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The Virtue of Character

The Virtue of Character

Remarks by General John P. Jumper, Air Combat Command commander, to the Senior NCO Academy graduation, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, June 27, 2001.

Thanks for that introduction Senior Master Sgt. Johnny Davis (Senior NCO Academy flight instructor). Thank you Don (Lt. Gen. Donald Lamontagne, Air University commander), for your interest in furthering the interests of aerospace power. And thank you Chief Ball (Chief Master Sgt. Roger Ball, Senior NCO Academy commandant), for the invitation to speak here tonight.

On this date in 1950, President Harry S. Truman committed U.S. air forces, along with naval forces, to their first major conflict following the establishment of our separate service. We stand ready today, as we did more than half a century ago, to protect American values at home and abroad. You graduates are already committed to your nation, and are the true leaders of the force. To you falls the responsibility of sustaining the best Air Force on the face of the earth.

Tonight I am going to tell you about heroes -- small heroes, but heroes nonetheless; heroes that have been beacons of inspiration in my life and career. My first memory is when I was 2 years old -- sitting in my dad's lap in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. He was a second lieutenant just after World War II. We were stationed at a small base near Tokyo during the occupation of Japan. His job was to take fighter planes that had arrived by barge, and after all the preservatives were removed, to test fly them and ferry them inland to their permanent bases. Before I was 3 years old I had time in all the great World War II fighters: P-51, P-43, P-38 and British Spitfire. I just wish I could remember more about them than the noise they made.

I grew up in an era of heroes; my dad's contemporaries were all heroes, like Chuck Yeager who was the first to fly faster than the speed of sound. My dad commanded an F-106 interceptor squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and we lived on Eagan Avenue. On the same street were several of the Mercury 7 astronauts. I was captured in the world of flying, and heroes from an early age. They were larger than life; I knew that even then -- but there were other heroes not so large.

When I was the commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., we were in the final day of an operational readiness inspection. We already had achieved an outstanding, and had generated 71 of 72 jets. I was sitting back in the command post, ready to knock it off, when the deputy commander for maintenance (we had DCM's back then) came in and said, "Boss, before we knock it off, you need to come out and see this." So we jumped in a truck and went down to the flightline, and there was a group of about five people pushing a jet down the taxiway. There was that 72nd jet, a jet with an engine write-up, being pushed over to the trim pad, trying to get the last check done to run up the engine and generate the jet. On the way, the towbar had broken, but these folks were doing what they needed to get the airplane ready to fly. It was a matter of pride with that last crew chief that his jet was going to be generated for the ORI. So the DCM and I jumped out, and we started pushing the jet too. And more folks along the flightline started to join in. People in buildings all around the base started filing out to help get this jet to the trim pad. By the time that the last check was done, and the chief signed off the checklist, there were probably 3,000 people gathered in the area -- a lot of them probably had no idea what was going on -- -and when he signed it off, a cheer arose that was better than anything you have ever heard in the Super Bowl.

When I was commander of the 457th Fighter Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., I got an unusual call. The chairman of the racing division at General Motors called and asked to come out and take a look at our operations. I agreed, and he and some of his folks came out to look around. We had an aircraft out on the flight line and some of our maintenance troops there to talk with the GM team. The chairman asked the young NCO out there if the aircraft was ready to fly. He said "No, see if you look up here, you can see that the power supply is burned out, but I've got the part over to Sergeant Smith in the repair shop, and he'll get it fixed and get it out here. If he doesn't get it out here, I'm gonna go over and kick Sergeant Smith's butt. We'll have it installed and ready at about 1400 so it can fly this afternoon." The GM folks were amazed that this young man would place such personal interest in the mission status of this aircraft. He asked the young sergeant why he was so motivated to make it happen. And this crew chief replied that "Well, sir, that's my name on the side of the airplane." It's that kind of professional pride that we have in the Air Force, and you don't always see in the outside world.

