Making a difference - at the end of day, that is what is important

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael L. Dillard
  • 22nd Maintenance Group commander
 I am approaching 30 years of military service. During my career, the Air Force sent me to 13 bases, four countries, and five different Major Commands. After each assignment, I asked myself one question, did I make a difference?

I have learned leadership lessons from great officers, enlisted, and civilian leaders. During Airmen Leadership School, the students always ask me who was my influential military mentor and why? I tell them, Brig. Gen. William T. Tolbert. My first assignment after technical training was to Langley AFB, Va. with the 1st Fighter Wing. At the time, the wing was the Premier Wing in the Tactical Air Command, now Air Combat Command.
I was there only three months when we underwent, and miserably failed, an Operational Readiness Inspection. The inspector general stopped the inspection for safety reasons after just 72 hours of a scheduled five- day inspection.

The out-brief for that inspection took only five minutes as Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Braswell, the 9th Air Force commander, walked up to the podium and said "when I return, there will be some changes made." He fired the wing commander before he departed. General Tolbert arrived a few days later and fired two group commander equivalents and three squadron commanders. He issued Article 15s to two colonels for dereliction of duty; failure to make a decision. This was a lesson to all of us in applying standards equally.

To enforce accountability, he ordered an open ranks inspection at every shift change to ensure compliance with military appearance and image. The next day, he had the entire Wing Headquarters staff outside, in formation, conducting an open rank inspection.

"It's not my job" was very prevalent saying throughout the wing. General Tolbert put the word out at his Commander's call that if he heard anyone say it is not their job, they wouldn't have a job. Not only did I not hear it anymore, but people from units started working together. 

He sought out the input of the youngest Airmen about how to make the wing better, and after he gave his leadership the opportunity to tell him why he shouldn't follow the Airmen's ideas, he implemented their recommendations. It showed the airmen that he was not only listening, but if an idea worked, he would act on it, no matter where the idea came from. The IG returned in 90 days for the re-inspection and the wing received an "EXCELLENT" rating. It amazed me to see civilians and military of all ranks cry at his Change of Command. He made a difference.

I learned many lessons during my year-long tour in Iraq. A Logistics Readiness Squadron Airman was injured while performing his convoy security duties when his convoy was attacked after being struck by an improvised explosive device. A member of his unit was killed in the attack. His wing commander went to the medical facility in Germany to present the injured airman with the Purple Heart medal. Half the airman's face was bandaged and tubes were running out of his nose. The wing commander pinned the medal on him and told him he would be home soon. The airman struggled to sit up and painfully told the general, "I ain't quitting...I am not leaving my unit." The general fought to hold back tears of pride. This was a shining example of the Airman's Creed - I am an American Airman...I am a Warrior. These are more than just words. This was a living, breathing display of our Core Values. This Airman made a difference.

My family demonstrated leadership during each of my deployments, as my wife, Jeanene, took on the role of mother and father. My two daughters didn't act out. They put aside most of their pain and frustrations to help their mom and each other to get through tough times of separation. They made a difference.

I have tried to apply the lessons of holding people accountable, applying standards equally, listening to my Airmen, respecting and appreciating your family, and living the core values. It was my honor to serve this great nation alongside you. I hope I made a difference, may God Bless America and the United States Air Force.