron leadership is and how strong the camaraderie was between Airmen.

It's been a little more than a year since then, but every day I am honored to work under the 437th Aerial Port Squadron leaders. Even more important though, I am honored to work with my fellow Airmen.

We've all heard the great speeches from generals, and have read the inspiring articles from the chiefs ... but this one is for the Airmen! This article is dedicated to all those men and women, senior airman and below, who are at the bottom of the totem pole; who work day-in and day-out, getting the job done and the mission accomplished. It is their blood, sweat and tears that have shaped the Air Force into what it is today. As an Airman 1st Class I'm writing on their behalf on what it means to follow a true leader. The following are all the qualities essential to molding a leader, who Airmen follow any day:

Selflessness ... this word shouldn't be just a word, it should be the first fundamental building block for a leader's persona. Being selfless isn't just saying "service before self;" one must act on it. Selfless leaders have only three priorities: their people, the mission and themselves.

The sad truth is, a lot of leaders in this day and age, focus only on themselves -- doing what makes them feel comfortable first, then worrying about the mission and the people. This really is the determining point in gaining respect from the followers. Another point that must be stressed to the fullest: rank does not make one a leader ... it is actions that make a leader.

If a second lieutenant admires their gold bar more than they admire their Airmen, then that "so called" leader is doomed for failure. When the time comes for the lieutenant to lead his or her Airmen into battle, they will reluctantly follow. Instead of getting the mission done without question, there will be grumbles and disheartened morale -- and speaking from experience, if morale ceases to exist then the mission will become crippled. But if that same lieutenant does nothing but dedicate his time to every single one of his people, then they will follow the lieutenant to the ends of the earth. This leads me to the next quality: Loyalty.

Loyalty is a way of life; one people tend to forget about in the civilian world. But one of the reasons why I enlisted is so I can experience loyalty at its finest.

In Homer's "The Odyssey," the main character, Odysseus, finally comes home after being away for more than five years. When he walks through the city gate, the first thing he sees is his dog, the same four-legged companion who stood in the exact same spot when the hero left all those years ago. His dog was old, tired, hungry and thirsty, but yet he stayed there, never moving, and never losing hope, remaining ever-loyal until his master returned. To me, that is what a leader must show to their followers that, no matter what, they will stay ever-vigilant to the bitter end. A leader will make sure every single one of his people is taken care of and will also defend Airmen if anyone dares to try to bring them down.

Yet out of all this, a leader must also be committed to his mission and country. The Airmen may not like it when that leader is being tough on them or when he or she expects nothing but perfection, but in the long-run, those same Airmen will be better because of it. For whenever they become leaders, they will know what it means to be completely committed and dedicated to their troops, mission and country.

One quote that needs to be a must for all "true leaders" to know is this:

I offer,
Neither pay,
Nor quarters,
Nor provisions,

I offer hunger, thirst,
Forced marches,
And death

Let him who loves his country
In his heart
And not his lips only,
Follow me.
-Author unknown

This quote really hit home for me. I know every Airman has his or her own reasons for enlisting. I also know sergeants and officers have their own reasons for leading. But no matter who you are or where you came from, every one of us volunteered for this. Everybody took that oath to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Yes, there are sacrifices followers and leaders must make ... but we must always look at the big picture. If that becomes too difficult, just take some leave and visit the forest of stone -- Arlington National Cemetery, the most sacred ground in this nation. For every hero who rests there, they were all once followers and leaders.

I urge this to all of the brave men and women with whom I proudly serve; don't let your personal agenda dictate what kind of follower or leader you are. True leaders don't just act like Airmen part-time, they actually live and honor the core values day by day: 

Integrity First...
Service Before Self,
Excellence In All We Do!