By Gen. Larry O. Spencer
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff
When I was a young Airman, during the heat of an intense intramural flag football game, a fellow Airman, who was frustrated that he could not stop me from advancing the ball, yelled the “N” word out loud. I was shocked and confused. Having been raised in Southeast Washington, D.C., I was certainly no stranger to harsh language or “trash talk.” However, this was different, and it literally hurt. I thought I had left that type of behavior behind me. I was an American Airman, and I didn’t expect that kind of verbal attack from a fellow Airman.
You must understand that growing up as I did, I never heard terms like dignity, respect, integrity, service or excellence. I was not a bad person and my parents taught me to respect myself and others; however, this notion of devotion to a larger purpose, to institutional values, was new to me. The Air Force stood for something and I liked it. Those words meant I could always trust and depend on my fellow Airmen. But at that moment, on that field, those values had been violated, and I felt let down.
Standing in the bright lights that lit-up the football field, I was at a loss…Then something remarkable happened. Several Airmen, on both sides of the ball, spoke up — forcefully. They chastised the offender and made it clear they did not approve of his outbursts or attitude. The referee, who was an NCO, also stepped forward and not only ejected him from the game, but directed him to report to his first sergeant the following day. The next day, not only did my teammates (on both teams) go out of their way to apologize for this single Airman’s behavior, but the Airman who committed the act also personally apologized.
As an officer, some of the best experiences in my life have been the opportunities I’ve had to command. I especially enjoyed my squadron command because it was in the midst of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and my entire unit was singularly focused. That period was particularly taxing because in addition to my squadron commander duties, I was also responsible for making sure that Airmen deployed properly and airplane loading plans were followed precisely.
One busy night on the flightline, a young Airman approached me and said she was being harassed by several male Airmen. She went on to say that this wasn’t the first time the harassment had occurred and typically she would just “grin and bear it.” However, since we were literally preparing for war, she did not want to be distracted and just wanted the behavior to stop. Although she was not assigned to my squadron, we quickly and decisively dealt with those involved. Several months later I ran into the female Airman at the gym. I reminded her about her words, “grin and bear it,” and asked why she put up with that behavior without speaking out. She explained that she so badly wanted to be part of the squadron that she remained silent as not to “make waves.”
Her story bothered me a lot. For a young Airman to feel like she had to “go along to get along” by accepting behavior that was repulsive was unacceptable to me. We were part of a premiere Air Force fighter wing gearing-up for war. We had to trust each other and have each other’s back. In my way of thinking, treating each other with dignity and respect was a given—unfortunately, in her case it was not.
Dignity and respect are not just words. Merriam Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed;” and respect as “a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important and should be treated in an appropriate way.” We all want to be respected by others…both as human beings and as military professionals. During my career, I’ve witnessed Airmen treating others with disrespect and dishonor. As vice chief of staff, I cringe when I read reports of sexual assaults in our Air Force. I personally know the hurt of racially charged words, and I have seen and witnessed the hurt associated with victims of sexual assault. Airmen who act in this manner are not representative of the Air Force I serve, and I won’t tolerate it. Neither should you.
I know the vast majority of our Airmen don’t act that way. They understand the importance of fostering a culture of dignity and respect, and they live it every day. To those Airmen, I say thank you for living up to Air Force core values, and I ask you to join me in re-doubling our efforts to NOT TOLERATE those who don’t live up to those standards. Airmen don’t sexually harass or assault fellow Airmen (or anyone for that matter). Airmen don’t care about their fellow Airman’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. We focus on character, commitment, professional competence and leadership. And, if we run into that small percentage of Airmen who violate those standards, we speak up and report that behavior to the appropriate officials.
For those who cannot or will not live up to Air Force standards, I offer a simple phrase: “shape up or ship out.” If we have members who won’t subscribe to integrity, service and excellence; we don’t want them.
We all signed up to be part of the best Air Force the world has ever seen. The Air Force didn’t become the best by accident. Dedicated, committed Airmen who live by our core values each and every day made it that way. You and I now have a sacred responsibility to not only keep us the best but to make the Air Force even greater. That’s a big responsibility, but it starts by treating everyone with dignity and respect and remembering that every Airman counts.
Photo: Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force vice chief of staff, encourages Airmen to get involved with “Every Airman Counts.” The initative is designed to foster communication between Airmen and senior leaders about sexual assault prevention and response.