WASHINGTON, (AFNS) -- While the new officers of the U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2017 must never stop learning, it's time to lead, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at graduation ceremonies in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford thanked the 979 graduates for answering the call to duty in a very challenging time.
"The world changed when you were about 5 years old, and we've been at war now for almost 16 years," he said. "Today, there are more than 100,000 Airmen standing watch around the world. Many are directly supporting combat operations and are joined by thousands more Soldiers, Sailors and Marines."
The general stressed the priority for the new officers changed today with their commissioning oath. "The focus is not on you anymore. It is not about your GPA, your MPA or your PEA," he said, referring to their grade point average, military performance and physical education averages. "It's not about the superintendent's pin on your uniform, and it's not about your accomplishments on the athletic field.
"After today, your success is seldom going to be measured by what you as an individual can achieve," he continued. "Mostly it will be about what your squadron achieves. And it is going to be how you inspire those you lead to excellence that matters."
Willingness to embrace, lead change
Flexibility is going to be key to any success the young officers will have in the service, Dunford said. "As you drive out the South Gate this afternoon, you need to do so with a willingness to embrace and lead change," he said.
Dunford, who was commissioned in 1977, said flexibility is required because of the pace of change in the world. "In my own career, I can't think of a time when the pace of change is even close to what it is today," he said.
When he entered active duty, the chairman said, the Marines were still outfitted in cold-weather gear from the Korean War. "Our radios, our rifles and our machine guns were leftovers from Vietnam, he said. "The jeeps would have been familiar to World War II veterans, and to be quite honest with you, so would the tactics."
No more. From clothing to aircraft to command-and-control systems, service members are breaking new ground and that is driving strategy and tactics, Dunford said. "In the past four years, the world's greatest Air Force has tripled the number of remotely piloted aircraft," he added.
The service made similar advancements in space and command-and-control systems, as well as in cyber stealth and precision capabilities, he noted. The Air Force fielded the F-22 Raptor and is now fielding the F-35A Lightning II.
"The pace of change is not going to stop when you graduate," Dunford said. "By the time that you make major, the United States Air Force is going to look much different even than it does today."
That kind of change will require a lifelong pursuit of education, he said, but one aspect of the military profession hasn't changed.
Human, not hardware, determines success
"At the end of the day, the military profession is about people," the general said. "The primary difference between success and failure on and off the battlefield has historically been about the human, not about the hardware Notwithstanding all the changes in our profession … I believe you can primarily attribute any success that we've had on the battlefield in our history to the actions of individual Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines. Their willingness to go out day after day and do what must be done has made the difference."
That willingness doesn't come from doctrine, techniques or new weapons systems or equipment, Dunford told the graduating class. "The will to endure when the going gets tough, the willingness to put yourself at risk and to put the needs of your wingman ahead of your own – all that comes from intangibles," he said.
The chairman quoted a World War I Marine who, when speaking of the dedication of the Marines in the regiment, spoke of "such things that regiments hand down forever." He told the young Air Force officers to think of it as "such things that squadrons hand down forever."
"I am referring to qualities like courage, honor, commitment, loyalty and selflessness," Dunford said.
Ordinary Airmen accomplishing extraordinary things
Dunford gave the graduates two examples of ordinary Airmen who accomplished extraordinary things. He spoke of Richard Brims, a 1971 Air Force Academy graduate who earned the Air Force Cross for his actions in rescuing the crew of the SS Mayaguez in May 1975 after it was seized by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Brims and his squadron were dispatched to rescue the ship and the crew of 39. Their job was to insert 200 Marines on the nearby island of Koh Tang.
The Khmer Rouge heavily defended the island, and the Marines and Airmen were met by a buzz saw. Soon, 11 helicopters were downed, leaving only three to extract the Marines left on the island. Brims returned to the landing zone twice.
"On his last trip, Lieutenant Brims made three unsuccessful attempts to land," Dunford said. "The Marines on the island tried to wave him off, saying it was too dangerous for him to land. But he wasn't going to leave those Marines. He landed and loaded 27 Marines."
He held his position under fire while one of his crewmen ran to the tree line to grab two other Marines who were laying down a base of suppressive fire to allow the evacuation to take place. "He is justly remembered as a hero," the general said. "But that hero sat right where you sit today. He walked the same halls, and he studied the same subjects. He's the same guy who was pulling pranks on graduation day. He was an ordinary Airman who did extraordinary things."
Heroism in Afghanistan
Dunford told the new officers they don't have to look far back for examples, citing Maj. Alex Hill, who was commissioned in 2006. In November, Hill commanded an AC-130 gunship called Spooky 43. It was providing overwatch for a team of 55 American and Afghan special operators that was ambushed and surrounded. Within minutes, the team took 20 casualties.
Hill and his crew launched into action and began firing at the enemy, mostly within about 40 yards of friendly forces – the very definition of the term "Danger Close."
Their actions allowed the ground forces to regroup, but didn't halt the enemy. Eventually, the gunship was shooting within 15 yards of the friendly forces. "In total, Spooky 43 fired 21 Danger Close missions that day and saved over 50 lives on the ground," Dunford said.
It was an impressive team achievement, and people can read about the mission on the Internet. But what the write-up doesn't say is it was the first deployment for four of the crew members, and the first combat mission for one of them. It doesn't say that one of the sensor operators missed the crew brief that day because the major let him go off to see the video teleconference of a memorial service for one of his fellow Airmen. It doesn't say that one of the loadmasters was being treated for combat stress because he had a close encounter with a surface-to-air missile one year prior, right where that action took place, Dunford said.
"You won't read that when Major Hill landed to rearm and refuel, he put his hand on each of his crewmen and looked them in the eyes to see if they were OK," the general said. "He also asked them, 'Can you go back?' None of them hesitated. They all went back.
"Maj. Hill's crew performed that day not because he was a major, but because he was a leader with a warrior ethos. [Hill is] a leader who was technically and tactically competent, but also a leader who trusted and cared for his Airmen and earned their trust in return."
Leading from the front
Brims and Hill epitomize the idea that it wasn't about them and their individual actions, the nation's top military officer told the graduates. "It was about the Marines on Koh Tank Island and the special operators on the ground in Afghanistan," Dunford said. "It was about the crews. Your predecessors knew that individual competence, intellect and physical skills are all actually part of the sticker price for being an officer. You're not going to get any more credit for that after today. It is a given."
Those officers knew it was about leading from the front and instilling spirit in their units and a bond of trust within their crews, along with a commitment to excellence and to the mission, Dunford said.
"What's going to distinguish you as a leader is not your ability to develop cyber tools, fly a joint strike fighter or maintain satellite constellation – we expect you to do all that. You're graduates of the United States Air Force Academy," Dunford said.
"What is going to distinguish you as a leader is your personal example," he told the new officers. "Your ability to create an environment where those intangible qualities I spoke about -- those qualities that are passed down from one generation of Airmen to the next -- your task is to build an environment where those qualities flourish."