Leadership versus Likership

MISAWA AB, Japan -- Most Airmen deploying to Iraq as a part of a Joint Expeditionary Tasking in support of the U.S. Army's ground mission had a brief stop at Camp Bhuering, Kuwait for intra-theater training.

If they were not sleeping during the bus ride from the airport to Camp Bhuering, they would notice three large signs conspicuously placed 20-meters apart, inside the main entry control point.

The signs contained a very valuable message for men and women about to enter ground combat; "We need leadership not likership."

Throughout the next 365 days, the mettle of all leaders at the officer, senior non-commissioned officer and junior non-commissioned officer levels would be tested as we led Airmen outside the wire on the heavily bomb laden, and insurgent infested, streets of Baghdad, Iraq.

While deployed, Security Forces Airmen in the unit executed more than 3,000 combat patrols and directly engaged the enemy more than 80 times. The attacks perpetrated against our Airmen ranged from snipers, to lone improvised explosive device strikes and complex attacks, normally initiated by a rocket-propelled grenade or a command-detonated IED. The attacks were designed to disable armored vehicles and make Airmen vulnerable to ground assaults by insurgent forces.

After 365 days of this madness, we returned to the continental United States, suffering one Airman killed in action, six Airmen severely wounded, one Iraqi interpreter severely wounded, and one Department of Defense civilian employee severely wounded.

These casualties haunt me today, but I know it could have been worse if our NCO and officer corps were "Likers versus Leaders."

We were responsible for leading 18 and 19 year-old Airmen through 14-hour work days, six days a week to execute the ground mission in Iraq. The seventh day was used to conduct medical training and perform maintenance on vehicles and weapon systems.

Airmen constantly complained about the shift schedule and did not understand why their respective squad had to prepare for a combat patrol four hours before start time. The easy answer to the question is battlefield survival.

The frontline NCOs had to lead Airmen in pre-combat checks to ensure all vehicles were mechanically sound. Next, NCOs supervised Airmen in prepping their weapons for possible engagements with insurgents. If an Airman took a shortcut and did not ensure the proper timing and headspace when assembling the 50-caliber machine gun, the weapon system could misfire during a combat engagement. Additionally, a patrol order was briefed detailing traveled routes, emergency actions and member's specific duties while outside the wire. Finally, a full battle drill rehearsal was conducted to ensure Airmen were aware of, and ready to combat, ever-evolving enemy techniques, tactics and procedures. After the patrol is completed, Airmen conducted equipment checks, cleaned weapons and conducted a debrief with the intelligence NCO.

All of the actions taken before, during and after a combat patrol were vital to survival.

If NCOs displayed the attributes of "likership instead of leadership," our unit would have sustained more combat causalities.

The strong NCOs demanded and ensured Airmen attended medical training and performed vehicle and weapons maintenance duties, when they could have easily told them to take the day off, which translated to lives saved on the battlefield.

Airmen were able to perform life-saving medical tasks without thought.

One Airman was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor by the 89th Military Police brigade commander for endangering his life while pulling our Iraqi interpreter out of a burning vehicle. While shots were being fired, the Airmen applied two tourniquets on the interpreter's lower extremities to stop heavy bleeding, ultimately saving the man's life. The Airman was in the same vehicle with the Iraqi interpreter and was wounded himself.

When asked how he was able to accomplish the heroic feat with all the carnage and confusion going on around him, the Airman said, "Training and battle drills."

The Air Force and combat requirements mandate we go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure mission accomplishments.

Under less strenuous circumstances than I experienced in Iraqi, I have observed Airmen complaining about the work load and occasionally having to work long hours to get the job done. As a leader, when you know training or completing a task is vital to the mission, what stance will you take; leadership or likership?

Remember our enemies will not wait for us to have well-maintained equipment or trained personnel before attacking us. We must be ready to go at all times.

Choose leadership over likership!