Next, I'd like to talk to you about something that happened during Operation Allied Force. Specifically, let me describe a single night from Allied Force that I'll never forget, March 27 to be exact. In fact, some of you may also remember this night, because it was the night we lost the F-117 near Belgrade. Now those of us that were in Vietnam learned very early to dread the sound of an aircraft emergency beacon. And as I sat in my office at Ramstein Air Base (Germany), through the marvels of modern technology, I could hear that beacon and knew that we had lost one of our own. An F-117 had been hit, right over the center of downtown Belgrade, and managed to glide to the outskirts of the city before the pilot was able to eject. Well, soon after this, a young captain named Cherry -- an A-10 pilot -- scrambled his aircraft and began to organize the search and rescue effort. I sat there and listened to him do exactly what our nation had trained him to do: direct planes to the tanker, position surveillance aircraft and coordinate with the helicopters to set up for a very difficult effort to save his fellow airman.

While this was happening, I had one of those red phones you see in the movies, with all the buttons -- the first one being the president, and the rest all the way down the chain of command. Well, this thing was ringing off the hook! All the lights are flashing at once, and everyone with the same questions: "Why aren't we in there?" "When are we going to pick him up?" and so on. In the background, that young Captain Cherry was calmly continuing to marshal the forces, ensuring that every piece was in place prior to executing the rescue. Well, my answer to some high officials in our government was "Sir, the very best thing we can do is let Captain Cherry do his job. There's nobody better equipped to do what needs to be done." When the time came, it was incredible to see a package of 75 aircraft converge on downtown Belgrade, just waiting to pounce on the smallest move from the Serbians. There wasn't a peep! The helicopters then worked their way into the area, picked up a very grateful pilot, and brought him out safely, followed by the rest of the package. It was truly inspiring to watch the spirit, dedication, loyalty and patriotism all come together.

But what do these stories tell us? What do they mean? These are demonstrations of character. They are manifestations that attend the character of those able to transcend preoccupation with self -- that virtue within us all which elevates the human spirit, compels us to reach beyond our meager selves -- commands us to seek more -- to attach our spirit to something bigger than we are.

When I was a "rat" at Virginia Military Institute, entering in 1962, the cadet regimental commander was a fellow named Josiah Bunting. Si graduated in the class of 1963, was a Rhodes Scholar, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and has since devoted his life to higher education, having been a professor at the U.S. Military Academy and president of several colleges. He is now the superintendent at VMI and a noted author. Si Bunting lectures widely on value-based education. I recently heard him render the finest definition of character I have ever heard. He said, "character is integrity projected over time." And then he reminded his audience that the Indo-European root of the word integrity is "tag" -- to touch. Literally translated, the word integrity means "that within us that cannot be touched."

But we went through a period in the decade of the 90s where the Air Force lost some of its character as an institution. We once had a quality Air Force that was ruined by a concept known as Quality Air Force. During the early 1990s, I was in the Pentagon on the Joint Staff and in Office of the Secretary of Defense while the Air Force was taking up something called the Quality Air Force.

When I was going to take command of 9th Air Force, the QAF had taken root. Now, I had read about Deming and Baldridge, and some of what they said made sense -- common sense. The management tools they talked about were good in some cases. We were using them as well -- we didn't talk about it though, we just did it. When I arrived at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., the first guy to meet me was the Quality guy. He said we needed to have an off-site -- get the staff together and come up with our "mission, vision and goals" for the future. I understand the off-site idea, get folks focused on planning and get away from the distractions of the office. Then he started talking about how we needed to break down barriers. And this was a little curious, so I asked him how we were going to do that. He said, "Well, we're not going to wear our uniforms, and we are going to call each other by our first names." It was all about breaking down barriers in his mind. It was bulls***. My plan was a little different. We went off station, but we wore uniforms, we used ranks and were professional in all we did. We used no coaches, no timekeepers, and we were able to accomplish everything we set out to do, and more.

We were told to believe that big business had all the answers. "Quality" was used as a substitute for leadership. It let words and slogans guide our behavior. Words like "empowerment" and "break down barriers." We stopped mentoring our people. We lost touch with the fine art of chewing ass.

An example of this is the Blackhawk shootdown. We screwed up with those F-15 pilots. The essential nature of our business is to gain and maintain air superiority by shooting down bad guys. When you visually ID an aircraft and shoot it down, and it's one of ours, you have failed in your primary mission. It's worse than a doctor taking out the wrong lung. Something should have been done. Then (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R.) Fogleman made his video about accountability. He sat there as chief, on the edge of his desk, and with an angry tone talked about how we were going to be accountable for our actions. Scared a lot of people in the fighter community. He said we needed to have our fliers take responsibility for their actions. For starters, a good butt-chewing would have worked.

