Chapter 12. Learning to Lead Part 2.

Do what’s right. Do what’s right no matter how unpopular or expedient. 

You might find this story strange. This might shatter your perceived concept of military life. 

After I received my Commission, I was never told what to do.  Sure, I was given lanes in the road to follow, my area to manage, but never did I receive direction on what or how to do my job.  Of Course, I had to provide status reports, defend my decisions, and asked on several occasions to reassess my priorities.  But never was I told what or how to do something. 

War Story 53.  The closest I got to being told what to do was during the ramp-up to the Persian Gulf War in 1991.  A Brigadier General who was Our Staff Director told me, “Don’t do anything illegal and just as important, don’t get yourself in the newspaper.”  He told me this because, at the time, I managed over $20 Million in research and development funds.  I had few guidelines on how or what to spend the money on, I had a lot of latitude.  My job was to keep our soldiers, sailors, and airmen safe.  Our country was going to war.  I wouldn’t be going, but my friends and colleagues were.  My job was to stay behind and use all the technology and expertise I could find.  A few years earlier, in 1986, the NRO’s Hexagon Satellite blew up on the launch pad in Vandenburg.  Our Nation lost miles of film. Film that would have been used to build new and updated maps of the Middle East.  These maps were the critical component for traditional targeting efforts.  My job was to build targets without those maps.  Turns out, Shell Oil and Exxon had tons of maps of Iraq.  Just not the kind the military needed for targeting.  Petroleum geologists had mapped every inch of Iraq ten times over.  They also knew the terrain almost as well as the Bedouins.  We used satellite data and other clandestine means to find direct threats to our troops who were actively engaged in combat operations.  Find the threats that no one else could find.  The geologists, earth scientists and meteorologists that worked for me found the threats.  In turn, Air Force pilots and Navy Cruise Missiles eliminated those threats.  I spent the money. 

War Story 54.  In 1991, I damned near begged Brigadier General Don Walker to send me to Iraq.  Put me in coach, I’d say.  No way he’d say.  “You know more people in the Intelligence Community than the next six officers I have on staff.”  You’re not going.  You’re staying here to get things done.  You’re staying to do the things that the “system” can’t do.  

Shortly after that one-way conversation, — conversations with General Officers are often one way, — I learned that a good friend, Bob Stephens, was going to be one of the first targeting officers deployed.  Bob and I showed up in Omaha together as 2nd Lieutenants.  His two boys were the same ages as Jennifer and Jason and the first friends our kids met.  Now we were Majors and a world apart.  One of Bob’s claim to fame was years earlier during his assignment as a Missileman.  Bob and his crewmate were selected to launch a Minuteman III.  This is a huge honor and one that very few missilemen get.  Thankfully.  

Long before the shooting began, the Gulf War became personal. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

My main job in Omaha was to aid the Strategic Air Command in building and preparing for a new Intelligence capability.  This job sent me on countless trips across the country and consumed most of my weekends.  The new capability would require millions of dollars’ worth of new building construction and one-of-a-kind experimental machinery.  It would also require a new highly trained workforce. 

One of the biggest concerns of the NCOs and Airmen who worked in the Photo-Lab was their shift schedule.  The Photo-Lab was a factory, the largest in the DoD and also larger than any other film processing lab in the world.  Miles of film was processed each day and the operation ran 24 hours a day five days a week.  The new capability would require continuous operation all day, every day — 24 hours for all 7 days.  This might not seem a big deal, but it was.  It affected hundreds of people’s lives and would determine if young Air Force Officers and Enlisted men could manage the operation.  Or would a civilian and contractor workforce need to be hired to replace the enlisted force? 

An option facing SACs leadership was to just hire a bunch of defense contractors and completely do away with the enlisted force.  This would gut the enlisted photo-processing career field and lead to early retirements, forced retirements or cross training into jobs a lot less desirable.  Many in SAC’s upper rung as well as the engineers developing the new capability were in favor of either replacing the NCOs or having them work rotating shifts. 

You know the kind of shift rotation I’m talking about.  The exact kind of work you would have turned down.  You start on Days (0600 – 1500hrs) then after a few tricks, you rotate to Mids (1500 -Midnight).  After a few more days of that, you rotate again to Nights, (Midnight – 0600hrs).  This schedule is used throughout fire departments, police departments, and other unfortunate jobs requiring around the clock coverage.  Critical jobs that need nontraditional hours.  By rotating workers through different shifts, everyone gets a few days off and they only have to work a few nights. 

This seemed fair and requires fewer workers than static or non-rotating shifts.  This was the preferred option for the Engineers designing the systems, some in SAC’s leadership, and the hungry contractors waiting to fill the NCO’s shoes.  It cost less by requiring fewer people and on paper, it treated everyone fairly.  Fairly to everyone except the NCOs — my NCOs. The problem was none of these engineers or leaders had ever been an NCO. 

My day when not on travel would start at 0500 or 0530 if I was lazy.  I wanted to attend shift change and learn how much trouble I had for the day.  I ended in the evening at the next shift change to once again know if we were heroes or goats.  Preparing the daily Intel Briefing was either something of high praise or sheer disaster.  Remember lesson one, “What did Lieutenant Z screw up last night?”  Note: It was me, not the workers.  It was always, just my fault.  See lesson 1.  Hero or goat, the credit went downhill faster than a toboggan greased with butter, but the blame always stopped with me.

Rotating shift schedules went against the lives of most if not all the NCO and Airmen workforce.   Most senior NCOs had part-time jobs. They had Part-time jobs, not because they enjoyed working, but because many of them had families and could not pay their bills without some additional income.  The senior NCOs had children in or preparing for college and the financial strain on them was tremendous.  For the junior NCOs and Airmen, going to college was a high priority.  How could they make a Monday evening English class if their work schedule was shifting under their feet?  What would I have done only a few years earlier if I was not afforded the opportunity to earn college credits?

It took me a year and a half.  The Program Office Engineers bringing in the new systems hated me.  In planning meetings they’d avoid eye contact.  Some in my own management chain just wished I’d shut the hell up.  But I won.  It cost the Air Force twenty additional enlisted slots.  It cost the Air Force and SAC about four million more dollars a year.  But I was right. I was right and I won. 

Sadly, my victory was short-lived.  Digital technology would replace film processing in short order. I knew this was coming.  I also knew that the entire Air Force film processing workforce would cycle through Omaha’s lab every few years.  I went against many in my management chain and those bringing in our new systems.  I took a very unpopular stand. Not to save a few jobs in the short run but to help an entire career field.  Help a career field transition at the pace they needed to find new jobs before they were forced into a few bad options. 

I did the right thing for the Officers and NCOs who would work in the Largest Photoreconnaissance Lab in the DoD. I felt then as I do many years later.  I did the right thing. 

2 comments

  1. Great story! Thanks for writing it and posting it. So much that the rest of us never knew!! Kudos to you for putting people’s welfare ahead of money. Sadly you don’t see that much anymore! 🤗 Jeannea

    Like

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