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Wingman … rhetoric or reality?

  • Published
  • By Col. Christopher Coffelt
  • 90th Missile Wing commander
Most of us quickly recognize the word "wingman" as a part of our everyday Air Force vernacular and culture. The combat air force elements of our Air Force immediately recognize the importance and application of this word as it provides greatly increased combat mission effectiveness and lifesaving teamwork in the air. However, it is a big Air Force, and some of the many non-aviation parts of our combat forces may not fully appreciate its critical importance and application. Additionally, a word like this can be overused, become mere cliché, and the true sentiment and important meaning is lost. As Airmen, we cannot afford to let this word become cliché. Our individual, collective, and mission success is critically dependent upon our being good wingmen every day, in every way, on and off duty. Today and every day, each of us must examine whether or not we are executing our duty as a wingman to our teammates and this starts by having a working knowledge of what it means to be a good wingman.

Being a good wingman takes courage -- mostly moral and sometimes physical courage -- and integrity to act every time you see a fellow Airman about to do something dumb, different, dangerous, in violation of our rules or standards, or to point out the path to success. Integrity isn't something you have for "big: things or "important" things, it is binary -- you either have it or you don't. Our rules, procedures, standards, and technical orders are there for a reason. In our dangerous and critical line of work, they help assure mission success, our personal safety, and the safety of others in the midst of the inherent dangers and risks. Many of the warnings and cautions in our technical orders and other rules and standards across the base and our operations are written in blood. The worst accidents and incidents I have seen in my nearly 22 years of active duty have started off by someone not doing their job, believing there was no risk or that they understood or were in control of the risk they were taking as they broke or bent a rule (on or off duty), and many involved wingmen who did not have the courage to intervene or simply failed to act. Being a good wingman also does NOT mean covering up for your fellow Airman when they fail to meet the standard or obey the rules -- now you are also part of the problem. We are supposed to have the courage to face bullets together, yet, for some strange reason some of us seem to go weak in the knees when faced with a simple moral dilemma of having to tell your buddy to follow the checklist, obey the rule, or stop some stupid act.

Most importantly and likely the most forgotten or overlooked element of being a good wingman is the responsibility one carries for themselves and the self-discipline required to ensure you, yourself, don't depart from the standard, violate the rule, fail to reference the technical data, etc., and put your wingman in a bad/exposed position. Doing something dumb, dangerous, departing from the standard, violating the rule and compelling your wingman to intervene or act to right the moral wrong or save you is your failure as a leader and wingman. To me, this is the most egregious failure. I am always amazed how someone who is so patriotic and eager to join our elite force can be so proud to swear an oath to support and defend our Constitution, obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over them (both commissioned and non-commissioned officers), and so quickly turn around and begin to discern which orders and rules need to be followed and those that can be bent or broken. There is ONE STANDARD in our business and we are duty bound to adhere to it to the best of our ability and ensure we help others to do the same. Rank does not relieve of us the responsibility to adhere to the standard. Experience and technical knowledge or skill likewise does not give you special dispensation to violate the standard. It also amazes me how anyone could think that the standards of off-duty conduct could somehow be different than on-duty standards of conduct for professionals in arms. Professionalism is also binary -- you either are or you aren't.

Are you there and have the integrity and courage when it counts or do you falter and rely on hope to assure your teammate's and the mission's safety and success? As a wingman, are you walking it or are you merely talking it? Take a no-kiddin' look at yourself in the mirror today and each your performance as a wingman mere rhetoric or is it reality in your daily life? You are a part of the greatest Air and Space Force on the planet and an elite team of professionals in arms ... live up to that great calling and honor every day -- being a good wingman is a good start.