Be a courageous Wingman

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In the 27 years I've been a part of the Air Force, I've unfortunately seen many friends, co-workers, and subordinates make criminal mistakes that damaged their own careers and sometimes the lives of others. In each of those cases, I would think, "Did that person have a wingman and if so, what was that wingman doing?"

The term "wingman" is used so often, that I think the term has lost its meaning. The word originated in the flying community, where fighter pilots always have a partner flying nearby to keep watch for potential enemies. The wingman also provides a check on his or her partner by encouraging them to do the right thing when faced with a challenging decision. For the two pilots to remain safe, the wingmen must be bold and courageous in calling out potential dangers, no matter the source.

Several years ago, the Air Force began using the term wingman for all Airmen, rather than just flyers. Occasionally, we all need someone to help us make good decisions...to help us stay on the right track and out of danger. We especially need a wingman when alcohol is involved. I don't think any of us ever plans to have multiple drinks, and then to get behind the wheel, or to leave ourselves in a vulnerable or dangerous situation.

As the Air Force expanded its use of the term wingman, many Airmen seem to have forgotten that the term calls on us all to be proactive. Nearly every case of DUI or assault that I've seen includes a wingman who failed to protect his or her partner from making a grave mistake. There have been wingmen who stayed silent when their partner said, "I'm going to drive." There have been wingmen who were the designated driver, yet chose to drink anyway. Too many times there have been wingmen who failed to say, "You've had too much to drink, leaving alone with that person is dangerous." Or the converse, "She's had too much to drink, leave her alone."

These are just a few examples of silent wingmen who failed their mission. These silent wingmen are letting down the friends they agreed to protect, they are letting down their squadrons, and they are letting down the Air Force. Recently, right here at Peterson, I've been terribly disappointed by situations where wingmen have turned into accomplices by encouraging and enabling illegal behavior. Airmen's careers are being damaged, and sometimes lives endangered, because people who should be trustworthy, from significant others to buddies to co-workers, are encouraging destructive behavior.

It's time to reclaim the meaning of being a good wingman. We need wingmen who are courageous...wingmen who will make the tough call. I know firsthand it's difficult to say, "You've had too much to drink." We all want to trust our friends' judgment but judgment is severely impaired when we drink. Judgment can also be impaired by peer pressure. We all want to belong to a group, but what kind of group?

You're already part of a group that is the best in the world at what it does. No Air Force in the world is as capable as the U.S. Air Force at projecting power around the globe, putting weapons on target, and defending our nation's interests. As members of the 21st Space Wing, we're part of the best space wing in the Air Force. Gen. William Shelton, former Air Force Space Command commander, presented that award to the leader of our team, Col. John Shaw, a couple months ago. Each one of us is a critical part of these teams. When we are not courageous wingmen, we not only fail our friends, we fail to be an effective part of our larger 21st Space Wing and Air Force teams.

When I'm out celebrating or just casually socializing, I always have a wingman. Sometimes, it's my wife, sometimes it's a friend or a fellow Airman. Whoever my wingman is, I want that person to be courageous rather than afraid to tell me I've had too much to drink or to stop me from making a mistake. We all need wingmen like that. We all need courageous wingmen.