Pushing through barriers

  • Published
  • By Col. Charles Arnold
  • 21st Mission Support Group commander
Last week I received one of the more rewarding emails of my career. The current commandant of the Community College of the Air Force contacted me to let me know that this spring the CCAF would award an associate's degree in emergency management to Staff Sgt. Jason Ellis, a retired explosive ordnance disposal technician who was wounded in action. This will mark the first time CCAF has awarded a degree to a member who completed their academic requirements while in a retired status.

So why did the email from the CCAF bring me so much joy? To explain I'll need to go back to early 2009 when I was the deputy division chief of the Air Force Learning Division on the Air Staff. In that job I had the opportunity to work with several of our wounded warriors, including Tech. Sgt. Matt Slaydon and his incredibly supportive wife, Annette. Despite massive injuries that included the loss of his left arm, loss of his left eye, and a substantial loss of vision in his right eye, Matt remained focused on his future.

Specifically, he relayed that he wanted to pursue a doctorate in psychology and counsel wounded warriors. Unfortunately, Matt was being medically retired on Aug. 28, 2009, and as a retiree would not be eligible to complete his CCAF degree, which he saw as the first step in his goal towards pursuing an advanced degree so he could assist fellow wounded warriors. My immediate reaction was that it shouldn't take much to fix this loophole in the CCAF program -- who wouldn't agree that we owed it to our wounded warriors to allow them to pursue a CCAF degree even in retired status? Clearly changing existing policy would be easy...right? Boy was I wrong.

I started by contacting the CCAF staff, who explained to me that this was not an issue of policy, but rather a legal issue. Current law did not allow the CCAF to award degrees to retirees, including our wounded warriors. The CCAF staff explained to me that the change I was pursuing would require new legislation. They explained that we were looking at a multi-year process that in all likelihood would not be successful. I made more calls, huddled with my staff, spoke to the folks in the Secretary of the Air Force Legislative Liaison office, and in almost every case I was told that I was fighting an uphill battle.

Around this same time, I was hired to be the executive officer to the Air Force's Director of Manpower, Personnel, and Services, Lt. Gen. Dick Newton. I knew that Newton was committed to the care of our wounded warriors, so I used my new position to enlist his support. I now had the firepower I needed to tackle this issue. I worked with the CCAF staff, AF/A1X and SAF/LL to start the lengthy process that I hoped would end with our retired wounded warriors having the option of earning CCAF degrees. I will not bore you with the details, and I'd like to claim that I bird-dogged this project from start to finish, but that isn't the case at all. Over the next year I again changed jobs and I lost visibility on the project. To be completely honest, until I received the heart-warming email from the CCAF commandant last week, I hadn't thought about this initiative in more than 18 months. So the credit for this change goes to the great folks at the CCAF and on the Air Staff who continued to work this issue for more than three years. What I can take credit for is pushing the issue and getting the ball rolling when everyone told me it was a waste of my time and effort.

So why am I sharing this story with you? It is simple really -- far too often when we have an innovative idea or a way to improve a process, we run into what appears to be insurmountable barriers. Sometimes those barriers take the form of our immediate supervision who state "that isn't how we do it here" or "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." Sometimes barriers to implementing innovative ideas or improving processes take the form of local guidance or poorly written Air Force Instructions that are simply outdated or just plain miss the mark. Even harder to overcome are those cases that require a change in legislation, but as I have highlighted above, if you are committed to doing the right thing, even the law can be changed.

So my challenge to you is don't be afraid to take on challenges when the odds are stacked against you. In the case I covered above, almost everyone agreed that allowing CCAF to award degrees to wounded warriors fell into the "good idea" category, but almost no one initially supported pursuit of the goal based on the work required, the length of time it would take, and the limited likelihood we would be successful. As you are all aware, we are part of an evolving Department of Defense and a changing Air Force, and we can all play a role in positive change. So when you run into barriers, don't be afraid to stand by your convictions. You'll be amazed by what you can accomplish, and our Air Force will be better for your efforts.