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  • Published
  • By Joe Burns
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Director of Staff
"[W]e...are part of a unique profession that is founded on the premise of service before self. We are not engaged in just another job.... We are entrusted with the security of our nation, the protection of its citizens, and the preservation of its way of life. In this capacity, we serve as guardians of America's future. By its very nature, this responsibility requires us to place the needs of our service and our country before personal concerns.
... Gen Ronald R. Fogleman, CSAF, October 1994 - August 1997

Would you throw yourself on a grenade?
Three of the five most recent recipients of the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq and Afghanistan--US Navy Master at Arms Michael A. Monsoor, US Marine Corps Corporal Jason L. Dunham and US Army Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis--did just that. And in so doing, they forfeited their lives for their teammates and country. Similarly, US Air Force Sergeant John L. Levitow put his life in mortal danger when he threw himself on a burning flare that jeopardized his already-crippled aircraft and crew during the Vietnam War. He too received the Medal of Honor for his selfless sacrifice.

Although you may never face a choice involving a live grenade or flare, the possibility that you could be in a comparable situation may not be as distant as you think. Personnel from across MacDill are routinely serving in places and times where enemy attacks put them and their comrades in mortal danger. Someday, you may have but a nanosecond or two to make a decision pitting your own welfare against mission success and the welfare of your fellow combatants. When time is so scarce, instincts developed through disciplined practice take over.

Could You Put Others Ahead of Your Own Life?
Such self sacrifice is deservedly revered by Americans and is the essence of certain values held dear by our armed services: Selfless-Service (Army), Commitment (Navy, Marine Corps), Service Before Self (Air Force). The profession of arms demands no less, for these values are the proving grounds for the pledges of integrity and honor made by every Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine to do what is right even in the most dire circumstances.

Military forces are not composed of independent, autonomous individuals; they're composed of teams both large and small. Mutual trust is the most decisive ingredient of team success. Without mutual trust borne of mutual integrity and mutual honor, our significant military power cannot be applied as effectively as it must be to achieve our aim of preserving America's security.

Without the brand of self sacrifice demonstrated by Master at Arms Monsoor, Corporal Dunham, Sergeant Levitow and Private First Class McGinnis, more US combatants would have perished on the days they earned their nation's highest military honor, and America's chances for success would have diminished with each additional death.

Is self-sacrifice a part of who you are?
If you have to think too hard, it's not. As General George S. Patton, Jr. told the officers and men of the Second Armored Division on 17 May 1941, "You cannot be disciplined in great things and indiscipline in small things."

If you understand and appreciate the vital importance of sacrificial service to our country, you are no doubt daily accomplishing "small things" in deference to your comrades, your unit and your country before you ever worry about yourself. When America someday needs you for "great things", you should be well-prepared.

If, in contrast, you are one who spends your moments and days absorbed with yourself and how to achieve the things that are important to you, you will not have had enough practice in doing the right thing when America and your wingmen need you most. That's a tragedy of its own that could lead to a wider tragedy for your nation and those you serve with.

Are you molding others to be selfless?
Leaders, mentors and supervisors have a central responsibility in developing those under their influence to continually answer the call to be selfless in the service of our country. Emphasizing your expectations along these lines during formal/informal feedbacks and professional-development counseling is a good start. Rewarding those who exemplify it daily is better yet as is holding "me-first" subordinates accountable for violating it. Best of all and absolutely essential is to live it yourself. If you don't, the rest won't matter.

America is counting on each of you, not for getting that next promotion or your dream job or reaching the top rung of the ladder you're on. She's counting on you for her survival.

Editor's note: Joseph M. Burns was commissioned as an Air Force Second Lt in 1981. He served as an electrical engineer and intelligence officer until his retirement in 2008.