What are you doing for your country today?

  • Published
  • By Maj. Joseph Shirey
  • 4th Maintenance Operations Squadron commander
Several years and assignments ago, I was asked a simple question that changed how I thought of my service in the United States Air Force. 

I was assigned to the B-1 systems program office at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. I was on a career-broadening tour in acquisitions logistics. This was a complete change from my previous base-level assignment working aircraft maintenance. 

I was assigned to an acquisitions team that was developing an upgrade to the B-1B Lancer. The engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the program was scheduled to take eight years to complete. With a two-year assignment, I felt no real sense of accomplishment in my work. I began to find my work mundane, and I was growing bored. At the end of the day, I went home without the satisfaction I previously had generating and fixing aircraft. My office was a cubicle and I began to appreciate the humor in the Dilbert comic strip. I was a new captain, but I began to contemplate how long I wanted to stay in the Air Force. 

One day, our program director Col. Ben McCarter was making his rounds and stopped by to speak with me. During our conversation, he asked me one simple question. "What are you doing for your country today?" I was naïve and couldn't fully appreciate what he was asking. I replied that I had answered several e-mails, reviewed a few products from the contractor and spoke with them on the phone. He smiled and said, "No, that is what you are doing in your job, but what are you doing for your country?" He then left me to ponder this question. 

For the next few months I did just that. After turning this question over in my head for weeks and months, I began to shed light on what Col. McCarter was talking about. I began to realize that what I did in my job as a logistics manger had impact on the mission of the Air Force and our nation's interests. This didn't come to me all at once, but I began to connect the dots over time. In short, I was ensuring the supportability and sustainability of a weapons system upgrade that allowed B-1B aircrews to complete their mission, the USAF to prosecute war and support our vital national interests. Once I understood what he was asking, I began to feel more of a sense of pride in my work and see its importance. 

A few years later, that question taught me another lesson I needed to learn as a leader. I was assigned to Kadena Air Base, Japan, working RC-135 aircraft. Our mission was that of reconnaissance. I was the squadron maintenance officer and led a team of maintainers and supply technicians. I had the opportunity to learn about the mission and some of the results, but I began to realize the Airmen who were launching, fixing and supporting these operations did not. They would launch the aircraft each day without truly understanding why each mission was important. They didn't know why each of the many systems on the aircraft was mission essential. That's when I realized, as dedicated as they were, they didn't see how they fit into the big picture. 

After speaking with my squadron commander, I asked the intelligence flight commander to put together a briefing that could be shown to maintenance and supply. I wasn't sure how it would go over. I knew they would either appreciate it or be bored to tears. They loved it. They began to see what our mission was and the importance of each of the systems on the aircraft to that mission. As a team, we all began to connect the dots of how our jobs fit into the mission of the squadron, the USAF and the nation. I began to see a new zeal in our work. A sense of pride in doing the job right and urgency in getting the aircraft safely in the air became evident. Our partnership with the operators was never better. 

Finding the answer to that simple question made a difference in my career and in the career of many others. I still reflect on that question when I need a reminder that what I'm doing is important. 

During this long Global War on Terrorism, I submit that each of us can take what we do in our day-to-day job and connect it all the way to bombs-on-target, the Air Force mission and our national military objectives. 

Each Airman is a vital link in that chain. As the Air Force downsizes, we need our individual talents and contributions even more. So, I challenge you that when your work seems meaningless and dull, ask yourself: "What am I doing for my country today?"