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Commentary: Advice for the next generation of Airmen

Man posting for a photo in military service dress.

Col. Leland K. Leonard, 310th Operations Group commander. Leonard retired in June 2021.

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

In a few days, after a quarter century of commissioned service to our country, I will be laying down the authorities, rights, and privileges of what wearing the uniform of our military symbolizes.  Therefore, I come with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my fellow Airmen.  When I accepted my commission, I could not have imagined the things I would do in the Air Force, the places I would go, the people I would meet, and the relationships I would forge in the process.  If there is anything worth commenting on about my career, it is the friends I have made which I will continue to cherish long after I retire.  William Butler Yeats’ words echo my thoughts in this regard, “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and I say my glory was I had such friends.” 

Not only did I make lasting friendships that sustained me in my service, but I more importantly had family that supported me every step of the way.  My parents wrote weekly letters while I attended the Air Force Academy and always visited me and my family wherever I was stationed.   My wonderful wife, Leslie, who was, and still is, my biggest cheerleader, was always ready to provide support ranging from a listening ear, logistical planning for cross country moves, and making sure things were always taken care of at home while I was away.  And my two wonderful daughters.  They have had to endure leaving friends, schools (sometimes once the school year had already started), and have never lived close to grandparents.  Regardless of their disappointments, they have continued to support me and my service.  I definitely could not have served as long as I did without the support of friends and family along the way.

As I pass the baton to those still serving, I ask you to be ready to set the pace for the next leg.  The challenges our country faces today would have been unimaginable when I pinned on the gold bars of a Lieutenant.  In order to successfully meet those challenges, we must “…carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle-with liberty at stake.”  The pace you set in these interesting and challenging times will determine the defense of our way of life against those opposed to it.  You already have many of the tools you need to set that pace. 

First you must have persistence.  Regardless of external factors to the contrary, we must press toward our goal of a strong national defense.  There have been many times in my career when I wanted to quit, but it was my fellow Airmen that kept me going.  I looked to my right.  I looked to my left.  I was shoulder to shoulder with others who persisted in doing what they had to do, contributing to national defense.   

Persistence is what it is going to take to preserve us as a nation.  The threat may be a natural one like we see today.  It may be manmade, machines of war the likes of which are on the fringes of our imagination.  Regardless, we must persist if we are to survive and thrive. 

You must also have the right attitude.  We can easily spiral into negativity.  I know personally how debilitating a negative attitude can be, how paralyzing it is to be in its grip.  I have been impacted by thinking “there is no way I can do this.”  But it has been my family, my friends, and my fellow Airmen that have shown me that with their help, I can.  What I ask you to do is to think, “I can do this!” Or if you are not feeling particularly strong at the moment, “We can do this!”  Sometimes, you will just have to think you are “nine feet tall and could go bear hunting with a switch.” 

You will face challenges as individuals, as a service, and as a nation we can scarcely imagine.  As you pursue peace and the preservation of our way of life, our challengers will continually try to dissuade us.  But you cannot let them.  You may suffer temporary setbacks, but you must have an attitude that we will ultimately prevail, regardless of their actions.  This is the kind of attitude you must adopt, if you have not already.

You also must be women and men of good character.  You have to be honest with yourselves and with others.  You have to be willing to put others’ needs before your own needs and often your desires.  You have to be kind to those you work with and work for – those you lead and those by whom you are led.  People will not remember all the things you accomplished while you were in uniform but they will remember when you were kind to them. 

You must be willing to sacrifice your time, your resources, and your energy for others as well as ultimately, the mission.  You may be called upon to sacrifice more of those things, but never to sacrifice your character.  Character is what binds us all together to accomplish the mission we have been given, whether on the ground, in the air, or circling in orbits above the globe.

Finally, you must strive for excellence.  Perfection is unattainable.  “Good enough” does not win in the long-run.  Excellence in all you do is what you must continually strive for.  It is what will provide stability during turbulent times.  It will not make you second guess if you have been “found wanting” and unable to proceed.  It will never leave you with a sense of “I should have…” or “I could have…”  It is the kind of effort that satisfies in the end.  It also is the effort that wins.  You may not always attain it, but you must strive for excellence and demand others around you to do the same.

My desire for myself, as I pass the baton, is that I will prove not less virtuous and useful as a Citizen, than I did as an Airman.  My desire for you is that you will set the pace and continue to strive for peace as you defend our country.  I will be watching intently from the stadium.  It has been my honor to serve with you.  I wish you and your families nothing but the full blessings of liberty that our great country affords in our Constitution.