Sometimes I feel sorry for my poor Editor because I know that I frustrate him. He has a mental abnormality where it causes him to like my writing. Poor guy. And his main frustration comes from the fact that I have to really be emotionally involved in a topic to write about it, which means I have these really long dry spells. I’m talking months here. In the meantime, I’m sending him stupid memes and he’s twiddling his thumbs waiting for something to fire me off. He’s really patient though and always makes the article better.
Anyway, we happened to be chatting about my most recent effort entitled, “Why Many of Our Troops will Needlessly Die in the Next All-Out War,” when I went off on a related topic. Afterward, I asked the question, “Did I just start a follow-on article?” to which he replied with a smiley face emoji. I’m pretty sure he baited me. NCO Rule #1. Never trust an officer or former officer. I feel so violated and used. But hey, it’s not the first time and won’t be the last.
One of the statements he made to me was this: “During my time I remember asking my NCOs at what point do we stop holding the hands of Soldiers? When they make E-5 and magically are able to take responsibility and be responsible for others?”
This concept of hand-holding relates back to my last article, and I would suggest that you read it first before continuing. And at this point, I would like to add a caveat. My comments here mainly relate to the Air Force, and I’m saying that because I didn’t spend any time in the other branches. I will leave it to those in the Army, Navy, and Marines to decide if my comments apply there as well. So here goes…
The Air Force says they want to have resilient troops. Mostly this is in reaction to the high suicide rate. It’s terrible and wanting to reduce suicides is admirable and critical. But in typical Air Force fashion, they resort to training to fix a problem, and truthfully the other branches probably do the same thing. Creating a training course to fix a problem is the easy way out. It’s a way to show a positive action against a problem without putting a huge effort behind it or making huge changes. But ask professional training people how often these band-aids work, and the answer will be something along the lines of “rarely.”
Resilience: One dictionary defines it as, “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
Toughness. The Air Force needs tough people, as do the other branches, especially if we get into an all-out war like World War II with an adversary like China. But is the Air Force of today creating tough Airmen?
Let’s start with Air Force Basic Military Training. Does it create toughness? I can tell you that BMT in 1980 wasn’t tough and didn’t create toughness. It schooled you in military life and got you to a basic level of fitness. But it didn’t create tough people, it created technicians. Please note that there are exceptions in the Air Force, such as Pararescue and Tactical Air Controllers, but most everyone else is a technician. I don’t know what BMT was like in 1947 but my dad went through in 1954 and it wasn’t appreciably different from my experience. And from what I hear, things are about the same for the current E-1s. Again, I won’t mention the other branches, but I have heard stories about how things have become softer.
Often I will share with current Air Force folks how I used to deal with certain infractions and the standard response is, “Wow that’s great, but if you did that today you would get written up and eventually kicked out!” Here’s an example:
When I was teaching aircraft maintenance to students at Sheppard AFB in North Texas we would warn them not to do certain things, often because of the associated danger. Aircraft maintenance is one of the most dangerous jobs out there and airplanes have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to kill or maim you in a heartbeat. One of the things we used to do was take students up on the wings of a B-52. We always told them not to walk down the fuselage because it was too easy to fall. And for sure not to walk down and jump onto the horizontal tail, because you can’t get back up to the fuselage due to the height and angle.
One summer afternoon we were out at the BUFF and the temp was well above 100 degrees and I hear someone calling my name from the back of the plane. All the students follow me back and I see two of my students up on the tail. I asked them what was wrong, and they recounted what they had done and that they couldn’t get back up. I asked them if they remembered my warning about going back there and they recited it word for word. I then told them that we were leaving on break and would be back in 15 minutes. Their mouths dropped open, but they said nothing. I should also mention that this aircraft still wore its Vietnam-era paint which included lots of dark green and black.
When we returned, they had their shirts and t-shirts off trying to stay cool. We got a large maintenance stand and got them down. Then I asked them what might have happened if they were on a large base in a tropical climate and nobody knew they were stuck on the tail. They could have died very quickly from heatstroke or died from falling off the fuselage. They got the message and learned a lesson, even though it was tough.
Whenever I tell this story to current Air Force people, they love it and see it as a great way to discipline and provide practical lessons. But they also follow up with, “We couldn’t do that today. There would be complaints of being harsh and insensitive and we would be counseled and made to apologize”. Yeah. I’m positive the Chinese will be sensitive to their emotional needs as well. And exactly how does this sort of action make resilient troops? Every time their feelings get hurt someone apologizes to them. This just enables them to be unresilient.
When we cater to their every need, hold their hands, and give them a shoulder to cry on, we are not making them more resilient. Period! And yet that’s the current mantra of the Air Force. One reason for this sad state of affairs is that commanders live in fear of getting a Congressional Inquiry because Airman X-Box complained to his mommy that some sergeant was mean to him and made him pick up his messes. And mommy contacted her Congressperson and probably inflated the story even more than little Bobby did when he went whining to mommy in the first place.
