This was a reunion weekend for a group of aging warriors. They are men who took their aircraft deep into harms way and returned. I am honored and humbled to be in their midst and to remember those who were not as fortunate as us.
During the annual business meeting the topic turned to how to invigorate the group with the generations that followed behind us. That seems to be a very real question, I don’t know if it indicative of todays Air Force, but we seem to be separated by time and space from those who fly the Chariot of Armageddon carrying US Special Forces into and home from todays conflict. The question becomes how to bridge that gap. It is a question we struggle with; without a good answer.
We sat drinking a beverage or two as the sun set on the Emerald coast. I chatted with Frank, a navigator like me, Banzi was there, as was Kevin and Brooks who talked about what they were doing these days, T.J. was as loud and boisterous as ever, and Papasan kept everything organized. I left early to get ready for an overdue vacation in the Northeast, but I suspect they carried on for a fair time past my departure.
The next morning we met at a flying squadron on base for a series of briefings. I was honored to brief them on the AFSOC Commander's vision for how future forces would be positioned around the world to support the Combatant Commanders as they implement their parts of the National Strategy. I talked with them about the toll this long war has taken, how our men and woman are stretched thin, and are asked to make sacrifices few can appreciate. How the stress on our force manifests itself every day with the return of the wounded from far distant lands.
Each day I read the morning brief given to the Chief of Staff for the US Air Force. Each day there are reports of airman who can no longer stand the pain, lose the will to fight or carry on, are swallowed by the feelings of hopelessness, or are in other ways tormented by the images of this long war to the point they choose to end their lives. Our challenge is to seek them out, to see their pain before it turns to self-destruction. That is the challenge that our Generals now must face if we are to keep our armed forces combat ready. The tools we use in combat are nothing without the human spirit that guides them. Our Generals now realize we can no longer ignore the human impacts of conflict, we must find a way to heal our force and it doesn’t just mean more time off, more pay, or more medals. We have to find a way to guide our men and woman toward healing, because we cannot afford to do otherwise.
Sitting before me these men and their wives know the pain of loss and the stress of separation and carry many of the same scares, I wonder how we could draw some of their strength to teach our young how they endured and what gives them the strength to carry on? How do we bring the young into our little band of comrades so they may vent, share, and perhaps heal?
As these thoughts spin in my head, I continue on to talk about the next generation of aircraft and how they will continue the legacy these men established as quiet professionals, who are the first ones sent when the nation calls. These are the men who have flown to places like the SonTay prisoner of war camp in North Viet Nam, the Desert in Iran, they were the first to airdrop Army Rangers on the Island of Granada, they were the first into Panama, they took the Green Berets into Afghanistan after 9/11, and a hundred other places you have never heard of.
Overall, it was a good weekend.