Lorenz on Leadership: Ordinary people becoming extraordinary Airmen

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
During my 37 years in the Air Force I have served with many great Airmen. Recently, the Air Force announced the retirement of five of our very best: Gens. Howie Chandler, Kevin Chilton and Roger Brady as well as Chief Master Sgts. Pam Derrow and Rob Tappana.

Each one of these Airmen has selflessly served our nation in positions of great responsibility over many long years -- in fact, together they total over 173 years of uniformed service.

These senior Airmen are leaders of the rarest form. Each ascended to the highest officer or enlisted rank in the Air Force, demonstrating a combination of exemplary character, personal intellect, exceptional work ethic and an unwavering commitment to our nation.

They began their lives in very different places and under very different circumstances, but they have one thing in common: They exemplify how our Air Force affords ordinary people the opportunity to do extraordinary things.

General Chandler grew up in Missouri. He is the son of two hard-working parents. His mom invested her life as a housewife caring for and raising him. His dad spent his entire career in radio and television broadcasting as a writer and producer.

As the future general approached high school graduation, he chose to apply to only one college, believing strongly that he was destined to fly. He was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. Four years later he was commissioned and began his rise among the fighter community. To date, he has completed more than 3,900 flying hours, predominately in advanced fighter platforms.

General Chilton spent his early years in Los Angeles, Calif. His father served in the Navy during World War II, then spent a lengthy career as a program manager with McDonnell-Douglas.

When this future combatant commander was just 12 years old, he experienced the exuberance of viewing a cockpit for the first time and putting his hands on the controls of an airplane. Although it was a small private airplane, he was fascinated by his surroundings. In fact, at one point in the flight he turned to the pilot and asked, "Do you get paid to do this?"

That flight was the beginning of his passion for aviation. In 1976, he graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in engineering, then spent the early years of his military career flying fighter aircraft. He attended Air Force Test Pilot School and later, as an astronaut, piloted two space shuttle flights and commanded one.

General Brady grew up on an Oklahoma farm that his grandfather homesteaded in 1889. He is the son of two school teachers; his father also served in the Navy during World War II. As a young boy this future Air Force leader was given big responsibility in helping run the family business. His after-school chores often involved rounding up cattle in the evening while his dad and brother spent time at football practice.

In 1964 he received an athletic scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Four years later he graduated, was commissioned and given the opportunity to complete his master's degree. After a few years as an officer in the intelligence community and serving in Vietnam, he became a pilot.

Chief Derrow was the second of six children and grew up in Indiana. Her mother was fully employed raising the six children, and her father was a factory worker. The future chief was working in a bank after graduating from high school when she and a friend decided to join the Air Force together on the buddy system.

After just the second week of basic military training her friend left, but she persevered. She entered the Air Force in 1980 and spent her early career gaining expertise in a variety of communications assignments.

An NCO Academy distinguished graduate, she earned numerous accolades during her years of service including being named MacDill's Federal Woman of the Year in 1996. A leader of Airmen, she served as commandant of the Air Force Senior NCO Academy and as a command chief for nearly five years, culminating her career as the enlisted leader of a major command.

Chief Tappana was raised in the great state of Alaska. Early in life he developed a passion for outdoor activities. His inquisitive nature drew him to adventures as a hunter, fisherman and explorer. His mom managed a doctor's office and his dad was a school teacher. Each of them encouraged him to act on conviction and explore his surroundings.

He entered the Air Force after visiting a recruiter on a quest to see the world. He enlisted in 1979 and spent his early career as a traffic management specialist. He received countless honors and distinguished graduate recognitions throughout his career. Additionally, he spent nearly one-third of his career as a command chief. He was the senior enlisted leader for three wings, a numbered air force and a major command.

Many may know these professional Airmen by their duties and rank. But remember -- they, too, were once young adults with a drive to serve and an unconquerable zeal for life, much like the young Airmen who make up the bulk of our force today. Anyone who knows these "ordinary Airmen" understands one principle is central to their lives -- our service's core values.

I have personally witnessed each one of these Airmen advocate and fight for what they believed was right for the defense of this great nation and for our Airmen and their families. They also each demonstrate skillful balance in their lives because they are guided by their faith, love for family and true belief in the principles of freedom. Each leaves behind a legacy of public service, humble stewardship and determined leadership.

While it is difficult to know how they, or any of us, will be remembered in the future, one thing is certain -- we each have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others, to prepare and posture our Air Force for the challenges ahead, and to serve in awe of the wonderful nation we are sworn to protect.