U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo, (AFNS) --
Air Force Academy cadets get so fired-up about their chief of staff; they show up 15 minutes early and sit in the front row of Arnold Hall -- voluntarily.
When Gen. Mark A. Welsh III comes to talk, "people want to sit up front," said one cadet, who, with a group of friends from Cadet Squadron 22, turned the front row into Raptor Row.
When Welsh stepped onto the stage, he got a rock star's welcome. After he told the audience to take their seats, the Cadet Wing erupted into cheers and applause.
"That's all you've got?" he joked.
Welsh, a Texas native, used humor to season his presentation, including a photo from an Air Force Association appearance where he walked onstage wearing a repurposed Captain America mask. The "A," he said in the earlier speech, represented airpower.
"My insidious plot is working; my legions are forming," he said, showing a photo of the young son of an Airman wearing a similar mask.
Welsh focused much of his speech on Air Force people, both past and present. He spoke briefly about the upcoming final toast of the Doolittle Raiders and the recent deaths of retired Gen. David Jones, the Air Force's ninth chief of staff, and Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, whose statue stands in the Academy's air gardens today.
"We've lost people who built this place, whose legacy you inherit, who built our Air Force," he said.
The heritage that Jones, Risner and others built continues with today's cadets, Welsh said.
"That's part of who you are now. That's part of your DNA," he said.
While Welsh said he entered the Air Force because he loved airplanes, he remained in the service because he loved the people. He highlighted a few Airmen in his speech, including Tech. Sgt. Zach Rhyner, who called in airstrikes for six hours after sustaining a gunshot wound to protect the lives of his fellow Airmen during an April 2008 engagement in Afghanistan.
"This guy's the real deal," Welsh said. "Zach Rhyner has never had a negative thought in his life. The guy's a hero. Just knowing him makes me proud."
Welsh continued, recalling the tale of Captains Ryan Thornton and Adriana Valadez, who operated a C-130 Hercules while deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. They got a call to evacuate an Airman who had been stabilized at a field hospital.
"Unfortunately, after they took off, he started bleeding from both the injury and the exit wound," Welsh said. "Along the way (to Bagram), the medical team worked to keep him alive. They did some pretty dramatic things to make that happen. Adriana was having trouble keeping pressure on the wound, so she actually strapped herself to the litter. She put her hands inside the wounds and kept them compressed as the airplane descended and landed, desperately trying to keep him alive."
Valadez saved not only the Airman's life, but his leg, Welsh said. She didn't know at the time who her patient was.
"She said, 'I'd love to know, but we never really know who they are. He had a beard,'" Welsh said. "When I told her, she was surprised. It was Zach Rhyner, headed home again. I hope to introduce them to each other one of these days. He's an Air Force hero. So is she."
Welsh also mentioned Maj. Isaac Bell, a 2002 Academy graduate who played a pivotal role in a battle near Combat Outpost Keating in October 2009. That battle, Welsh said, resulted in two Soldiers receiving Medals of Honor for their actions on the ground. Bell flew alongside Captains Gordon Olde and Dave Nierenberg and Royal Air Force Flight Lt. James Siwicki in an F-15E Strike Eagle four-ship to provide close-air support.
"Once these guys arrived on the scene, there wasn't another casualty ... on the U.S. side," the general said. "They spent a lot of time and a lot of ordnance protecting people on the ground. That's what Airmen do. Isaac's proud of what he does. I'm proud of Isaac. He's you in not too many years."
Bell, Valadez and Rhyner exemplify three of the Airmen whom cadets will meet and lead after they graduate, Welsh said. He recalled the tale of James Bowie, the last combatant who died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. Bowie, though ill, used his two pistols to shoot the first two Mexican soldiers who entered his room and continued to fight in close quarters until he was killed.
"By the way, answer that question yourself before you come out the door (to the Air Force), because the Airmen you lead -- I guarantee you they're going to die with a knife in their hand," he said.
That, Welsh said, means the Air Force's next generation of officers must treat their fellows with respect.
"Before you walk out the door of this Academy, I want you to fully appreciate the value of the people you are sitting beside -- all of them, even the ones you don't like or (whom) you don't think are as talented as you are," Welsh said. "You have no idea -- no idea -- who is going to be in that medical crew that your life depends on. You have no idea who's going to be in the cockpit of the airplane that provides close-air support ... You have no idea who the number-four aircraft in that formation's going to be when you're leading your four-ship into combat 15 years from now ... who will have your life in their hands. You have no clue who that's going to be."
So Welsh offered the cadets a simple suggestion.
"Value everybody. Understand that everybody in this business is critically important to what we do. They all bring something different that you don't have. They all matter, and they all deserve to be treated with respect, here and in the Air Force," he continued. "Understand that respect is the key to success - that inclusion is part of our strength, and that without diversity, we have a glaring shortfall."
Welsh told the cadets to embrace both respect and pride.
"If you're not going to be proud of who you are; if you're not going to be proud of what you represent; if you're not going to be proud of wearing this uniform, and you think you can come out and do your job and tolerate the rest of us, you're going to be terribly surprised," he said.
Welsh concluded by reminding the cadets that leadership is a gift given by those who follow.
"You have to be worthy of it," he said. "That's your job now. You'll find that when you are worthy of it, the people who follow you will all stand a little prouder, too."