I Laughed

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jared J. Smith
  • 12th Space Warning Squadron

I laughed.  It was an awkward, brief laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.  That was my first failure during the conversation, but not my last.

Fourteen years ago I was on the phone with a very good friend and fellow lieutenant who had just received his call sign during a flight school naming ceremony. He was excited, full of hopes and dreams about his future as a fighter pilot, and with his call sign in hand he was officially part of that exclusive community. During that conversation, my friend also told me about female lieutenant who had fared much worse. Her new name, bestowed by her comrades in arms and very literal wingmen, was “SUMAT”… Shut Up, Men Are Talking.

Women were somewhat recent additions to the fighter world at this point in time, a fraction of an already minute population in our military.  This female officer’s reward for years of hard work and determination to reach commissioning, and then successfully battling through pilot training to get tracked for fighters, was to be summarily and completely devalued by her peers and superiors. And this new title wasn’t just a temporary nickname, it’s the identity she would carry into the future, how she introduces herself, who she is, a story she gets to recount the rest of her career. Even if the whole thing was meant as a joke, the permanent damage and scarring is already done.

Place yourself in her combat boots upon arrival at a new unit. Does she feel like a respected part of an elite warfighting team? What are the chances she believes her leadership will give her fair and impartial consideration should any further incidents of harassment take place? Is this an environment where innovation flourishes because new ideas are welcome? Lastly, can this young officer devote herself wholly to becoming the most lethal aviator possible, or is there a culturally induced anchor around her neck robbing the United States of another weapon to fight and win its wars?

Hearing this news from my friend, my brain instantly knew and answered all of the above questions, it wasn’t difficult to know something was wrong, but my first reaction was to laugh clumsily. My second reaction, which was far worse, was to do nothing. I joked uncomfortably about my friend’s new call sign and then changed the subject.

Was I going to change the culture of the community by confronting this ugliness during a casual phone conversation? Absolutely not. But that kind of incremental step is so necessary to any kind of progress, and I wasn’t even willing to have the discussion with a close friend; I failed in that instance, and for that I am forever sorry.

Now, as a squadron commander, what can I do? I can view this problem as a readiness issue; I cannot posture my squadron to take part in a joint campaign to fight and win a war in space if I’m hemorrhaging brainpower and resources due to a hostile unit climate. I can simultaneously view this as a decency issue, in that situations like this are simply not how humans should treat each other.  Each lens leads to the same actions:  establishing high standards and then consistently and genuinely living them. 

Functionally, this means continuously setting the example, addressing the off-color joke, and thinking bigger than their own experiences and surroundings.  I believe that very few Airmen legitimately intend to hurt others with their words and actions, and are not adverse to a skillfully-applied correction when necessary.  If accomplished routinely enough, it will become part of a unit’s culture, creating the environment where the full talent pool can be unleashed on the mission.

Fourteen years ago both the Air Force and I failed to live up to these standards.  I believe that we have advanced since then, but further progress requires consistent, authentic, and personal interactions, which sometimes mean having that awkward conversation with a close friend.