Leading with courage

  • Published
  • By Col. Christopher Sage, 4th Fighter Wing commander
  • 4th Fighter Wing
Twelve Seconds! The time from liftoff to touchdown of the first sustained, powered flight – with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running along side - at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on the Outer Banks. Two brothers who were willing to lead with courage 112 years ago! We stand here today because of them – we stand on their shoulders.

Ladies and gentlemen, recent world events have reinforced the fact that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world! Just over three months ago, and similar to Istanbul on Tuesday, ISIL-directed attacks destroyed our local airport and a local subway station in Brussels – where we lived – both less than 15 minutes from our home. 32 bystanders were killed that day with over 300 injured – to include an Air Force family who lost their mother and wife.

This attack hit very close to home – and the fight is far from over. 754 Airmen from this wing are currently deployed to the front lines of this fight – and we keep them in our thoughts and prayers. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, we MUST lead with courage in the face of this evil and uncertainty. The good news is that there are more than a few people in this audience who have done so: There is a First Sergeant among us who led a patrol of five NCOs into the mountains to observe and report on enemy activity – insurgents who were moving artillery into place in preparation for a massive airfield assault. They were spotted and quickly surrounded – and began taking heavy fire. Their radio was hit and damaged, working on a reduced frequency band. 

With normal command and control frequencies unusable, the First Sgt. had an idea: he ordered the radio operator to access a specific frequency that he had pre-coordinated with Special Operations Forces if ever in a pinch. He requested close air support and passed coordinates. In a matter of minutes - three Air Force fighters arrived on scene and began attacking enemy positions. His courageous leadership on that day saved five American lives.

There is a young Lieutenant among us whose quick action saved the lives of a similar patrol that came under effective fire from heavy machine guns and mortars. After a show of force at 500’ in his Strike Eagle, he noticed the flag of a third-party country flying over the compound where the fire originated. With his flight lead away refueling, he quickly made a decision NOT to drop the requested precision guided munitions, but instead to lay down 20 mm warning shots only meters away from the compound – forcing the engagement to cease.

The first story - the story of the Wright Brothers’ first flight – their courage is represented by the Airman standing in formation today – where I know there are additional stories of physical and moral courage.

The second story – the First Sgt. on patrol - that was in 1971 in the hills near Na Trang Air Base in South Vietnam – where Master Sgt. James Sage – my uncle - now retired – was awarded the Bronze Star for his courage and leadership. 

The third story – the young wingman – that was in 2011 in the mountains of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border – where now Captain “Diablo” Thibault – was awarded the Air Medal for having the courage “not” to engage.

I tell these three stories – starting with the Wright Brothers – to show that leading with courage is part of our DNA – from 1903 -- to 1971 -- to 2011 – to today. And as I look around this morning, I see the faces of young Airmen who I know will rise to the challenge – to fulfill whatever tasking our Nation asks of us. So my pledge to you today - is that I will also lead with Courage; I will follow the example of the heroes I highlighted today. I will continue to build community among Airmen – while carrying on the work of connecting us to the mission. 

The Seymour Johnson team – in partnership with the local community – has set the standard – not just for Air Combat Command, but for the entire Air Force. As I take the baton, we now join this impressive team – a team that has hit its stride. 

In closing, never forget that 12 Seconds over Kitty Hawk was only the first flight of the day. It was impressive and it forever changed the world. But the Wright Brothers did not rest. By the time that historic day was over, the record had been extended to 59 seconds. And that was only day 1… 

May we, today, embrace their spirit of determination as we courageously lead into the future! May God bless each of you, may God bless Seymour Johnson AFB, and may He bless our great nation!