Thinking beyond Wingman Day

  • Published
  • By Navy Cmdr. Kory Fierstine
  • 33rd Flying Training Wing commander
What does "being a good wingman" mean? 

We tend to think of it as a defensive measure to prevent something bad from occurring, but what happens when the plan fails? What happens when a subordinate did something wrong? Does the wingman concept end when the police arrive? Once the failure is discovered, is the "Airman helping Airman" attitude set aside in lieu of a punitive letter, Article 15 and/or court-martial? 

I believe the answers lie in what we already know. Arguably, the bedrock of all morality is the Golden Rule. Everywhere throughout the world's major religions, one can find its principles throughout the teachings of all wise and holy men of history. The Dalai Lama said, "If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Confucius said, "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." Muhammad told Muslims in the Qur'an, "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."
Turning to the New Testament, Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." He also told the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable several apparently righteous men pass by a person in desperate need of help, but a Samaritan man stops and has mercy on the injured soul. Jesus ends the parable by directing us to "go and do likewise." 

For a more down-to-Earth approach, we can turn to some examples from our military past. In 1908, Navy Ensign Chester Nimitz, ran his ship aground. After turning himself in, he was taken to court-martial and found guilty of dereliction of duty. Thirty-seven years later, Admiral Nimitz was promoted to the highest position in the Navy. In 1926, Henry Arnold also was having a heck of time with his leadership culminating in court-martial charges. Twelve years later, Gen. "Hap" Arnold, too, held the highest office in his service.
So, what do we do with a struggling subordinate? Maybe we start by recognizing a few realities. First, the pure and innocent masses making up our commands are not necessarily pure and innocent - many are just lucky. John Bradford's, "There but for the grace of God, go I" quote has been uttered from my lips more than once. 

Second, those we are sworn to protect include everyone in the command, even those who stumble. To this end, we leaders should redouble our efforts to distinguish between singular negative events and serious trends. Our position as leaders requires us to labor relentlessly to identify a subordinate's potential even while experiencing private disappointment in their actions. 

Of course, the military is unique; and as such, we need to examine each individual case, weighing the severity of the crime with the viability of rehabilitation and future honorable service. As a commander, I am forced to factor in a bad actor's effect on the good order and discipline of my unit and I have to be decisive and resolute when facing chain of command violations. But outside of this, I believe there are many lesser transgressions that occur routinely that need not be career ending. When presented with these situations I feel I have a duty to set my sights a little further downrange and take the individual's future potential into account. 

To this end, we all have a duty to each other. We must resist the persistent creep towards a zero-defect culture. Even as our services drawdown to leaner and higher-quality forces, all of us should recognize errors in headwork and lapses in judgment are part of being human, and singular events need not be viewed as a harbinger of future widespread doom. 

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we can agree that everyone, even you and I, have or will experience personal failure. Alexander Pope said the legendary words, "To err is human." Was he that far off the mark? Need these singular hiccups in behavior or deed be career ending in our service today? I say no and I hope you do too.