An American Airman: A Reflection on 30 Years Service

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Last Friday, 23 Jun 2017, was the completion of my career as a United States Airman, and the begining of the next chapter in my life. Although it’s usually “farewell,” I know it’s really a hui hou , a Hawaiian phrase that means “until we meet again.” Our circles don’t break because we have a change in uniform; for that I’m grateful. It’s been an incredible 30 years in the Air Force!

For God and Country

I entered military service in 1987 in the waning years of the Cold War. Of course we didn’t know then that our enemy would collapse in four short years. The Soviet war machine very much threatened our security and the security of our allies. We all expected the Cold War to continue indefinitely, and I believed then as I do now that I was both serving God and my country by defending freedom as an Airman. I certainly didn’t foresee the end of that conflict and the beginning of nearly three decades of small wars and big wars. Who would’ve thought our Air Force would’ve gone to war in 1991 and not ceased combat operations since?

I joined for many reasons: to defend my country, to seek adventure and travel, and to grow professionally. It was a calling, and all I wanted to do since I was old enough to think about it. The Air Force has supplied all those opportunities and so much more. I’ve loved being an Airman—being a warrior, building things, solving problems.

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with some amazing people and seen incredible things. These are the people who don’t make headlines, but carry on the business of the Air Force selflessly and courageously. I’ve seen exterior linemen dash under 13,000 volt high power lines in an Arizona monsoon to shut down an arcing substation. An Airman under my command stepped on a mine in Afghanistan and had the presence of mind to fall on the hole as to not endanger his buddies from other mines. There have been civil servants who tirelessly worked to keep ancient infrastructure operational, and put in horrendous hours when the Airmen deployed. Nighttime calls, fatal vehicle accidents, range and forest fires, Christmas snow removal, deployments to the Middle East and travel around Europe and the Pacific Rim. I’ve had the incredible good fortune to see places and meet people I read about in National Geographic growing up. I’m so grateful.

Decades of Transformation

These past few years have been difficult–transformation, budget cuts, and the like. I certainly would never have believed we’d still be flying aircraft designed and built before I was born. In 1987, I would never have guessed that the Airmen I serve with every day would never know anything other than constant deployment and combat. And amid constant combat operations for nearly three decades, we’ve reduced the size of our Air Force, our budgets, and our fleet. It’s tempting to quote Sir Winston Churchill, “Never in the field of human conflict, have so many owed so much to so few.” Not just Airmen deployed of course—our joint teammates have all done their part and should be justifiably proud—but I’m an American Airman and so I speak only about my fellow men and women in Air Force blue today.

There is considerable uncertainty today in many Air Force specialties, and my own Civil Engineer specialty is not immune. I am always optimistic, however. We transformed after WWII when we built what we now call the “Engineering Enterprise” from scratch and found our way in our new blue uniforms. We transformed again after Korea when we learned SCARWAF didn’t work and we needed our own engineering units. We transformed after Lebanon in ’56 when we invented Prime BEEF and deployed them a few years later to Southeast Asia. Then came our own heavy engineering units–RED HORSE–and Viet Nam. The Gulf War was the culmination of our transformation during the Cold War, and the endless rotations to the Middle East began our journey as an expeditionary Air Force.

Today it’s expeditionary ops in Africa, terrorists and rotational deterrence in Europe, and maneuvering for deterrence and counter-insurgency warfare in the Pacific. We need more transformational thinking as we undertake the most fundamental reorganization of the Air Force since we went from “groups to wings”.  We need you, my now-former wingmen. And we need more like you. Grow your replacements, and continue to lead from the front as you have done since the day you took the oath.

Think Below Your Badge

For all Airmen, I challenge you to “think below your badge.” As we transform, duty titles may be different, office symbols change, and the like, but the “U.S. Air Force” tape has never meant more than it does at this moment in history. What you do now is vital to the success of our Republic. Without a strong and capable Air Force we would cede the high ground of air, space, and cyber to those who would do us harm. That we have remained the best Air Force on the planet in spite of decades combat operations and transformation is a testament to your ingenuity and your courage. I continue to have great confidence in you—daily you demonstrate why you are the best Air Force on the planet. Daily you demonstrate your courage, devotion to duty, and unparalleled skill. I the words of a great Air Force leader of the past: “You can go anywhere on the planet and either look at it, feed it, or kill it.” Airmen, you are magnificent!

As I pass the guidon to the next generation, know that serving alongside the men and women of our Air Force has been the greatest honor of my life.

A hui hou!


Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.

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”But Young Men Think It Is… ”

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There’s a famous poem by World War I poet-soldier A.E. Housman entitled Here Dead We Lie that speaks to me about the cost of war, and the courage of the men and women who fight them. When ever I’ve visited a military cemetery or seen a soldier’s grave at a civilian cemetery, I often think of Housman’s poem.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

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The words are melancholy, and remind us that although sometimes we have to fight there’s always a terrible cost. We do our best work as soldiers when we keep the peace.

This Memorial Day, my hope is that each of us will pause and reflect on the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who’ve laid their lives down to defend our country, to liberate the oppressed, and to confront aggressors. If you know a Gold Star Family, please seek them out and thank them for their loved ones’ service. Don’t forget to thank them for their continued service as they bear the burden of a family member absent from their lives. If you’re so inclined, I’d also ask you to consider donating to a local veteran’s memorial fund.