Remembering September 11th

It is hard to believe that it has been 17 years.

This morning I woke up in Iraq.  I had a few minutes standing on a flight line with a group of US Army and US Navy Special Operations warriors.  Most were in their late 20’s.  Only two were in the service when our Nation was attacked in 2001.  All made the selfless decision to join our military knowing full well they were likely to go to war.

While we were standing on the ramp September 11th came up.  I asked them where they were from, what their story was, and where they were that morning.  Some were at work on their first assignments.  Most were in school.

Then one of the Navy guys asked me where I was.  I told them I was in DC.   I don’t normally talk about 9/11 but I felt like there was some goodness in sharing with these guys.

I told them about the weather in Washington that morning – the clear beautiful blue perfect skies and the perfect temperature.

I told them about when, and how we found out the Nation was under attack – when our meeting was interrupted with the news.  How we moved to the room with the TV, and on seeing the first tower burning from the helicopter news camera… the size of the hole in the building… and then watching the second airplane enter the picture and fly right into the second tower.

I told them about the silence that seemed to last forever after the second airplane impacted… when in reality it was a few seconds…

I told them about a switch being thrown in the squadron as we started to react.

I told them about the Crew Chiefs, the Weapons Loaders, and the Support Crews responding… all the while in the distance they could clearly see the acrid thick black smoke from the Pentagon.

I told them about Brig Gen Dave Wherley, our Commander, and his unbelievably perfect leadership that morning… “I trust you, you will do what is right, and no matter what… I have your back.”.

I told them about Ben Sliney and his first day at work at the FAA supervising the entire U.S. airspace system and his making the decision to shut down the US airspace – no doubt saving lives.

I told them about NYFD Chief Pfeifer, the Fire Fighting Commander at the World Trade Center who’s Brother was also a Firefighter… and the Chief sending his Brother and his team up into the Tower never to return.

I told them about the Passengers on Flight 93, Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett and the rest of the passengers and the absolutely pure and perfect example of human sacrifice they made in the toughest of times… and for giving my Squadron the gift of not having to make the toughest decision of our lives.

I told them about the aerial refueling tanker crews that just magically showed up over DC and kept us airborne… and did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still do today.

In the end, I guess I told them about the American spirit, our American will, and what it really means to be selfless.  In the soulful sadness of that day, there are so many incredible lessons that we all should learn from.

17 years is an incredibly long time to be at war… and we are still going at it.

Literally, as I write, America and our Allies and partners are still fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.

Is it worth it?  My answer… you bet your ass it is… so that our Children and our Children’s Children will hopefully never have to live through what our generation has.

May we never ever forget 9/11/2001 and the many examples of the American Spirit from that morning, and all the mornings thereafter in this longest of wars.  I know I won’t.

The Leader’s Playbook-6: Honor our Fallen

They were waiting for him when he arrived. They had never met him before but despite their difference in service, he was unquestionably their Brother.

They were six US Navy SEAL Officers.  One, an O-6 US Navy Captain, the Commander.  A second, the operations officer, a Lieutenant Commander and the other four were brand new BUDS graduates… all on their first deployment.  All 1st LTs or JGs.

As he arrived, they met him at the ramp to the emergency room door.  They moved silently, three to a side, and they, not the medical team, carried him into the ER where they surrounded him as the Chaplain read him his last rights.

When the Chaplin was done the Operations Officer ordered a hand salute… then for the next sixteen hours in 120-degree heat the young, brand new BUDS graduates, on their first deployment, stood the watch over him until the C-130 came to bring him home to his Family for the final time… their lives changed forever.

There are no words to express how the Brotherhood of War really works. As a Nation, we could not be more lucky to have American’s who selfless leave their families to go to war to protect us all… and give it all… and the Brotherhood and Sisterhood that serves alongside them every step of the way.

God Bless you and your Family… and thank you all beyond words.

NSDQ! Long Live The Brotherhood.

The Leader’s Playbook-5: Taking the time to think

We live in an incredibly saturating world now.  Technology is wonderful, but at times can be overwhelming.

Literally, by the second we are faced with smartphones, cable TV, the internet, tablets etc.  The onslaught of available inputs is out of control.  It is impossible now to actually be bored – as long as you have a signal and battery life.

