Airmen: Are you taking care of them?

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Many years ago I was just starting out as a young flight chief and senior NCO. I had traveled back east to attend the Maintenance Production Superintendent Course and was headed back home.  After I dropped off my rental car I hopped on the bus that would take me back to the terminal.  It is this exact moment in time how I viewed our Airmen changed forever.

As I boarded the bus a gentleman in the far back corner struck up a conversation with me. (I was in uniform)  He said, "Air Force, hey my son leaves for basic training tomorrow."  So I began to talk with him and he said something to me that really struck a chord, he said, "I am glad he went into the Air Force instead of going off to college, as I know the Air Force will take care of him."  It was at that very moment in time, the hair stoodup on the back of my neck.

Many people will tell you that leading and parenting go hand in hand. I tend to agree to some extent, however, I will say that if you have a teenager in the house you may tend to understand that generation a little bit better than others.  My son had just turned 18 and was getting ready to head off to his fathers beloved Boise State University.  We were quite anxious for him as he was leaving home and we weren't really sure as parents just how prepared we had gotten him...either way he was leaving.

My wife and I had many conversations that my son never knew took place.  Can he do laundry, can he cook, does he know how to pay his bills online, does he know how to access his checking account, does he know how to buy groceries and the list just goes on and on.  So you see it is because of this that when the gentleman stated he knew we would take care of his son that I immediately began to worry.  Will we? Are we?  In my Flight, the answer was no, I didn't feel that we were doing enough.

Upon my return I immediately changed how we operated.  We were averaging three to four new Airmen every month.  We established a checklist that covered everything from how to pay your bills online to how to do laundry. If they didn't have a car we made sure that they got everywhere they needed to go. In fact, to steal a term from the Navy, it was all hands on deck.  What we had discovered was shocking.

The reality was this, far more of our Airmen than we thought were barely getting by.  One Airman explained to us that she slept in her dorm room for three nights with no sheets, blankets or pillows.  She arrived on a Friday that just happened to be during a four-day weekend.  Her sponsor picked her up and dropped her off at the dorm and left her with the "call me if you need anything" statement.  As far as she was concerned, this was normal.  This situation should never be normal.

We also started another process, when Airmen under the age of 21 processed through my office, I got their parents phone numbers and addresses.  Each one them received a call and a letter from me, so that they knew who I was and they knew how to contact me in the event of an emergency.  As it turns out, in the span of two years I was contacted at least 50 times.  Parents were eternally grateful to have an avenue to reach out to when Airman Doe doesn't answer his phone for days on end.

This ultimately would pay off in more ways than you can possibly imagine.  We had taken a vested interest in our Airmen's lives.  We had established a mantra from day one that we truly did care about them and looking out for them was of top priority.  It showed in everything from morale to work because as it turns out, happy Airmen are amazing Airmen.  We also really changed how we were viewed in the former homes of these Airmen. I can't tell you how many times I had a parent call just to say thank you.

I would like to challenge any and all of you who are in a position of leadership.  From immediate supervisors and up, are you doing everything you can to ensure those Airmen who have been entrusted to you are taken care of?  If at any point one of those Airmen's parents were to call you, could you confidently say you are taking care of them?  I think we would all like to answer yes to that question and I think we all are to some extent, however, there may be room to do even better.  I can tell you this, there is no greater feeling in the world than having a parent call you just to say "Thank you."