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Are you there for those around you?

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- Have you ever met someone who changed how you look at yourself? Someone who did the right thing, time after time, despite the difficulties? Someone who was a leader not because of their rank, but because of their character? 

This is my story about one of those people and how he had the power to affect who we hope to become. This is my story about Staff Sgt. Dustin W. "Pete" Peters. 

When I was stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Dustin W. "Pete" Peters. He was a vehicle operator attending his first day of airman leadership school and I was his class instructor. Pete didn't have an "in your face" leadership style; he was one who took those quiet and perfect opportunities to step up and lead. 

Almost immediately, I noticed Pete's drive to be the best and how he constantly encouraged those around him. In classroom discussions, Pete was never loud or rude and he always seemed to say what everyone else was thinking, but were too timid to say. At times, his comedic timing had the class roaring and at other times his intuitive comments made us search our souls for ways to improve ourselves. 

Pete was one of those guys everybody loved to hang around; you were never bored when he was in the area of responsibility. During one of our many visits to the base track for physical training, Pete ran past me and yelled, "Where's your heart, Sarge?" Not wanting my "heart" to be questioned, I picked up the pace and attempted to catch my challenger. I was no match for Pete racing around that track and he beat me good that day. 

I later asked Pete why he challenged me. His simple reply was, "We all need to be pushed during tough times. I don't ever want to not be there for someone." 

After graduation, I saw Pete occasionally around the base and would strike up a conversation. In early 2004, I ran into Sergeant Peters and he informed me he was returning to Iraq for his second 179-day rotation. I asked, "Why you? Didn't you just get back?" Pete said that he wanted to go and he felt he needed to go. I expressed my admiration and said all of the normal things, "If you need anything ... e-mail me ... be careful ..." Later that year, I realized the impact that one staff sergeant had on me and countless others. 

On July 11, 2004, while participating in joint Air Force and Army convoy operations, Sergeant Peters was killed by an improvised explosive device. The news of his death vibrated throughout the base. Anyone who knew Pete couldn't believe the magnitude of the loss. I think we all were feeling similar things. Why him? He was such a good guy! I didn't know how to deal with the loss of Pete, someone I grew to admire so quickly. 

I did the only thing I could, I volunteered to escort his family to his memorial service; it was the least I could do. You could see the hurt in everyone's faces as the wing commander awarded Pete's four-year-old son his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. I saved the base newspaper with the article of his death and know I will always remember Pete. 

In April 2005, I took that article to the NCO Academy in Keesler AFB, Miss., not knowing what to expect and hoping to use it somehow. As fate would have it I met Tech. Sgt. Jason Hodges. Sergeant Hodges had a Bronze Star and Purple Heart on his ribbon rank, which naturally prompted me to ask, "So, how did you get those?" He said he received them in Iraq when an IED struck his convoy. He went on to tell me how after the attack, he saved the battalion chaplain's life by using combat life-saving skills. 

After he finished his story, I told him I knew someone by the name of Sergeant Dustin Peters who had been killed in an incident similar to what he experienced. I watched Sergeant Hodges' eyes tear up and as he said, "Pete was my troop." Sergeant Hodges informed me that Pete didn't even have to go on that particular convoy which led to his death. However, Pete told Sergeant Hodges that he needed to be there. 

Sergeant Hodges explained to me some of the details of that day I had never known. It went something like this. The entire convoy squad was overworked and reports of increased tension in the area had troops worried. On the day Pete was killed, some younger Airmen had gone to him for advice because they were concerned about their upcoming convoy. In his usual manner, Pete reassured them all was well and to prove it, he would "be there" for them. 

Instantly, I thought about the challenge at the track and Pete's words: "We all need to be pushed during tough times. I don't ever want to not be there for someone." 

I remembered what kind of person Pete was and how he had affected all of us in the classroom. I remembered how he made us laugh and how he made us look at ourselves. Not a mere casual look, but a real hard look. Am I a good person? Am I a good leader? 

Sergeant Hodges and I shared many stories of Pete during NCOA, but the point we both agreed upon was how Pete influenced everyone without being the "in your face" leader but instead with his vision of "being there." And so I share this story with you about a man who changed the way I not only looked at myself but also made me look at who I hope to become. In memory of my good friend, Pete, I ask you, are you there for those around you?