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These are the stories we tell on Memorial Day


If you frequent this blog you'll notice there are two kinds of posts: stories of toxicity, and stories of great leaders. I've been saving this story for a bit but this weekend seems to be the right time to share it.

In the summer of 2012 I was a swing shift flightline expediter in the 308th AMU. Things were not going well. We were trying to balance the training syllabus, a major avionics modification while our manpower dwindled and our experience was quickly evaporating.

This was at the height of the sequestration climate and was coming off the heels of two major manning moves for aircraft maintenance: Open shred for fighter crew chiefs and the redistribution of fighter crew chiefs to heavy aircraft. Both of these actions had a devastating effect on fighter maintenance likely even being felt today.
Chief Master Sergeant Brad Roberts

I was working about 15 hours a night, some nights longer. Our AMU had gone through several leadership changes due to PCS, retirements and firings. And those leadership changes likely increased the churn of our maintenance exacerbating the already tenuous situation.

We began wracking up ground aborts and maintenance non-deliveries. We couldn't recover from the days flying any longer and as each week would progress we would pile up our broken iron and turn a lot of maintenance over to an equally weary weekend duty. Without a doubt, we were the worst performing unit in the maintenance group at that time.

Then we got a new Chief. He wasn't a transplant from another unit, he was a new arrival to Luke. In my experience new leaders at a failing unit are typically disciplinarians so I was expecting things to
get a lot worse. This particular Chief was easily 6'5" with a flat top haircut, the calling card of the hard ass.

Lucky for me, I was on swing shift so I probably wouldn't see him much. However, he took notice of me and that made me worried.

My typical day would start at 1400 and after a quick turnover I would begin my shift. My day would end anywhere from 0400 to 0600. Then I would sleep about 4 hours and get up to do it all over again [it was a long year].

One day I came into work at my usual time. The night prior I hadn't gotten everything done that was expected due to various reasons. When I stopped off at the production office on my way to the flightline for turnover I saw Chief Roberts talking with the lead pro super about the way forward. I quickly left because I was sure they were discussing what I hadn't gotten done the night prior.

That following night we were exceptionally broke. I don't remember the specifics but I do remember being at work until 0630 the next morning. As I was finishing my shift notes Chief Roberts came in to review the production board when he saw me. I quickly finished my notes and left, again avoiding his scrutiny.

Later that day when I returned at 1400 I again stopped off at the production office to drop off my things. Again Chief Roberts was in the production office but this time he took notice of me. He turned to me and asked 'Didn't I see you in here this morning?' I replied with a quick 'yes sir.'

Now this conversation could go one of two ways.

The first way is where I get chastised for working well beyond the maximum allowed time per day. Perhaps with a sprinkling of critique on my time management skills or lack thereof.

Then there's another way I had never experienced before.

Chief Roberts continued 'I notice you put in a lot of hours around here. I'm trying to do something about that. I appreciate what you're doing.'

Huh.

He wasn't lying either. It did get worse at work before it got better, but every step we took felt like we were climbing out of our hole. We were working with vision and purpose.

For the next few months Chief Roberts sought my perspective and honest feedback a few times. At the smoke pit we would chat about the nights work or persistent broke jets, sometimes troubleshooting theory or why I thought something was a good fix or not.

In November of 2012 he approached me to ask a favor. He explained he needed me to move from my current role as an expediter to the APG section to be a section chief to augment the current leadership in the section. He felt my personality might bring a bit of order to the section.

In this new capacity I worked with Chief Roberts everyday. Every morning meeting, and multiple times through the day as I got my feet beneath me both as a section chief and as a young SNCO.

He was a wealth of knowledge and experience. He looked at things from a unique angle that often everyone else didn't consider. I quickly adapted to his perspective to anticipate his questions.

Within the first week of working with him in my new capacity he asked me what he could do to keep me in the Air Force. It wasn't a secret I was seeking the soonest possible retirement option and Chief Roberts wanted me to reconsider.

