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Stay or Go?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Erik Fisher
  • 21st Airlift Squdaron

Dear Joey and Dave,
Recently, you both asked me the question, “Why should I stay in the Air Force beyond my commitment?”

As young field grade officers, you are right to ask this question. The undeniable truth is that you have options. Your leadership, intellect and vision open many doors in and beyond our Air Force. A ubiquitous, yet difficult decision awaits you—stay or go. While it is important for you to carefully weigh your pros and cons concerning this decision, the best way for me to adequately respond is to articulate why I stayed. Seven years ago, I stood in your shoes eyeing multiple branches in the trail ahead and pondered which path to select. Today, I am fulfilled by my decision to remain. Please indulge me as I explain.

Nearly 21 years ago, at the age of 17, I arrived at the United States Air Force Academy. I arrived at this juncture for two reasons: play college baseball and hopefully fly airplanes. I also joined for one intangible reason: to serve. In time, service moved from ethereal to palpable and became the reason I stayed in the Air Force. Further broken down, I remained for the people, the opportunity to make change and secure progress and my own conviction that I still had more to give.

This decision to stay was not without cost. My family and I endured hardships and missed professional and personal opportunities as we traversed this path. However, as I write these words, I ardently believe this path—the harder path—was the correct and richer path. I do not regret my decision.

I joined to slip the surly bonds, but stayed in large part for the people. Squadron command has been the richest professional experience of my life. During these last two years, I vicariously encountered much life has to offer and witnessed my fellow Airmen find both joy and heartache. The highest peaks included births, marriages, promotions, awards, assignments and special opportunities. Conversely, the lowest valleys consisted of deaths, divorces, health scares and untimely deployments. In navigating these peaks and valleys, I developed relationships so rich they eclipsed the traditional definition of “colleague.” Along the way, I developed a reverence for Airmen. Furthermore, I have been provided with countless opportunities to coach, mentor, instruct, counsel and listen while walking alongside Airmen in search of their better selves. I gained tremendous satisfaction as the team strengthened and cultivated a powerful brand — communal, committed and innovative. More than any other reason, it is the people and the ensuing sense of family that keep me here.

The opportunity to make change and secure progress is another reason my Air Force journey continues. Throughout my career, leaders and mentors nurtured my creativity and entrepreneurism, enabling me to implement change and realize progress. Recently, I read an article in the March 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review on the topic of navigating mid-life professional malaise. The author, Kieran Setiya, asserts many employees are stymied by ameliorative pursuits, such as regular problem-solving and conflict resolution. These regular activities, akin to “queep,” sustain the organization, but are usually void of existential value. Conversely, existential pursuits offer employees the richness of a lasting good. Encouraged by exceptional leaders, I frequently sought out existential opportunities during my career by disrupting the status quo, building coalitions and solving enduring problems. Without these opportunities to direct energy beyond the queep, my Air Force career would have been bland and undesirable. The agency to effect change encourages and sustains me as I continue on this path.

The belief I still have more to give to this calling sustains me. In a February 2019 letter to commanders and command chiefs, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein wrote “Protecting our homeland and our families is nothing short of a sacred duty . . . and it has never been more important than it is today.” Today, challenges are prevalent, as our military contends with a talent retention challenge and our nation seeks to prevail in great-power competition with Russia and China. Should our nation call upon us to field our team, we must be prepared to bring our best — a team composed of all-stars. During my career, I felt nudged and pulled to remain on the team. Today, the feeling that I still have more to give keeps me on our team.

As I reflect on my career, I believe I chose the right path by staying. The people, the opportunity to create meaningful change and the belief that I still have more to give kept me here. As you consider your decision, I urge you to reflect on your commitments and continually search for who you are and who you want to be. If you stay, each of you will continue to have the opportunity to lead. You surely will enrich the lives of others who, in turn, shall enrich your own.

As I close this letter, I am convinced our Airmen deserve leaders like you, our problems need intellects like yours and our future demands vision that each of you possess. Make the best decision you can in accordance with your convictions in all areas of life: faith, family and profession. If you feel so led, I urge you to take the leap of faith and stay for the next chapter.