In reality, Bobby’s mom created an unresilient kid by doing his laundry for him every day of his life, cleaning his room for him, never making him accountable for his actions, and always bailing him out when he messed up. Regardless of how bad a parent Mrs. X-Box was, it still remains that the military should be able to toughen Bobby up so that he doesn’t fall to pieces when Sergeant Meanie tells him to sweep the floor and clean up the Froot Loops he spilled in the breakroom.
Here’s another bad facet to catering to whining.
In early 2003 we were deployed for Iraqi Freedom and things were really heating up. We were working 14 hour days and we had been told to take our gas masks everywhere because Saddam had weaponized smallpox. Everyone who didn’t have a scar had to get the smallpox vaccination and we had also been told that Saddam had put a $10,000 dead or alive bounty on everyone on the base. We were also in SCUD missile range, so they evacuated all the dependents and civilian personnel.
Then one day this kid, E-4 I think, came up to me and complained that he hadn’t signed up to go to war to get killed and that he had only joined for the college benefit. We were right in the middle of getting aircraft ready to go and things were crazy. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Why do you think you have been wearing a camouflaged uniform since the day you joined? Did you think it was a fashion statement to pick up chicks? No, it’s so the bad guys can’t easily see you to shoot you. Now one thing I know for sure, we have a lot of work to do right now and if you don’t get your act together and start doing your part, then all these other guys are going to have to do their jobs and yours. And do you want to have to deal with them afterward? (He shook his head no) Okay then suck it up, get back to work and do the job you were trained to do. We have a lot to do to get these birds in the air before we can have chow.” He immediately went to work and did fine for the rest of the deployment.
So what’s the lesson here? Well, if you give them a shoulder to cry on and send them to the Chaplain you just reinforce that they have a reason to be afraid. You enable their softness and don’t help them to toughen up, to become resilient. Did I keep an eye on this young airman? Of course, I did and he was fine. I had another one who decided he didn’t have to help out because he was special because his dad was in the unit and he didn’t have to do what I said. I told him if he didn’t get up right then and get to work then I was calling the SkyCops to come arrest him on insubordination charges and then we could see who the Base Commander believed, an A1C or a Master Sergeant. He got up and started working.
Now I’m sure some have already labeled me as a General George Patton who slaps around shell-shocked troops in hospital wards but that’s simply not the case. I’m very compassionate when the circumstances dictate and will bend over backward to help someone. But I hear too many moms and dads just say they can’t discipline their children because they love them too much and they don’t want to hurt their self-esteem. Fine. But you’re raising kids to not be resilient and they are offing themselves in record numbers.
Here’s something else to think about for those of you that have served or are serving. What kind of Officer or NCO do people often remember most fondly? The phrase I often hear is, “I appreciated Sergeant Jones because he was tough but fair. He expected a lot out of us, but he also helped us succeed and he looked out for us.” I’ve never heard anyone hold a wimpy Officer or NCO in high regard. They are always the target of derision.
Why do you suppose that we all love the tough but fair ones? Because they knew we could be better and rise above our current level of performance. They showed confidence in us by challenging us to adapt and overcome. The hand-holders just give sympathy and reinforce that you are doing the best you can, which isn’t that great.
So all of this effort to make sure everyone feels included, and special, and is never offended, is not creating resilience, it’s creating weakness. And it’s making the Air Force weak.
I’ll close with one story from Air Force training that I have no reason to disbelieve considering the source. I don’t remember where I read it, maybe in a book about Jimmy Stewart. But I think it was new pilots reporting to Randolph Field in WWII and they had to march from the train station to the base. The instructors carried .45s and were getting tired of people slacking off on the pace. They singled out one young cadet and kept yelling at him to pick it up. Finally, in frustration one of the instructors pulled his sidearm and shot the cadet and he fell into the ditch. The rest of the students almost ran to the base but when they arrived the “shot” student was standing with the welcoming party with a big grin on his face.
Am I suggesting that we do this today? Of course not. It would traumatize the Call of Duty Grand Theft Auto generation. But therein lies the problem. Even lesser things will traumatize them. And what’s going to happen to them if we keep having group hugs and then get into an all-out war?
What’s the answer then? It’s pretty simple. The military needs to get back to being the military and not a social experiment, but that’s going to take Generals and a Sec Def who say enough is enough, and resigning if Congress and the President don’t want to listen.
The defense of our nation depends on it.
Dave holds a Master of Aeronautical Science in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently works for Code1 Maintenance helping military aircraft mechanics get their FAA A&P licenses. He is also a retired CMSgt, having served 4 years on active duty in the USAF and another 34 years in the Air National Guard. Dave has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his nearly 40 years of civilian and military aviation. experience.