One of the things I’m working on now is trying to cut away from these things.  To turn off my cell phone, step away from the internet… and simply and purely find the time to think, focus, and concentrate.  To focus on the essential and the vital, and to understand what is really essential, and equally important what is not.  I’m blocking time each day to do this.

Time is the most valuable thing in life…  and for me, I certainly need to constantly remind myself to concentrate and focus on the most vital and essential things.  I have a lot of room for improvement!

Book recommendation: Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”.

The Leader’s Playbook-4: The Greatest A-10 Pilot That Ever Lived… LtCol Robert “Muck” Brown

The dictionary defines a “legend” an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.

I’ve never met anyone who better deserves this title than LtCol Robert “Muck” Brown –  A-10 Attack Pilot, Husband, Father, Brother, Coach, Teacher, Mentor, Savior,  Leader, and Friend.

LtCol Robert “Muck” Brown, legendary Attack Pilot, Husband, Father, Brother, Drummer, Artist, Leader, Warrior, Brother, Savior, and Friend

No one can forget the first time they had the honor and privilege of meeting Muck.   For me, it was walking down the hallway at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB, NV where he greeted me (a lowly F-16 student) with a kind smile and a look that said: “all will be ok young Jedi… just keep your head up and keep going”.

We talk a lot about Muck.

We talk about how unassuming he was.  How people often mistook him at first glance.  How he quietly approached the most complex situations and always quickly brought clarity and wisdom to some incredibly complex issues – in life, warfighting, and combat.

We talk about how his perfect way of communicating with people and how he could bring disparate opinions together against a common set of goals and objectives – perfectly.

We talk about him as a young A-10 pilot forging forward to improve combat capability throughout the entire joint community, and his lifelong commitment to protecting the guys on the ground.

We talk about how after the attacks on 9/11 he left a high paying airline job to come back in the military and take a non-flying staff job so that someone else could stay in the cockpit and take the fight to the enemy.

We talk about his time in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 when he was the link between the pilots in the air and the special forces warriors on the ground – and how both parties were so blessed to have him there.

We talk about how he was as a Husband and Father – showing those in his life what true love meant through some really tough times.

We talk about how he loved teaching: kids and warfighters, and his amazing way of adapting a lesson perfectly every time to the listener.

We talk about how he saved the A-10, working to inform policymakers and along the way saved countless American and coalition lives because of his work – all while fighting cancer.

We talk about his love for aviation art, and his incredible gifts with a #2 pencil, and how you can look back at his notes today and find pictures of P-40 Flying Tiger Warhawks in the margins.

We talk about what it was like to be in the room when Muck sat down behind a drum set… Perfect, complete, magic.

And… we talk about how absolutely wonderful it was to be a Brother and friend of Mucks.

Muck passed away on this day a few years ago after bravely fighting cancer.  We all miss you like crazy Muck – but the truth is that you are still here with us through the many gifts you gave us all and the incredible life you lived.  Tonight we will raise a glass, smile a bit, laugh, and most importantly remember you and the legend you are.

The Leader’s Playbook-3: One of the Toughest People I know

I read with great sadness this morning of the passing of Professor Stephen Hawking.

I have had the incredible honor of meeting some very tough people in my life – none tougher than Squadron Leader (Ret) Ned Cullen, MBE, and his Family.

Ned is a Royal Air Force Fighter Pilot and “TopGun” graduate – and one of my best friends in the world.  He looks exactly what you would think a dashing, brave, smart talented RAF Fighter Pilot would look like – reddish blond hair and all.

Ned and I met in 2002 as our nations trained together for a very sensitive, very special mission which ultimately went down in the western deserts of Iraq in March of 2003.

On the first night of the war in Iraq, Ned was there, overhead protecting the UK Special Air Service (SAS) and our special forces while flying in his RAF Harrier jump jet – taking the fight to the enemy night after night.

One evening in April of 2003 Ned came up to me and told me he was not feeling 100% – that his fingers were tingling a bit.  That did not stop him from flying combat missions night after night.

Upon returning to the UK in the Spring of 2003 Ned was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease or Lou Gerhigs Disease as it’s known here in the US.

