Venturing into the unknown

  • Published
  • By Maj. Leslie Maher
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing
In my 19 years in the Air Force, I have been awarded nine distinct Air Force Specialty Codes and served in more than 20 positions that required skill sets from aircraft maintenance and manpower to navigating the KC-135 Stratotanker. Of those 20 positions, I was formally trained in only four. The rest I learned via on the job training. My journey through the Air Force is not unique, as many of you probably with more than 15 years of service have a similar story. As we downsize our force, none of us have the luxury of shying away from a task due to limited experience and training. We just have to hike up our boots and pioneer through the virgin territory before us.

In 2005, I was assigned to Air Expeditionary Force 5/6 (and then 7/8) and was deployed to Camp Asyliyah, Qatar, 11 miles down the road from Al Udied Air Base. After my initial shock of being stationed at an army base, I learned my duties involved working with the Qatari military and upper levels of government (the Qatari equivalents of the Minister of Finance and Minister of the Interior.

At first, I couldn't believe my luck. My job was to learn the county and its culture to aid me in conducting business with the Qatari Air Force, Army and civil defense. Then reality set in. The first strike against me was that I was a woman in a very male-dominated culture. Though Qatari military members are somewhat used to the idea of women in decision-making positions, most of the civilian populace is not. Strike two concerned my rank. The Qatari military is very rank conscious, much more then the U.S. When I would show up at a meeting, it never failed that I was at least two ranks below the most junior Qatari in the room. The frustration on their faces was plainly visible when they learned I was the only U.S. representative sent to the meetings.

Lastly, was my knowledge on the issues being negotiated? I was expected to work customs, immigrations, civil engineering, communications, airspace operations, and airfield security. I was only familiar with one of those areas. Three strikes would normally send me back to the bench, but I was sent there to negotiate issues on behalf of U.S. Central Command and I had only 120 days to accomplish that mission. I had to break through the barriers and get to work.

With a smile on my face and a strong determination to achieve CENTCOM's goals, I faced each meeting with a positive attitude and congenial disposition. While I couldn't overcome my first two strikes, I had to do something. My lack of expertise in the topic I was negotiating. For example, I was asked to contract certain frequencies for Al Udeid's Communications Squadron and the Consolidated Air Operations Center. If I didn't get these frequencies deconflicted with the Qatari national system, our troops might experience severe communication outages and blackouts. That was not a good situation for our Airmen, Soldiers and Marines out on the front lines. After two very frustrating visits, I knew I had to quickly learn about the combat systems I was supporting because I wasn't getting my point across and I was running out of time. I overcame the cultural differences by exhibiting professionalism, tireless negotiation and a delicate sensitivity to the Qatari way of business. I interviewed my "customers" at Al Udied and learned as much as I could about each system's limitations and capabilities.

Then, I assembled a team of experts and negotiated permission to take them with me to the next meeting.

As a team, we got the job done. I used that approach a lot that summer and experienced great successes. I had a few disappointments, but I didn't let them deter me. I didn't achieve all of my assigned tasks, but I put a pretty good dent in them.

Venturing out into the unknown is a true test of an Airman's negotiating, team-building and leadership abilities. As each one of us is assigned a task, it is imperative to focus our thoughts on how to accomplish it, not on how unqualified we are.

First, approach the situation with a positive attitude - negativity only wastes time. Then, surround yourself with a team of people to bring the pieces of the skill set needed to get the task done. As I have seen in my career, the fun challenges are those that stretch me to my limits.