Leadership Lessons: The Tale of Four Fathers

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- I want to tell you a tale of four fathers. The first father I met while serving in Afghanistan. During my off-time I would volunteer at a hospital run by Egypt to provide care for the people of Afghanistan. It is not like the hospitals many of you have been to or even close to being a Combat Support Hospital (CSH). At the time it was a series of tents and the patients were placed on a pile of blankets on the damp dirt floor. I would go around and visit with patients, some who had walked for weeks to the hospital so they could receive care for themselves and loved ones. On my first visit I met a father who was lying next to his son on the earthen floor. The son's body was severely mangled and his body seemed lifeless except the one eye he had remaining followed me as I moved about. It was not an eye filled with desperation but of hope. After talking to the father through a translator I learned that a few weeks prior his son had been injured by a suicide bomber near an entry control point leading into the gates of Bagram Air Base. The father told me he had two sons and his other son died in the blast. The son before me on the cold dirt floor is all he had left in the world. The father spoke with joy as he continued to describe the progress his remaining son has been making as the wounds began to heal. Words could not express the love and devotion this father had for his son. In talking to the doctors they said the father had not left the side of his son since the day the child came to them. Day after day and month after month I continued to see the father and son and watch the child heal. As a father myself I will never forget how this father, in the midst of the blood soaked blankets and dirt, never left his son's side.

The second father I want to tell you about comes from Iraq the following year. I was volunteering at an Air Force hospital. I was not assigned to the hospital or even attached to the Air Expeditionary Wing in charge of the hospital, but during my downtime I would help the hospital chaplain out. We would unload patients off of the medevac helicopters and bring them into the emergency rooms where the medics would work tirelessly to save the lives of not only our service members, but also civilians injured in sectarian violence. One afternoon, an 18-month-old little boy was brought into the emergency room. His body had been peppered with shrapnel and debris from a blast during sectarian violence in the nearby village. His back was exposed and his shoulder blade was partly detached. The medical team with precision and determination worked on this child for hours. Sewing together the body and reattaching the parts. The little boy was at the CSH for weeks. The hospital personnel and I would take turns holding and walking around with him in our arms as his body healed. I asked the nurse one day if they were able to find the parents. Turns out they did, but the father did not want the child so they were trying to connect with the extended family. At the time my son was also 18 months old. I could never imagine saying I did not want my son just because he would be maimed and have a disability the rest of his life. It shook me to the core. I was happy to be deployed on this day. Me being away from my child meant another child a world away was able to have someone hold him, a child to feel and know he is loved.

The third father I want to tell you about is back in the states. When I was in college, a group of friends and I would volunteer a few hours each week with children in a local housing project. We would play games, sing songs, tell stories, and give juice and cookies to the children. One child always stood out to me. This child's name was Desmund. When I first met Desmund I could definitely notice the boot and brace on his right foot did not match his left foot. His right leg and foot seemed about five inches shorter than his left. Even with this handicap Desmund would run as fast as the other kids. He never let his disability be an excuse for not being the best. I had assumed for months that Desmund was born this way. Then one day I was telling how impressed I was with him being just as fast of the other kids and that "I am sure your dad is proud of you." Desmund looked up to me from the curb he was sitting on with a tear in his eye. He said, "Mr. Chris, my daddy is the one who did this to me. When I was two years old my father was mad at my mom and me and he put me in a pot of boiling water on the stove. That is the reason my leg is the way it is. I have never seen my daddy since that day and I never want to see him." I tried to provide comfort and understanding while holding back tears while my heart was torn inside me. A father not only didn't want his child but severely maimed his child. Should he even be called a father?

The fourth father I want to tell you about is myself. As a father I know the challenges of being a parent. Some of the greatest lessons I've learned were from the previous three fathers I told you about. The father in Afghanistan taught me to always to be there for my child even if it means taking a lot of my time and sleeping on a dirt floor for several months. I learned from the father in Iraq that some people choose to have conditional love, but my love should be unconditional at all times. There is no falling out of love. Love is a choice each one of us makes daily. The commitment comes not from the receiver of love, but the giver of love. Desmund's father taught me never to act out in anger and never take my frustration out on the innocent. Desmund himself taught me never to use a weakness as an excuse.

So why did I write about these fathers? I never would have had these experiences unless I volunteered outside my unit and my neighborhood. We always volunteer to help with events on base and to raise funds for our morale clubs. I encourage you to continue to volunteer in this way. I challenge you to reach beyond your unit, our base, and our Air Force and volunteer downtown in the local community. Volunteer at the nursing homes, children's homes, food banks, animal shelters, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and plethora other opportunities in the local areas. It is during these hours of your life you will learn life defining lessons and be forever impacted. Winston Churchill said, "You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give." Give of your time to those in desperate need of your service and give of your heart to those who are in need of a comforting ear. It is these moments you will find fulfillment in life.