What would stop most people in their tracks… has never… not once… not for one second stopped Ned or his incredible wife Heather, or their Son Rory from attacking life.

There are hard as nails people you meet in your life… and then there is the Clan Cullen.. every single one of them.  

When I think of bravery – I think of Ned.

When I think of courage – I think of Ned.

When I think of tenacity with a huge side of humor – I think of Ned.

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

Every single day the Cullens attack life no matter what gets sent their way, and every person who is blessed to know them and love them is grateful every day for the chance to be in their lives.

Today is a tough day for the world with the loss of Professor Hawking.  He was a giant of a man.

It is also a day to rejoice at the incredible honor of knowing and loving other giants who even now continue to walk this earth – and yes, I’m talking to you Clan Cullen.  I love you all.

The Leader’s Playbook-2: “I trust you, you will do the right thing, no matter what… I have your back”

On September 11th, 2001 I was the Chief of Weapons and Tactics at Andrews AFB, MD assigned to the 121st Fighter Squadron flying F-16s.  My Wing Commander was Brigadier General Dave Wherley.

There are so many vivid memories from that day.  They oftentimes move through my mind like a set of polaroids.  One of the clearest memories is not of the Pentagon burning, or the fires in New York, rather it was the leadership shown by General Wherley.

After the second tower was hit, our Wing, on orders from the White House, scrambled to protect DC from further attacks.

While a group of us prepared to fly, General Wherley coordinated with the national command authority and was passed the rules of engagement that we were going to use during our missions.  They were extremely liberal and put the onus of the decision to shoot or not to shoot on us.  This was completely unprecedented.

After quickly briefing our mission and getting our equipment on, we ran to the operations desk to get our final instructions before running to the jets.  As we stood there, General Wherley gave us our mission, our instructions, and our rules of engagement.  He then paused for a moment, took a deep breath,  and looked straight at us.

To this day, I will never forget his words.

“I trust you, you will do the right thing, no matter what I have your back.”

Never in the history of mankind,  has a leader said a more right thing, to the right people, at the right time.  Period.

In the very toughest of times, it is on us as leaders to remember that it is all about taking care of the team, and boy did Boss Wherley take care of us that morning.

General Wherley was a giant of a man and a great leader.  He loved leading warriors and loved being a Fighter Pilot.

Maj Gen and Mrs. Wherley where they were happiest – together.

Tragically, on June 22nd, 2009  we lost both he and his lovely wife Ann when they were killed in the Metrorail collision in Washington, DC.  They had just left Walter Reed Army Medical Center where they were volunteering and serving our Wounded Warriors.

Our unit misses him but remembers with perfect clarity the incredible leadership example from that morning.

Thanks Boss for the incredible gift of a good example. Never forget.

The Leader’s Playbook-1: “What’s your Story?”

Most leaders love working with people.  I sure do.

Years ago a young Non-Commissioned Officer asked me a simple question that has given me so many gifts over the years.  He simply asked me, “Hey Sir, what is your story?”.

He didn’t ask me what I did for a living, or what I liked to do with my free time.  He asked me an open-ended question which allowed me to go anywhere I wanted to go and share with him what was on my mind, or what I thought he should know about me.

Leading people is about truly understanding what drives them, what their needs are and what I can do to help them.

Leadership is about supporting those around you – working to solve their problems so they can stay focused on the main thing that they need too.

Leading people is not about sharing your story or talking about you, it’s about understanding where other people are coming from and working every day to improve things for them – not you.

For years whenever I meet someone new I’ve politely asked them “What’s your story?”  Sometimes the words might be a little different, but the theme of the question is always the same.  As soon as I ask it, I just listen and enjoy the answer.

The gifts that this simple open-ended question has given me are absolutely immeasurable.  I’ve learned about what people care about, what they are scared of, what is on their minds, what I can do to be a better leader or friend for them.  It also gives me a great place to pick up a conversation the next time we are together.  This simple question has been the foundation for building hundreds of amazing relationships in life, business, and the military.

Give it a try the next time you meet someone new and ask them “What’s your story?”

And to David C… thanks for asking me that question so many years ago, and thanks for the gifts since then.