Learning from the 'Pole of Knowledge'

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brant Nickell
  • 1st Range Operations Squadron commander
When did you first REALLY understand our "Excellence in all we do" core value? Well, I was taught a memorable lesson during my first week in Basic Training.

My flight was on the drill pad, learning flanking moves. Our Military Training Instructor was barking out rapid-fire commands, over and over again, when one of my flightmates turned the wrong way. Which would have been bad enough, but when asked "why" he answered with, "I don't know."

I heard giggles as our MTI inquired about split personalities, and all of us grinned when our instructor sent the offender to the "Pole of Knowledge" ... a nearby utility pole ... to ask why he had turned left when the command was clearly "Right Flank."

After staring at the pole for several minutes, the Airman tried to report back in with the answer, "The Pole says I'm stupid." This made all of us but our MTI laugh.

Amazingly, our MTI didn't even flinch. He just quietly responded, "I've seen your test scores. You're not stupid. Go back and ask again."

My flightmate stared at the pole even longer the second time, but eventually came back with the right answer - "The Pole says I wasn't paying attention." Our MTI calmly told him not to let it happen again, and let him rejoin the flight.

Then our MTI enlightened us about serving in the Air Force. He explained our business is basically to kill or be killed. Those who would attack America may be just as smart as us, and probably like living as much as we do. Plus, we only succeed by group effort, and one Airman who turns the wrong way can lose the fight for all. So we have to think hard and practice, practice, practice. And when we make mistakes, like we all sometimes do, we can never say, "I don't know." We figure out why, we fix it, and we practice some more.

And then my blue-rope MTI, carrying his last flight before going back to CE duties, said with undeniable sincerity, "If you can't accept 100 percent as the standard, then I don't want you in my Air Force."

Bone tired as I was, I actually lay awake in bed that night. And I'm happy to say that while I'm certainly not perfect, not even close, 21 years ago I accepted a 100 percent standard in defense of all that I love.