I responded 'Easy. If you make Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, I'll stay in. My problems are much larger than just stuff locally, the Air Force has systemic issues that need radical change' [The most recent CMSAF Kaleth Wright is addressing these issues expeditiously]. Chief Roberts said that would never happen but from that brief exchange he had a better idea of what my motivations were.

Within 6 months our unit had turned itself around and we were meeting every maintenance metric.
We went on to win AMU of the Year for 2013 just a few months before Chief Roberts retirement after 30 years of service.

During his final months in the Air Force I was filling in on First Sergeant duty. During my turn-over for the job I was made aware of an Airman that had made a threat against Chief Roberts. The Airman was frustrated with his job duties, his career and his life. In a state of anger he conveyed a physical threat against Chief Roberts.

The AMXS commander was pursuing Article 15 actions against this Airman and as the acting First Sergeant I was coordinating with AMU leadership and legal to get the Article 15 served. To me it seemed pretty cut and dry. There was physical proof of his threats and they were specific and credible.

Just before the Airman was served the Article 15 I was arranging the papers in a folder on my desk when Chief Roberts walked by. By this point he was no longer running the AMU as he was outprocessing for his upcoming retirement. He asked what I was doing and I responded we were about to serve the Article 15 for the incident and he walked off, continuing towards the orderly room for his appointment.

Fifteen minutes later I was in the commander's office with the Airman standing at attention. The Airman was flanked by his AMU leadership and I was observing the proceedings to make sure everything was taken care of.

Then something weird happened. The commander elected to terminate the Article 15 and asked the Airman what he wanted for his career. The Airman responded he just wanted to end his enlistment as soon as possible. The commander told him he would do what he could to help the Airman to make that a reality. The Airman was separated honorably due to a hardship.

There was no animosity. It wasn't a dress down. The commander had completely reversed course and I couldn't understand how or why.

When the Airman left the room, everyone else in the room asked why the commander had done a 180. The commander said Chief Roberts stopped in and asked for him to go easy on the kid. He obviously made the threat when he was upset and Chief Roberts wasn't worried about it. There was no reason to ruin the kids life.

Chief Roberts could have not said anything and that Airman's life would've been radically different. Instead he did the right thing. Chief Roberts taught me that doing the right thing is more important that personally being right. Sometimes those two things are at odds, and you have to make sure you put morality and justice over your own pride. He also taught me to give people the benefit of the doubt.

A few weeks later Chief Roberts asked me to emcee his retirement ceremony which I readily agreed to. However as the day drew closer I was becoming more emotional as I'd read over his script.

I think I was experiencing genuine grief. It wasn't grief he was leaving per se, because he was staying here in Phoenix for the foreseeable future. I was experiencing grief because when he retired the Air Force would suffer a loss. I would no longer be working for a leader that made all the dysfunction, careerism and harshness of the Air Force just melt away. While the rest of the Air Force was in a crisis, the 308th was in the eye of the storm; as long as Chief Roberts was running it. I was upset because I was losing that sanctuary.

I went to his house a week before his ceremony and told him I wouldn't be able to emcee it. I couldn't look him in the eye but he didn't question it. I think he understood. I had made a name for myself as a fairly proficient public speaker [That first MPOY doesn't count, I was nervous] so my backing out had little to do with a fear of public speaking.

The reality was I didn't think I could keep it together for the ceremony. I spoke with Captain Gramkow our mutual friend and told her my decision to back out of the ceremony. With [rightfully] no attempt to sugar coat it, she told me that I would regret not doing it for the rest of my life.

I can not adequately convey how right she was, especially in hindsight.

I met with him the following day and told him I wanted to emcee it and I would not back out again.

We practiced the ceremony the day before and I was doing ok. I just lived inside the script and followed the narrative. Doing so allowed me to not really think about the event itself.

The day of the ceremony I was dressed in my service dress uniform as were the rest of the members of the retirement ceremony. Chief Roberts family had arrived and were preparing for their entrance. I could feel my nerves and emotions welling.

