25 February 2011

NCLS: Things I Learned

The past two days here at USAFA, we've had our annual National Character and Leadership Symposium. I had the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of three Medal of Honor recipients, a USAFA grad and A-10 pilot with three Superbowl rings, and a Lost Boy of Sudan who is now a U.S. Olypmian. Here are a few things I learned:
  • Cut a sub in half at an angle; it makes the first bite less awkward. - SSgt. Sal Giunta, Medal of Honor recipient
  • Leaders are readers.
  • There's no criticism for not doing the action for which you would receive a Medal of Honor. - Col (ret) Leo Thorsness, Medal of Honor Recipient, POW for six years
  • Good LT's never send their men to do something; they do it with them. - SSgt Giunta
  • Any day you wake up and there's a door handle on the inside is a good day. - Col Thorsness
  • We weren't created like John Wayne, we were made for community. - Chad Hennings, USAFA 1998, 45 A-10 sorties in Northern Iraq, three Superbowl championships
  • Competition spurs excellence. - SSgt Giunta
  • If you set the bar too low, they will trip over it. - SSgt Giunta
  • It's easier and more cowardly to give a boy an AK-47 and teach him to shoot it than it is to give him paper and pencil and teach him to learn. - Lopez Lomong, Lost Boy of Sudan, U.S. Olympian
  • Education for women and children is most important, everything else will fall into place. - Lomong
I asked SSgt. Giunta, who has been removed from combat operations after receiving the Medal of Honor, if he would rather be back in Afghanistan fighting, or here, talking to people like us. His answer: 
If this is the greater good, if this causes one spark in one cadet's mind, if the people who invited me here to speak think this is more worthwhile, then this. This isn't about me; this is about us.
 As Henry David Thoreau said: "Heroes are often the most ordinary of men." SSgt. Giunta is an ordinary man, and a great hero - and so are his buddies who fought and died alongside him.

16 February 2011

I used to...

I used to think she didn't like me.
Then someone told me how her face brightened when she mentioned me.

I used to think "You take me breath away" was just something people sang in songs.
Then she took my breath away.

I used to think shooting stars were rare but cool.
Then we laid on our backs and watched a dozen of them shoot across the sky.

I used to never write poems.
Then lines about her started flowing, and I couldn't keep them in.

I used to skip over love songs when they started playing.
Then every love song started reminding me of her, and brought a smile to my face.

I used to think "Distance makes the heart grow fonder" was a silly cliché.
Then she left the country for six months, and I found out it's true.

11 February 2011

Book Review: Where Men Win Glory

When my dad told me Where Men Win Glory was about how the Army covered up the details of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire, I was a little turned off. But Jon Krakauer wrote the book, so I figured it had to be good.

And it was - very good. Krakauer's book is about much more than an Army cover-up; it's a book about an outstanding American who walked away from a life of comfort with a beautiful wife and a great salary to become an Army Ranger.

But Pat Tillman was more than a football player and an Army grunt; he was a philosopher who wasn't afraid to speak his mind, or write it in his journal. Pat's writings were some of the greatest parts of the book:
Sometimes my need to love hurts - myself, my family, my cause. Is there a cure? Of course. But I refuse to stop loving, to stop caring. To avoid those tears, that pain...
But of course, Krakauer is also a great writer, and he does a great job of superimposing events in Afghanistan and Iraq with Pat's career, two narratives on an unpredictable collision course. And after the collision has occurred, Krakauer pulls no punches, criticizing high-profile leaders in the Army and in civilian life for their deception of Pat's family and the public. Most of these leaders, Krakauer wryly notes, got promoted during the cover-up. So much for integrity in leadership.

The strength of Pat's character is an inspiration, and the reaction of Army senior leadership to the disastrous news of his death is a good lesson in what not to do.

Sometimes, the truth hurts. I can't imagine what it would feel like to tell Pat Tillman's little brother, as he pulled up in a Humvee once the ambush was over, that his brother was dead on a stretcher, killed by bullets from his own teammates. But if I was that little brother, I would want to know the truth, and I would hope the men around me could tell me, even if they had to take my weapon first.

Tillman's alpha male personality may be regarded by some to be his tragic flaw - his bravado led him out of comfort and into death. But Tillman died trying to save the life of one of his buddies from the bullets of some other buddies. Where Men Win Glory concludes with this line:
It wasn't a tragic flaw that brought Tillman down, but a tragic virtue.
If only more men possessed such virtue.

John Wayne was Wrong

John Wayne once said, "Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness." (As Captain Nathan Brittles, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)

But sometimes, an apology is a sign of strength.

One of the firsties (seniors) in my squad kind of screwed up. I approached him about it, and he fixed it immediately. But then I realized he had screwed up more than either of us had thought, so I told him about that, taking with me the handbook which showed how it was supposed to be done. He listened to me and saw the handbook, but ignored both. As a firstie, he thought he knew better than a two degree (junior) - after all, that's how it was always done. He said he'd "talk to somebody," which meant he'd tried to find someone with more authority than me to back him up. But the handbook has the authority, and everyone above me backs it up. I was ticked. I had shown him the right way to do it, but he simply refused to listen.

So he talked to that someone and found out that he was wrong. And then he came back and apologized to me, said he realized he had become the firstie he'd never wanted to be - the one who pulls rank and refuses to listen to two degrees. He thanked me for confronting him and apologized for being a jerk about it.

That's not an easy conversation to have. Personally, it's always tough for me to admit that I'm wrong, especially to a subordinate. It's a mark of his character that he was willing to admit his error and apologize for his attitude.

So I learned something about leadership today: apologies aren't always a sign of weakness.

05 February 2011

Book Review: Too Small to Ignore

How does a kid who spent nine months a year being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused at a "Christian Academy" in Africa become the world's greatest advocate for poor children?

By the grace of God, he'll tell you. Dr. Wess Stafford was a missionary kid in Africa growing up, and he was the kid who eventually stood up for his friends and classmates at his school and eventually rescued them from the abuse. Today, he is the President and CEO of Compassion International, a non-profit dedicated to releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name. Today, Compassion helps more than 1 million children in 26 countries.

Dr. Stafford's book, Too Small to Ignore, is riveting and passionate. His stories of growing up in rural Africa - when he wasn't at school - offer great lessons for Western parents. In the small village of Nielle, children were part of the community. They participated in the work, learned from the old, and were parented by everyone. They mattered, not just to their parents, but to the whole community.

Some quotes from the book:
Kids want more than entertainment; they want the chance to make a difference. They are itching to get out of the pigeonhole into which we have shoved them.
When the poor and the wealthy get together, each ends up meeting the desperate needs of the other. Too often Satan achieves his wicked agenda by keeping them apart - geographically and philosophically. The result is that one tends to die in need, the other in greed. 
Jesus never admonished children to become more grown-up. He did, however, exhort grownups to become more like children.
Children matter in God's Kingdom, and Too Small to Ignore is a great way to learn how to make them matter in your life.

01 February 2011

The Cremation of Sam McGee

Robert William Service
1907

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.