Ownership over membership in the Air Force

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md -- While preparing to enter a building on Joint Base Andrews, I noticed a gray four-door sedan pull up alongside me. As I approached the vehicle, I heard a fragile voice emanate from an elderly lady asking, "Ma'am, could you please help? My granddaughter just completed a food handler's course and we're looking for someone to return this paperwork to."

I pondered what the lady asked me. I asked if I could see the paperwork to identify any helpful contact information. The worksheet only listed an organizational title. The elderly lady looked to the young girl seated in the passenger seat and introduced her as her granddaughter. I greeted the young girl and then asked if she could wait a few minutes so that I could go inside and enlist the help of someone with access to a computer or base phone book.

I walked into the building where both an Airman first class and senior Airman were kicked back leisurely. I approached the reception counter, with the young girl only a few feet behind me. I explained the situation and asked if either of them knew where this particular organization was located or if they could look up the number for me. Almost in unison, the Airmen casually stated "no" and diverted their attention back to their computers without so much of a, "Sorry I could not be of more assistance. Have a good afternoon."

This behavior, nevertheless, disappointed me to say the least. I proceeded to walk away when, suddenly, I said to myself, "No, not in my Air Force!" Here on Team Andrews, we are professionals and proud to serve. When and if we don't know the right answer, we find it. I turned back to the Airmen and said, "If you are not aware of where this organization is located, the next step would be to look it up on global or phone the base operator."

Outwardly annoyed, the Airman first class typed something into her computer and then snapped, "I can't find it!"

I was determined not to look at the granddaughter and say, "There's nothing I can do to point you in the right direction." I walked down to another office, and was equally disappointed until I asserted myself further and refused to be ignored. This time, I handed the paperwork to a staff sergeant and stated that I needed to help this young girl find where she could return her Food Handler's paperwork as part of a checklist for on-base employment.

Just as easily as I'd thought, the number was readily available on the global. The staff sergeant then phoned the agency where we were able to find a point of contact for the girl.

The staff sergeant walked the girl back outside to her grandmother's vehicle and then proceeded to go the extra mile and personally escort them to the location. I waited for him to return because I wanted to personally thank him. This simple act of courtesy was important, not merely because we were able to successfully provide assistance to someone, but rather because it embodied a servant attitude from Air Force professionals. And yes, as one might guess, I went back and had a very interesting "re-blueing" session with the first two Airmen I encountered.

When approached with the opportunity to author this segment's "From the Top" article, this specific event struck me as particularly valuable.

The other reason it remained permanently etched in my memory is because this was the second time I truly understood the difference between membership and ownership. As active duty, retired, reserve, and guard personnel, we are all members of this great Air Force, however, the day you transition from simply being a member to what it means and how one behaves when they feel ownership, is profoundly different. I can recall having a supervisor earlier on in my career, now a retired E-8, say to me that if I stayed in the Air Force long enough that one day I would feel ownership and that his intent was to groom and shape me accordingly. I didn't really understand what this meant and thought it par for the course as he could be rather philosophical at times.

The first time I recognized I'd made that transition was the day after 9/11 when I witnessed an unfaltering sense of pride and camaraderie among our men and women in uniform that I'd never seen before. I realized then that I cared deeply about the future of the Air Force and that my goal would always be to perfect the grassroots of leadership and build leaders capable of guaranteeing our prominence as the most supreme air power in the world.

The moral of this story is that when you reach the level of ownership, you care about how our Air Force is perceived by those in uniform and our equal partners in the community. This elderly lady and her young granddaughter are not honorary commanders or prominent business owners, they are average, everyday citizens who support our men and women in uniform. To wear this uniform, the stakes are invariably higher. The price of admission is to take pride in what we represent -- our country, our government, our fellow service members and our citizens. I would like to believe that even though we enlist as individuals not reared according to the same cultural or moral compass, that our kinship as comrades-in-arms strengthens our resolve and cements our sense of pride. From our impeccable dress and appearance, tone and quality of our voices, to the way that we walk into a room, there is an undeniable sense of ownership that belongs to our men and women in blue.

The smallest acts of courtesy are key to establishing the most viable and trusted relationships. Moreover, ownership lends itself to attention to detail. It is the little things such as picking up a piece of trash even though you didn't drop it, straightening the mat at the entrance of your building once you've noticed it is crooked, or turning in a suspense on time even though you know you could probably get away with submitting it late.

The uncompromised integrity that I am speaking of motivates you to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do, not because there is any personal benefit derived. Ownership is, indeed, the position and attitude that will relentlessly breed and demand only the very best of those charged with the future of our great Air Force.