The Leaders Playbook: Seeing Courage in real-time

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes we are lucky enough to see it in real time.

I first met Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Ned Cullen in 2002 when we were both serving as Fighter Pilots in our respective Air Forces.  Ned and I were both graduates of our respective Fighter Weapons Schools aka “Top Gun” and our squadrons had been assigned to prepare for what eventually became the “SCUD hunt” in Al Anbar province in western Iraq. Ned was an RAF Harrier Fighter Pilot and I was flying F-16C+s for the USAF.

Ned was a key planner, mission commander, and flight leader leading much of the development of the entire plan to protect and defend our strategic partners and our forces on the ground.  Ned was, and is, a “Fighter Pilot’s Fighter Pilot”.

When the war in Iraq kicked off in March of 2003 Ned led one of the very first combat sorties.  He put himself between the enemy and our forces on the ground night after night.

I remember one evening in April of 2003 after a combat mission when Ned came up to me and told me he was not feeling 100% – that his fingers were tingling a bit and that he was struggling with some range of motion.  He said he was not sure what was going on but that did not stop him from continuing to fly combat missions.  I think he knew something was really wrong.

Upon returning to the UK in the Spring of 2003 Ned was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it’s known here in the US. Ned was given a frank candid assessment of how things could progress and he got his plans in order. 

Ned Cullen after a sortie in the UK in the Spring of 2003

This was 20 years ago.  20 years.

What would stop most people in their tracks… has never… not for one second stopped Ned, his incredible wife Heather, or their Son Rory from attacking life. Ned has lived with MND for 20 years now. Ned cannot move, cannot verbally speak, and is physically a whisper of his past self. Ned has also grown in spirit, tenacity, courage, bravery, intellect, and love in ways that 99.9% of us never could even imagine. Simply stated, Ned is a lion. 

In my life, Ned has defined a new and unprecedented level of love, courage, and commitment.  We see this manifested every day in the way he lives his life. Ned lives every day to make the world a better place through his example of the way he lives his life. He is a loving husband, father, and friend to everyone who is blessed to be in his life.

I have met some hard-as-nails people in my life as a member of the military. Warriors from many tribes in the US and within our Allies and Partners… and then there is Ned and his family. 

When I think of courage – I think of Ned.

When I think of tenacity – I think of Ned.

When I think of grit – I think of Ned.

When I think of unconditional, never-ending, pure love – I think of Ned, Heather, and Rory.

Sometimes in life, if we are very lucky we may see real, pure, unadulterated courage. in real-time. It is normally fleeting, a single action for a few minutes – perhaps a few hours. I’ve been lucky enough to see real courage daily for 20 years now through the life examples of these incredible humans.

Ned, Heather, Rory. It was wonderful to see you all yesterday.  Love you all.

Ned, Heather, and Rory – Jan 2023

The Author is currently serving as an active-duty military officer. Any comments or recommendations on this post or on this site are my personal views. They do not represent the position of any branch of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force.

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