GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
I still remember the day vividly. I was at the end of my fourth week of basic military training, just a few days before heading to basic expeditionary and survival training, or “BEAST” as it’s better known. There was only one problem: I had a bug bite on the back of my thigh the size of a pancake, which was beginning to turn purple.
I didn’t want to go to the doctor in fear of being recycled or missing out on BEAST week, but I was also starting to fear the possibility my pancake-bite would somehow turn into a flesh-eating disease and cause my leg to be amputated (I know, logical, right?). I broke and took a trip to charge of quarters to make a medical appointment.
It was this traumatic CQ trip that haunts me to this day, and causes me to continuously wonder: are we as Airmen expected to fear or respect our superiors?
Imagine me at the time, a wee trainee marching into a building full of non-commissioned officers and senior NCOs, mentally preparing to give a reporting statement and carefully constructing my words in order to request an appointment. My heart was pumping, my palms were sweating, and my voice definitely shook when I said:
“Sir, trainee McCutcheon reports as ordered.”
Luckily, the sergeant behind the desk didn’t seem to be looking to pick on anyone that day, so he began to help me before being interrupted by a coworker.
“Now what do we have goin’ on here?” said the master sergeant who just arrived to the scene. I was unsure as to whether or not I was supposed to answer, so I stayed silent, standing at attention.
The master sergeant took a few steps forward in order to stand directly in front of me.
“What’s that in your pocket, trainee?” his question was drawn out by a southern accent, but stiff with the trained voice of a military training instructor.
“Sir, trainee McCutcheon reports as ordered,” I stated, making sure I did everything right in order to avoid a potential problem. “Nothing, sir.”
“Really?” he jabbed back at me. “Check your right pocket then, trainee.”
My heart sank. What in the world could be in my pocket? I reached down to feel my pocket’s contents, and realized what it was.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “It’s my I.D. pouch, sir. The chain was irritating the skin on my neck, and my MTI allowed me to keep it in my pocket.”
“Oh?” he mocked. “So you think we’re friends now, trainee? You think it’s okay to ‘Oh’ me?”
“No, sir– “
“Are all of your pockets buttoned, trainee?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I hesitantly stated.
“Why don’t you check your cargo pocket on the left side then?”
He was getting louder. I opened my hand to check my left-side pocket, and to my regret, found it was not buttoned. I quickly fixed my uniform violation.
“What are you doing here?” his voice hardened as he asked.
“I’m here to request a medical appointment, sir,” I replied.
“You know what, I don’t appreciate your tone, trainee,” he began to say. “I mean, I don’t want you to be afraid of me or anything, but …” he didn’t finish his sentence.
I stood there, waiting quietly.
“Why did you join the Air Force, trainee?” he finally asked.
My eyes started to burn as I thought of what the right answer might be to make him leave me alone.
“To better myself sir,” I said.
“So then why,” he asked, “are you having such a goddamn hard time acting like you want to be here?”
I didn’t know what to respond with, so I remained silent.
“I mean, come on!” he exclaimed. “If you really want to better yourself, or make your family proud, or whatever it may be, have some respect, trainee!”
I felt the tears begin to well, which frustrated me even more.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Jesus Christ!” he huffed, before walking away.
The reason this story lingers with me, is because I find myself wondering the main difference between fear and respect when it comes to interacting with those of a much higher rank than myself. Are the two feelings potentially connected? Maybe.
I’ve noticed some junior-enlisted Airmen purposefully steer clear of officers to avoid saluting. In my opinion, I think this is due to the fear of potentially looking or feeling awkward, not because they don’t respect the general population of officers.
Some junior-enlisted Airmen do their best to avoid talking to senior NCOs so they can prevent the possibility of saying or doing the wrong thing. I believe this is because the younger Airmen are afraid of making a bad impression, not because they don’t have respect for their leaders.
Alas, we have two examples of fear-driven actions. There are indeed other things fear can prevent, such as speaking up, asking questions or making corrections. These are crucial things necessary to a healthy work environment though, and their absence absolutely impacts the workplace.
I see respect in phrases like “sir” and “ma’am”, in open and active body language, and in actions such as holding a door open or waiting to sit down until being told to do so. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, respect is defined as an act of giving particular attention, or high or special regard, not as avoiding conversation and withholding opinions in order to fly under the radar.
We as Airmen are told to respect many things: the uniform, the service, our superiors, our veterans and each other. Then why, in my opinion, does it feel like there is this unsaid expectation to fear those above us? Take the master sergeant from my story, who seemed to be frustrated because I did not fear him. I felt like he expected me to cower beneath him, rather than stand tall and speak to him with unwavering respect.
The message I am trying to convey is the frustration I have for those who expect fear as a sign of respect, and for those who cheat themselves of a full Air Force experience by fearing their leaders. I understand the difference in roles and responsibilities between an airman and a colonel, but I believe if we are all fighting for the same mission, we all deserve the same respect, as “big-A” Airmen.