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You earned ‘em, wear ‘em!

  • Published
  • By Col. Rob Rocco
  • 6th Medical Group commander
Earlier this month, the Base hosted an American patriot. Born and raised in the great state of New Jersey, he served his country in World War II, retired from the service in 1969 and went on to a second career as a civil servant. Retired Tech. Sgt. George Watson is one of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen.

If you missed meeting Watson, you missed out. Watson spent two days touring MacDill, visiting with units across the base and spoke to a packed house at the base theater--to include senior leaders from the Wing and other commands within Team MacDill. While many of today's leaders sometimes wonder if our message of pride and resiliency is reaching all of our warriors, we need only look to Watson. Even at 92 years old, his message resonated with officers, noncommissioned officers and Airmen alike; his passion for life continues to burn bright.

It was exciting to see a 19-years-old airman beaming with pride when Watson agreed to have a picture taken with her. I enjoyed seeing the framed photo of Watson and one of my Airmen. Taken only minutes before, the photo was printed, framed and displayed in his office before Watson even left the clinic. Both mementos and many others are now cherished bridges between generations of whose sacrifice helped pave the way for the very freedom that today's Airmen continue to work so hard to preserve.

After hearing Watson's stories, I wondered how I might share the lessons he learned as a pioneer in American aviation and relate them to the unit I currently command. Later that day, I got my chance. I was conducting a routine walk-through of my clinic when I noticed a great number of Airmen (my staff and customers) who had elected to take the "wearing of the corps badge on your uniform is optional" Air Force instruction reference literally and forego wearing this basic symbol of functional pride.

How ironic that earlier that day, surrounded by adoring Airmen of all ranks and functional specialties, Watson, wearing many of his badges, shared his story and Airmen were fascinated by his every word. He shared that to become a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, he and his fellow warriors in training suffered humiliation, segregation, discrimination and seclusion, because of the color of their skin. To graduate, they were held to higher, unfair standards. He shared that despite playing against odds clearly stacked against them, this brave team of Americans elected to persevere and fight not only racial bigotry, but fight for their country that actually condoned this behavior. Why did they do it? "We wanted those wings," said Watson. "We wanted people to know we were the best flying unit out there!"

Seeing my Airmen teammates from around the base without their corps badges made me wonder how Watson might respond if he found out that the uniform badges and symbols he and his colleagues worked so hard to earn in the 1930s and 1940s, were routinely dismissed by many of us today. I shared this thought with my Airmen that week and challenged them to look to our core values as a reminder that "Excellence in all we do" means appreciating the sacrifice of Airmen generations past and honoring them today, by proudly wearing our uniforms and the badges we have earned. By appreciating the simple pride that a well-turned-out uniform brings to those who we defend--families, neighbors and friends--we not only provide them hope for a better tomorrow, we remind ourselves of the importance of being a professionally turned-out airman.

During my career, I have had the great privilege to meet a number of Americans who served in some of the most decorated and celebrated units in American military history. All had in common, in their civilian attire, badges and ribbons earned while serving. The way I see it, if they think it's important to wear them now--68 years after World War II--then it should be good enough for us to wear in honor of them.