Walking a mile in each other's shoes

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Cody Crawford
  • 4th Space Control Squadron

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - A lot of people who live and work on Peterson Air Force Base have probably wondered what happens at the 4th Space Control Squadron - the “big fenced in building” out past the commissary. If you know or have talked to any of the members of the squadron, they most likely didn’t tell you much about what they do. Well, all of that is changing. We are going to take a deep look into the heart of our squadron, and you may be surprised by what you learn.

The character and compassion that exist inside the 4 SPCS Warhawk family is definitely worth showcasing. The members of the 4 SPCS have pioneered an event focused on addressing and changing some of the racial, cultural and systemic injustices that happen in our Air Force, Space Force and community. We are very hopeful this is a mold that can be edited, adopted and shared across the Peterson-Schriever Garrison, as well as our Air Force and Space Force. 

Some may ask, how can we possibly solve such a large issue? Well, it’s not easy, that’s for sure. The 4 SPCS put a diverse team together. Their main questions were: how can Airmen at a squadron level affect the changes that the Air Force and Space Force want to see, what are the biggest injustices happening, and how do we individually make a difference? These are all great questions and you will get a lot of valid responses that are all worth hearing and trying. What the team quickly realized is, there is no blueprint. There is no algorithm or formula that gets it 100 percent right. The team concluded that the most important thing was doing something, not just talking about it, but really pursuing it. Not just pushing it to the back burner any longer.

We have ignored injustices for decades now, and they obviously are not going to go away without all of us putting forth effort and determination. So let’s be innovative and solve the problems, because we can no longer ignore the problems we are facing as an Air Force and Space Force. As Airmen in the world’s greatest Air Force it is not an option to allow this to continue. We live our lives based on our core values: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. Excellence in all we do means just that. Not excellence just at work, but in our personal lives and communities as well. 

After a couple days of deliberation the team had a rough draft of their goals and took it to squadron leadership to get the green light. The command team was incredibly enthusiastic about the innovative plan and gave the team the green light. The 4 SPCS picked July 17, 2020, and made it an alternate duty location. But this was about to be a Wingman Day like nobody had seen or experienced before. 

Most members of the squadron outside of the planning and command team had no idea exactly what the substance of the Wingman Day was going to include. They began the day with a small hike. Along the trailhead there were 10 small signs periodically placed. The signs documented important events throughout American history. There was no guided discussion at this time, but the signs quickly sparked conversation and provoked some thoughts. Many members were unaware of these historical events. 

After the hike concluded, everyone gathered near a pavilion where a team leader delivered some powerful opening statements. He talked about what it meant to be an Airman, and how we are coming up short in certain areas. He dove into the meat and potatoes of why we had gathered there. The group was going to talk about racial disparities, both in our Air Force and in our communities. They were going to get into many uncomfortable and uneasy discussions that have been ignored because of organizational barriers in our work centers. There was a bit of silence and you could see some people getting uneasy and uncomfortable. 

Immediately after, the 4th SPCS commander delivered a few remarks. She touched on how certain topics will be more or less difficult for some members to talk about, and encouraged open dialogue and input from all members regardless of position, rank or flight.

Now with the stage set, it was time to break the ice. The team lined everyone up with the intent to show how differently people were raised and how their perspectives would be different. A series of yes or no questions were asked. Examples included: Did you have a mother figure in your life? Did you have a father figure? Did you live in a house? Were you afforded a car before your 18th birthday? Did you feel safe where you grew up? If you answered yes, you took one step forward. This quickly highlighted how much our lives differed. 

Once everyone was in place they discussed how all of the questions asked were circumstantial. The questions had nothing to do with your race, religion or sexual orientation. Every question asked was before your 18th birthday, meaning that these disparities were occurring well before you could even realize them. This activity really showed how some people were afforded different privileges by no fault of their own. Being aware of those privileges is a crucial part of bridging our gaps and making the Air Force and Space Force a more inclusive environment for all members. 

From here members were broken into smaller groups based solely on where they were standing at the end of the privilege exercise. Five small groups left to grab lunch. The groups started some small chatter and introductions. They talked about where they were from, their family upbringings, and what serving meant to them. 

After lunch it was time to really get into the hard conversations. A series of 12 progressing and compounding questions were staged around the building. The small groups slowly trickled into the trail. What happened next was truly incredible. There were senior noncommissioned officers with 20 years of service, lieutenants fresh to their first base and everyone in between. For the first time in their careers they were talking about things that had previously been considered sensitive subjects or inappropriate for work. The stage was set and we watched members openly share their own personal experiences. We watched members talk about racism they have personally experienced in the military. We watched people provide their own stories, not to be right or argue, but to listen and understand. A lot of members had a lot of things to say. This was an event that a lot of people had been waiting for. Everyone had an opinion and everyone had a story to tell. 

We witnessed a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, who’s now a major, hear the experiences of an African American female with 18 years of service. She was able to openly talk about her individual struggles with the system for the very first time. She was able to voice her frustrations and talk about some practical solutions we can implement right now. It was awesome to see the officer truly opening his mind to new perspectives that he had never personally experienced. The same thing kept happening repeatedly throughout the day. 

We witnessed a newly selected master sergeant who is about to take over as a flight chief hear the stories of how an African American staff sergeant was discriminated against by the members of his own flight. These are powerful conversations that should have been happening for decades now. That new master sergeant can use his position and his new found understanding to squash those things immediately. He is now more educated and aware of something he may not have been. This is a great stepping stone towards creating a more inclusive Air Force and Space Force. 

These are just two examples of conversations that happened for more than two hours. It showcased how desperately these talks were overdue. After all the small groups finished the trail of 12 questions everyone gathered for closing remarks. The team talked about how today was just one very small step and how we have just barely scratched the surface of what divides us and reiterated how important it is to continue having these talks in the work center, at home and in your communities. No matter how small your voice or your platform, you have the ability to induce change. What you do everyday matters. 

Typically after events like Wingman Days, it’s a race to your car to get home, but people sat around and continued talking for hours after the event concluded. It was truly amazing to see an entire squadron rally around a central cause. They are not going to turn a blind eye any longer. The status quo is no longer acceptable.

It will be great to see other squadrons adopt similar strategies and implement similar events. We don’t need a memorandum from the Secretary of the Air Force. We don’t need a yearly CBT to teach us how to deal with social injustice. Every single person should feel obligated to fix something when they see it broken. The 4 SPCS has started paving the way, but it's up to every single Airman in the Peterson-Schriever Garrison to ensure that their message is heard.