Leadership Lessons: My most memorable opportunity

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- As I ran down the 5K trail during our Glow Run fundraiser on May 15, I was fondly reminded of when I was asked to take the lead on the Relay for Life at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Having a hard time saying no to such a meaningful event I willingly accepted, not knowing this would turn out to be my most memorable leadership opportunity. I had never attended an American Cancer Society Relay for Life nor did I have any continuity on the event. It was completely my project with no upper leadership interference, which was a rare opportunity for a young officer, and I ran with it full speed.

Having friends and family members affected by the disease, I wanted to do more than just hold a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. I had a vision to do something unique by incorporating a Make-A-Wish themed program and bone marrow drive into the relay and my planning committee delivered nothing short of excellence. The outpouring of the acts of kindness I saw, not only at the event but building up to the event, have been a constant reminder to me that the good in the world will always prevail over the bad. Through positivity and kindness mountains can be moved, and moved at an astonishing rate. Within no time from setting up my committee I was receiving emails from individuals wanting to volunteer and started to see my ideas turn to reality. I was copied in on one such e-mail from a maintenance squadron chief requesting support to have two names painted on the side of F-16s. I had merely just mentioned having found two children, one a cancer survivor in remission and the other still fighting leukemia, to be our special guests for the relay and already my committee was putting together their tour of the base.

On the morning of Aug. 16, 2013, two minivans pulled onto base carrying our "Sabers for the Day" and their families. A little girl was carried out of her booster seat. Not much older than 4 years, Sarah had been bravely battling leukemia, though her appetite for life did not falter. A very gregarious and fun loving 9 year-old hopped out the other van. Without hesitation he reached out for my hand and introduced himself as Stevie. As we made our tour to the sections around base, from Smokey the Fire Dog to driving the remote control bomb bots at EOD, it was clear they were the stars on base everyone came out to see, teaching our Airmen the importance of the Air Force family and community relations. Our final stop, the ultimate surprise, was to the flying squadron where they were given their call signs, flights suits, and geared up by life support. As "Xena" our warrior princess and Stevie "Jack" Frost made their way to the flight line, they were greeted at their very own F-16s with names and call signs painted on the side. Overwhelmed with thanks for all of the efforts put into the tour, one of the mothers had started crying and gave all the volunteers a huge hug.

Still proudly wearing their flight suits, donated readily by the spouse club, they led our opening lap on the base track and kicked off the event. "Jack" made no hesitation in helping the wing commander with the opening remarks. They were celebrities around the base track lined with tents from boosters clubs, private organizations, and relay teams. Adorned with face paint and balloons, they even helped swab mouths at the bone marrow drive booth. Our two Sabers for the Day thoroughly enjoyed playing on the bouncy castle with the other children from base. It was the most their parents had seen them play and smile in months. Numerous parents thanked us for providing the chance for their children to play with our two fighters. While spending time with "Xena" a little boy even approached and us and said, "Ma'am, she's the bravest girl I know."

The day was filled with sharing stories of those in our lives who had fought or were fighting cancer. The unity of the base community was fully evident once the sun set and our candlelight vigil took place. We honored and remembered those who had fought until the end. Airmen, civilian and military went to the podium to share their stories while our German local national friends stood by our sides. The vigil concluded with our guest speaker, a gentleman from the Airmen and Family Readiness Center who everyone on base, to include myself, called a friend or mentor. He led us in prayer and, much to everyone's surprise, shared the story about his fight with cancer to which none of us knew. His heart felt speech spoke of second chances and the power of positivity which still resonates with me today. When he was diagnosed he decided to turn the bad news into an opportunity to change his life for the better, becoming the role model and friend in remission we saw at the podium that day.

The Spangdahlem 2013 Relay for Life went on to raise over $25k for the American Cancer Society and added over 200 donors to the National Bone Marrow Registry in honor of our Sabers for the Day. Serving as the relay's committee chair has been the single most memorable leadership experience of my career in the Air Force. I laughed and definitely shed some tears, good and bad, but I could not have imagined a better experience or leadership opportunity. No words can properly describe the feeling I had when I saw my vision become a reality and realized the full positive impacts on our base. Our event even brightened up a community stateside who was "over the moon" to see we had donated our $25k to their event. In the words of my committee co-chair and mentor, your leadership potential can only be met when you apply your skills to the outside world--don't waste your leadership talents by only sharing them with your squadron!