Once the ceremony began, I was doing much better. Sticking to the script and moving right along.

As is typical in a military retirement ceremony the retiree will give a gift or memento to any special guests or family members in attendance. Chief Roberts purchased some 308th Fighter Squadron coins and had each of his family member's name etched onto the coin.

As he was giving each coin out he would say a few words about the person and how he met them.

With the last coin in his hand he turned to me. He began to describe how we met and how often he had relied on me to get a project done or fix a section.
He said he was very proud of me and everything I had done. I crossed the stage to accept the coin and gave him a hug.

He was stoic as ever.

I on the other hand was a blubbering mess. All manner of congestion and tears were bursting from my face. I had little time to regain some assemblage of composure before reciting the emotional 'Watch' poem which follows:

For 30 years, this Airman has stood the watch

While some of us were in our bunks at night … this Airman stood the watch

While some of us were in school learning our trade … this Airman stood the watch

Yes, even before some of us were born into this world ... this Airman stood the watch

In those years when the storm clouds of war were seen brewing on the horizon of history … this Airman stood the watch

Many times, he would cast a glance and see his family standing there, needing his guidance and help … needing that hand to hold during those hard times … but he still stood the watch

He stood the watch for thirty years

He stood the watch so that we, our families, and our fellow countrymen could sleep soundly in safety each and every night knowing that an Airman stood the watch.

Today I am here to say, the watch stands relieved. Relieved by those you have led, guided and trained

Chief Master Sergeant Roberts, You stand relieved. We have the watch!


I somehow got through the poem and the ceremony concluded. At the after party I decompressed and had a really good time meeting his family and friends.

Not much had really changed. I PCS'd to Holloman but every month I was back in Phoenix and I'd make a point to go by the Chief's house to have a beer and seek his counsel.

Chief Roberts had the unique ability to see the gray area, an exceptionally impressive feat for someone that served 30 years in the military. That gray area is what allowed him to see beyond the black and white of the Airman that made the threat against him so he could do what was right.

Chief Roberts wouldn't let a poorly written or implemented AFI get in the way. If something was stupid or didn't make sense we wouldn't do it. And it never felt shady. He was perfectly willing to explain to anyone of any rank why his unit didn't follow a particular regulation if he knew the regulation was wrong.

I only worked with him for a year but his impact on how I led and how I wanted to be led was profound. He wasn't just smart, he was wise. He was judicious with his authority not abusive. He spent every moment of every day trying to find ways to use his position and authority to help the lowest Airman.

I have no shame at all saying I wanted [and still want] to be exactly like Chief Roberts.

The morning of December 13th 2015 I was planning to drive back to Holloman. It was a Sunday. I awoke to a message from Captain Gramkow 'whats going on with Chief?'

I was still groggy and I responded 'Nothing. I had lunch with him on Friday'

She told me to check his Facebook page.

Sometimes you can just tell. The wording of a conversation or the urgency of the response. That feeling you get when you know there is something you don't know.

There was a message on his page saying he had left us and would be missed.

I was frantic. I texted him over and over. Eventually I got a phone call from him. As I accepted the call and brought the phone to my ear I was exhaling for what felt like the first time in minutes. I said 'Hey Chief whats going on?'

It wasn't the Chief on the phone, and I knew. I knew he was gone.

He served 30 years in the Air Force. After his retirement he said he would turn right back around and enlist as an E-1 if the Air Force would let him. A year after his retirement he died of a heart attack.

This invincible, stoic, and wise man; the greatest I had ever known was gone.

I can say without a doubt Chief Roberts has had a lasting effect on the Air Force and everyone that knew him.

On Memorial Day I think about Chief Roberts and his service and legacy.





Comments

  1. What a beautiful tribute to one of the finest. He was a mentor, a leader, a sounding board, a light, a conversationalist and so much more. He was my hero. One of my greatest loves . But most of all, he was my brother.
    Thank you Chris for honoring him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. He was a good Chief and even better man. Thanks for sharing your story.

    ReplyDelete

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