Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Defining Moments

A movie that I love that didn't do very well at the theaters is "Tin Cup" with Kevin Costner. In the movie there is a favorite quote of mine that I used to tell my students--that when faced with a "defining moment, and when a defining moment comes along, you define the moment... or the moment defines you."

Quite often, in the military, the ones who do well are the ones that have been presented with defining moments and recognized them--seized them, and took advantage of them to shape their lives. These moments are seared into your mind and live with you forever. They're not always dramatic or momentous occasions--sometimes they are just simple acts that have dramatic impact. Most of the time, for me, anyway, you don't even really recognize them until they have already passed--hopefully when you do see them, you have made the right decisions.

In the summer of my junior year in college ROTC students go to a five week "basic training" course called "field training." This course is designed to shove students that have a basic idea of military life into a high-pressure environment to see who emerges as a leader, and to teach everyone the basic tents of leadership. It is possible to just coast through, as pretty much everyone graduates. But to get what you wanted out of school (in my case, a slot for pilot training) you have to do well.

Before I left my commander, a crusty old Colonel at the end of his career, pulled me aside. He had seen me excelling in The Citadel's military environment but knew that my grades (at the time, a 2.3 GPA) were nowhere close to what would get me a pilot slot. He made me a promise that changed my life forever--"if you get Distinguished Graduate (top 5%) out of field training, I'll cash in whatever chips I have and get you your pilot slot."

Read On...

I never worked harder to prepare for anything more in my life. After school got out I sprinted two miles in the morning, and two at night, every day for two months. I studied everything I could on the rules, history, and conduct of what it meant to be an Air Force officer. Unlike many of my Citadel brethren, who saw field training as a waste of their summer since they had already done this for their entire freshman year, I sucked any pride I had down to prepare to be yelled at by older cadets who had never seen the inside of a military school. And on July 9th, 1992, I stepped off the bus at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas into 105 degree heat and faced the drill instructors and cadet training officers with my head held high.

Chaos reigned in those first few moments. Military Training Instructors normally only get to yell at young high school kids who were lower ranking than they were. We were older, and officer condidates. The MTI's loved this time of year. Cadets passed out left and right due to the heat. Eventually, they coralled us into groups of 20 and formed us into "flights," the quivalent of a platoon in the Air Force. In FT, since it is a leadership training environment, the cadets filled practically all of the leadership positions for 4 days at a time. After the first group, the training officers picked the leaders. Towards the end, the cadets picked them from the ranks. On this first day, though, noone was picked. We stood at attention in our group, with noone in charge. 20 other groups did the same, with everyone just kind of in limbo.

Our first task was to go to the chow hall to get water since so many people were fainting from the heat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the MTI's ripping into the flight next to us. I could literally feel the fear of the majority of my flightmates who had never been in this type of an environment before. The flight next to us started to unilaterally move in the direction of the chow hall, still with noone in charge. The result was a mass gaggle of individuals, which immediately brought the fury of the MTI's down on them. Suddenly an MTI was on us, screaming at the topof his lungs.

"Why are you still here??? Go to the chow hall!! Now!!!" Noone moved. Only one thought went through my mind at that point. We had to get away from this asshole. Right now.

Thus was presented my defining moment. The moment that set in motion the events that led me to where I am now.

I broke ranks and rushed to the front of the group. Since I had been drilling for two years at this point, plus the years prior in the Civil Air Patrol in high school, moving formations was a no-brainer for me. With the MTI screaming in my ear as to who the hell I thought I was jumping in front of the group, "what, do you think you're better? Who put you in charge freak? Get the hell back in formation!!" I shouted as loudly as I could over the mayhem.

"Right face!" The formation turned right. I honestly didn't even know where the chow hall was. I just knew we had to move. It was a 50/50 shot--and I got it right. "Forward march!"

Among 19 other flights moving aimlessly through the parade ground, we marched, somewhat in unison, out of the fray. As we moved past the other flights, they caught a clue and followed suit, eventually falling in behind us. When it was safe, one of my flightmates, who had been here before, quietly nodded in the direction we were going at a building in the distance. "That's the chow hall. Take us over there."

From that point on I was in charge for the first four days. The screaming never stopped, but the flight at least had a direction to move in. Over the next five weeks, several other defining moments arrived that I seized upon, not knowing until after they happened how important they were.

In my closet at home I have a stack of plaques that mean the world to me--the awards that I have won over my not-so-illustrious 11 year career. In that pile is the smallest of the lot--a 6x8 plaque with an eagle on it and my name. At the bottom are inscribed one of my most meaningful achievements in my life:

"Distinguished Gradute."

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