Another example is the Lt. Kelly Flynn situation. You remember she was the one who was caught messing around with an enlisted member's husband. Now, the press tried to make it into an adultery issue. It was never an issue about adultery; it was about lying. Lying, and taking responsibility for your actions. Her squadron commander had the opportunity to stop the problem before it got out of hand. If he would have brought young Lieutenant Flynn into his office and said, "I don't know if the stories I'm hearing are true or not, and frankly, I don't care. But I'm giving you one chance, and one chance only, to knock it off!" I guarantee that would have been the end of it. That's what our young people today need: a little personal attention and counseling.

So this virtue of character is about institution, but it's also about individuals. The character we seek to define is the fire of conscience that burns within us and superintends our conduct over a lifetime. But character is out of vogue in this world whose standards are set more by the culture of Beavis and Butthead, or the Simpsons, than by the standards of, say, our founding fathers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison.

These men were truly unique. They transitioned easily from the pulpit to the plowshare to the musket. They wrote the history of their time with powerful words that will live forever: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers. And they used words we don't hear today. Words that describe the supreme traits of virtue and character that inspired them. Words like continence: "self-restraint; the ability to refrain from impulse." Also disinterested: "free of selfish motive;" -- intellectual curiosity in the lifeblood of real civilization." Thomas Jefferson once said of John Adams that he was "as disinterested as the being who made him." It was the supreme compliment for one who was totally devoted to crafting the framework of a new nation. It is that same dedication we see in the F-15 crew chief, or the A-10 pilot who is determined that we won't leave one of our own stranded deep in enemy territory.

Bunting describes the "death of shame." It is the propensity that exists in today's society to reward the most unconscionable behavior with a "tell-all" book or a movie contract. To hate the sin but love the sinner; to turn the perpetrator into the victim; to deflect blame and responsibility anywhere but on me. But this is not a diagnosis of despair -- these traits of culture are turned around by generations that seek the path of higher standards. Such a generation sits before me tonight.

You, here, have chosen such a path -- the path of most resistance instead of least resistance. The path that can forge the very character we seek to revive. And it will be tested -- again and again -- as you exercise the power of your choices. To do the right thing and to make it prevail at whatever cost; to always speak the complete truth; to assume responsibility; to be accountable for your mistakes as well as rewarded for accomplishments; and to make these choices without calculation of risk or reward. It is the sum of that power which gives strength to this nation, and will define the character and integrity of your generation of senior NCO's. You, as future Air Force leaders, must earn the right to lead our heroes.

Finally, here are a few practical tenets that have served me well for more than 35 years in uniform. Jumper's Rules of Life:

  • Number 1. Your most meaningful memories will be the times when your character, integrity, endurance, stamina or fortitude were most challenged and you had the courage to do the right thing.
  • Number 2. The things that make you feel best about yourself will not be things you do for yourself, but the good things you do for others. During the Kosovo war one member of my staff went to a refugee camp where 20,000 or so Kosovar Albanians were living in tents. As he entered the front gate with several other people they were immediately surrounded by a huge throng of people -- none of them could speak English but soon a chant began to arise from the people: "NATO, NATO, NATO." The people were grateful; they were alive because NATO was protecting them from the Serbian military that had tried to eliminate them.
  • Number 3. I can tell you exactly how to get ahead -- the unfailing key to success: Always do the best at the job you have right now -- the rest will take care of itself. How remarkable it is that prosperity, good luck and fortune come to those who work hard.
  • Number 4. The experiences in your life that truly elevate the human spirit will not come from material rewards, but from moral and spiritual rewards that attend virtues of sacrifice, duty, honor and courage.

So, as you sit here tonight you are ahead in the marathon of life and your goal is to finish. You have already demonstrated the virtues of hard work and success that shape character. Stay on that path -- remain the same person that got you where you are today -- listen to the wisdom that surrounds you: your seniors, your peers, your spouses, your children all contribute to that wisdom. They have walked the path you are on and they do understand. They are beside you here tonight because they care. Remain united with them into your future.

Thank you, and God bless the United States of America and the U.S. Air Force.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).