Avoiding The Vertical Pronoun
(July 19, 2010)
U.S. Air Force photo
SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE,
Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner is one of only
three Airmen since Sept. 11, 2001, to receive the Air
Force's highest honor, the Air Force Cross, and the only one
who did not receive it posthumously.
A combat controller, Sergeant Rhyner saved countless lives
by calling in more than 50 "danger close" air strikes, many
virtually on top of his own position, after his special
operations team was caught in a 360-degree ambush in
Afghanistan's Shok Valley in April 2008. Even as he
controlled eight Air Force fighters and four Army attack
helicopters while perched on the side of a cliff, he laid
down suppressing fire so wounded teammates could be
extracted from the line of fire.
Sergeant Rhyner's actions that day were truly heroic, and
his story has been rightfully used by many, including Air
Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, to illustrate
what Airmen bring to the joint fight.
But I'd like to use his actions off the battlefield to
illustrate another principle.
Earning the Air Force Cross was a big news story, and many
interviews followed. Sergeant Rhyner's conduct during that
time demonstrated his character almost as much as the Shok
Valley experience did.
You find one word repeated over and over when Sergeant
Rhyner is quoted: "We."
"We had to pull the wounded guys out ..."
"I think that was the moment when the insurgents we were
fighting called time-out."
"What was going through my head was we don't have another
option. We are still taking fire. We need it to stop ..."
Even noted news personality Glen Beck couldn't get Sergeant
Rhyner to talk about himself.
"You make this sound like it was just, you know, another day
at the office," Mr. Beck said in a Fox News interview. "But
there are only -- what is it? -- 192 people who have ever
received the Air Force Cross... How do you put that together
in your head? I mean, you are in a very elite group."
Sergeant Rhyner's response?
"Any other combat controller put in the same situation would
have performed in the same, exact way" he said. "Credit that
to the training we receive and the process that we go
through to become a combat controller."
No other Airman would have been more justified in basking a
little in the light of fame. Yet given the ultimate
opportunity to make it "all about me," Sergeant Rhyner chose
instead to make it all about "we."
That is a great, great lesson for all of us.
"It's all about me" sometimes seems to be the mantra of our
time, but that attitude has no place in our Air Force. We
are taught from the first day we don our uniforms to
subordinate our personal ambitions and desires to the needs
of our unit, our service and our nation.
We can't allow ourselves to get puffed up because of rank or
position, or to let awards and accolades go to our heads.
We know that "we" is a much stronger word than "I." What "I"
can accomplish is insignificant, but what "we" can
accomplish is virtually without limit.
Sergeant Rhyner understands that well. We can learn much
from his great courage and selfless sacrifice in the line of
duty. We can learn much, too, from his humble ability to
avoid the vertical pronoun, even as the cameras rolled.
By USAF Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
82nd Training Wing
Air Force News Service
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