Lorenz on Leadership -- Sustaining a wingman culture

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
On April 20, a 22-year-old man with a history of violence walked into a bookstore in Wichita Falls, Texas, and started shooting. He wounded four women, then drove to a bar and killed an employee outside before he drove home and took his own life.

This tragedy sounds like so many we hear about on the news each and every night. We've almost become desensitized to the horror and emotional aftermath, but this type of violence is something we cannot ignore - especially this event in Wichita Falls. You see, this time it wasn't just a news headline. It was an event that touched our Air Force family directly.

Wichita Falls is home to Sheppard AFB and much of our Air Force's technical training. This particular bookstore offers a quiet environment that provides a peaceful and relaxing place to browse bestsellers ... and for some of the Airmen going through training, a quiet place to do some evening studying. On that April night, three staff sergeants sat in that very store reviewing study materials for an exam the next morning. Two were former security forces members and the third a former F-16 crew chief. They were all on temporary duty to Sheppard to cross-train into the medical field. These Airmen were three of our best, and competed against thousands just for the chance to transition into Aerospace Medicine. That evening, the silence of their exam preparation was shattered by a man with a shotgun who barged into the bookstore yelling derogatory racial remarks.

His remarks shocked them, and the shooting that followed terrified everyone. They scattered and tried to protect themselves. It happened quickly, although the moment would be frozen forever in their minds. As suddenly as it began, the gunman was gone. The bookstore's peaceful silence, however, would not return. Four people had been shot and two of them were Jade Henderson and Deondra Sauls, our staff sergeants. Police and emergency medical personnel were on the scene within minutes. Both sergeants were transported to a local emergency room, and later to Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital for care. Thankfully, although their wounds were severe, Jade and Deondra will recover and return to training.

This is where the story ends for the local news media, but there are actually many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy. Although not wounded in the shooting, the third Airman, Staff Sgt. Tanya "Taye" Jesser, avoided the gunfire by hiding under a desk near the shooter's feet. She watched his car drive away and yelled to the other victims that the gunman was gone. She was one of those who had the presence of mind to call 9-1-1, provide a description of the gunman and request ambulances for the wounded.

Sergeant Jesser then followed the screams to different parts of the bookstore and provided care. She directed first responders to the wounded while applying pressure to slow the bleeding from one of her fellow Airmen. After emergency medical personnel were caring for the wounded, she contacted family members, reassuring them that all would be all right. Sergeant Jesser called a fellow student not at the scene and asked for help contacting Sheppard AFB, the security forces and her first sergeant. After filing her report with the authorities, she gathered the personal belongings of her classmates and traveled to the local emergency room.

Sergeant Jesser didn't get back to her room that evening until almost 3 a.m. She woke before the sun and was in class on time at 7:15 a.m. Despite her lack of sleep and all that she had just been through, she took the exam as scheduled. Sergeant Jesser scored a 94 percent on the test.

The next day I flew up to Dallas to see our injured staff sergeants at Parkland Memorial Hospital. I wanted to make sure they understood the Air Force family stood with them. Although Sergeant Henderson was in surgery, I was able to see Sergeant Sauls. I asked her if there was anything that I could do - whether it was help notify friends, get family members situated nearby, or even assist with medical issues.

Sergeant Sauls looked me square in the eyes and said, "Sir, don't let them take my training slot. I don't want to lose it." I was really touched. With everything that she'd been through, Sergeant Sauls was most concerned about her future in the Air Force.

These three Airmen were among the many heroes of the evening. Jade and Deondra were worried about their classmates and their ability to complete training. Taye acted with a determined professionalism that facilitated immediate care and added stability to a horrific tragedy. When we talk about a wingman culture, these three Airmen personify such an ideal. They were concerned for others; they were selfless.

The lives of many were forever changed that evening. It's not only the individuals who were directly attacked - it's their friends and families too. In this disaster, it doesn't stop with the wounded. You see, the shooter also killed one individual that evening - even more tragic for his family and friends. The man killed was an Army veteran and the son of one of our civilian employees at Sheppard AFB. Witnesses that evening said that his actions may have saved the lives of others. He had his whole life ahead of him ...

No matter how hard we try to avoid or prevent it, this type of violence can occur at any time in almost any location. We must all do what we can to stay aware of how our family members and friends are doing. Look for times when they need a little more support or encouragement. Be there for them - even when they don't think they need you. There are many heroes at Sheppard AFB and the surrounding community currently supporting those affected by this tragedy. Being a good wingman is something all of us need to try to do each and every day. Knowing that you'll be there for others should give you the comfort knowing that others will be there for you - whether you think you need them or not.