Leadership Lessons - Focus on the Heart

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Nicque Robinson
  • 319th Contracting Flight
It was the spring of my freshman year at the Air Force Academy. Finals had been taken, seniors were preparing to graduate, and everyone was looking forward to being one year closer to leaving that place. I'd had a pretty rough year. I was fighting accusations of an honor violation, which eventually got dropped, I was barely keeping my head above water academically, my military ranking wasn't very high and I was beginning to wonder why I decided to join the Air Force in the first place. Everywhere I looked, there was something telling me that I wasn't good enough, that I wasn't measuring up. I was jaded as could be and couldn't remember why I even wanted to be in the Air Force.

It was 20 minutes before retreat and I was about to make the journey from my dorm building to Arnold Hall. Ironically, I often left 20 minutes before retreat so that I could avoid getting stuck outside in the Colorado cold at present arms or attention. I didn't know, that today, it was meant for me to leave 20 minutes early on that particular day to meet one particular person in one particular place.

As I went down the stairs, I saw a civilian woman climbing up. It wasn't uncommon to see parents and other family walking the halls around graduation time, but I felt right away that this was something different. Her eyes were red and I could tell that she had been crying for a while. She was mid-step and leaning on the rails with her face in her hand. I went over and asked, "Ma'am, what's wrong? Can I help you?"

"Oh no, it's just that..." she pointed to the picture behind me and shocked me with three words: "that's my brother."

I couldn't tell you how many times in basic training we'd learned about the only Air Force Academy graduate to earn the Medal of Honor-the downed Vietnam War pilot Capt. Lance P. Sijan, how he refused to be rescued and put others in harm's way for his sake, how he evaded rescue for over  a month until he was captured, how he endured torture until passing away, having never given away information to his captors. I had lived in Sijan Hall for 10 months and passed that life-sized portrait of Lance Sijan countless times. I never thought in a million years that here, I would meet his sister.

I was completely speechless. All I could do was hug her. We sat down at the top of the stairs and Janine told me about her older brother Lance. He was sweet, gentle and caring, she said. She was so proud of him and what he did.

After talking for a while we began to exchange phone numbers. Then, retreat sounded. We both stopped what we were doing and held each other facing the flag that showed through the glass walls of the hall.

There I was, standing in Sijan Hall in front of Lance Sijan's picture holding Lance Sijan's sister as the flag went down and the National Anthem played. It was like the Air Force was giving me this big, awesome hug! For the first time in several months, I was so proud to be an Air Force cadet.

Janine said that she would ask Lance to be my guardian angel.

It's so easy to get caught up in stats and lose sight of the big picture. Perhaps, before basic training, before we knew what an OPR or EPR was, before exploring the tips and tricks of how to look good to your superiors or how to get promoted to the next rank, the reasons for joining were so much simpler: to help people, to serve our country or to honor a legacy.

When I looked at Lance Sijan's picture with new eyes that afternoon, I was reminded of what it actually means to serve in the United States military. Early on, he wasn't exactly considered the shining star of achievement when it came down to the stats. Like me, he was put on academic probation for low grades. At one point, he was on the verge of being kicked out. However, when it came down to what was in his heart, he had what it took to do what was right for the good of his country and his wingmen.

As we progress in our Air Force careers, whether you decide to spend five years, twenty years or a lifetime in service, I invite us all not to focus on the stats attached to our name, but on what's in our hearts. In whatever you do, make sure your heart is in it.  In preparing this story, when I searched "Lance Sijan academic probation" on Google, I couldn't find a thing. All that comes up are various iterations of his story, praises of his bravery and selflessness, awards made in his name and the names of the family he left behind. The world won't remember us for our performance report bullets, quarterly awards or how quickly we made rank. They will remember us for caring about people, for standing up for what's right when no one else will, for performing our job with excellence simply because it's the right thing to do. I believe that if we focus on these things, everything else will follow.
My guardian angel helped me see that.