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Cutting corners

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Among my more unpopular decisions as a commander was to modify my squadron physical training policy, moving squadron PT sessions outside of duty hours; 6 a.m. Tuesdays and 4:45 p.m. Thursdays. As a concession, to those with childcare issues and other challenges, I made the sessions optional. Consequently on any Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon you would likely find me and the 30th Medical Support Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Adam Martinez, our superintendents and a small rag-tag band of medics running the 5km course around the main gym.

I have to admit that I am a marginal runner, at best. For those Trekkies among you, I could be described as having the agility of a Gorn, and, I am not well suited to endurance running. Consequently, these 5Ks for me are tantamount to super-marathons, requiring a heroic effort and a steely resolve as I come huffing and puffing to the finish.
On this particular course, as you approach the final turn back onto Washington Avenue, there is a cut-through that leads diagonally through the grass from California Boulevard. into the parking lot for the old gym. Despite my best intentions it never fails to catch my eye as I approach breathlessly and I find that I have to consciously remind myself to avoid the temptation. Even after 100 passes, I have to actively resist the temptation to cut through and save myself a hundred yards or so when I am on the brink of exhaustion and eager to complete the course.

One could readily argue that there would be little harm in my taking this convenient detour, but such temptations always appear benign and seductive at first glance. Examples come to light almost daily of those who choose the short cut instead of the long road, with cheating scandals, inappropriate relationships, sexual assaults and other deviations from our Air Force Core Values. When I imagine how our fellow Airmen fall into dishonor and betray the ideals we hold so dear, I imagine that it is not a cliff dive so much as the thousand razor cuts of minor transgressions, a pencil-whip here, some creative accounting there and a little white lie or two to maintain appearances. Once we allow our integrity to waver, we are imperiled by the proverbial slippery slope. The core value of excellence doesn't require perfection, but the very best we can put forth in any situation. We don't cut corners.

Not long ago I had a Lieutenant who was detailed into my Health Promotions Flight for about three months while awaiting a permanent change of station. Toward the end of his tenure, the flight chief asked if I would consider coming by and coining him on his last day, to which I gladly agreed. I arrived at the duty section that Friday morning and coined the Lieutenant who was engaged in tying up loose ends. Taken by surprise by my visit and caught off guard, he neglected to render a salute but I pressed on with thanking him and offering well wishes, asked about his assignment, etc., and went on about my day.
Late that afternoon, after I had long forgotten the whole exchange and was catching up on paperwork, I heard a tentative knock at my office door and the lieutenant appeared. Rather sheepishly, he said "Sir, this morning when you coined me, I was a bit flustered. I came up because I realized I still owed you a salute" and with that, he rendered a salute, thanked me, turned on his heel and was gone.

This officer's actions were completely unnecessary but they made an impression on me. He had inadvertently cut a corner and while he was not required to or even expected to, he made it right. We call that integrity.

The leaders I admire most are those with a seemingly unshakeable moral compass which points to true north regardless of the prevailing winds or the myriad temptations that present themselves. Expediency and convenience are not our best values if we strive to be truly worthy of the trust and confidence placed in us by our Airmen, leaders, peers and ultimately, the American people. Sometimes the long road and the hard road are the only road that gets us to our destination with our integrity and reputations intact, while compromises, even the seemingly small ones, open the door to losing that which we value above all else.