Yesterday morning I went to physical fitness training with my squadron at 0645. I have a love-hate relationship with this activity. I hate the training but I love the setting and what happens there during the session.
In the Spring, the track we run on (in my case walk since I am nearly useless running with my knee problems) is not far from the flightline. The sun rises just over the horizon of the airfield and is a brilliant yellow reflecting in the clouds, revealing the azure sky. The aircraft are sitting out on the tarmac, sparkling and pristine, ready for a new day. Sometimes the hangars are open allowing us to peek into them to see the Airmen preparing the planes as we run. It always brings a catch in my throat. I think, “This is why I chose the Air Force and not the Army or Navy.”
There is more to this ritual, however. Ever since initial officers’ training in Alabama in the Fall of 2008, I have ALWAYS run at the tail end of the pack. I cannot keep up with the 25 year olds, even when my knees were healthy. In Alabama the “kids” (lieutenants, captains, and a few majors) would be all done running and waiting for me to cross the finish line. I would be huffing, puffing, ready to collapse and a few yards away from the line when I would begin to hear the noise. Clapping, yelling, screaming, whistles — “Come on, Colonel! You can do it. Keep going! Don’t give up!” And I would NOT give up. I kept running. I would make it but never fast enough to pass the test. That would have to wait until the Spring of 2009 when I finally did it at my base. They screamed, yelled, clapped and whooped with glee, this new set of “kids”. All I could do was say, “Are you sure I did it?”
I have never experienced anything like this before the military. It moves me each time it happens.
Other things happen on that physical training track. Troops come and walk with me at the end of the pack. They willfully give up practicing for their own tests to walk with me and chat. They ask me how am I doing? Why did I “come in”? Is it true you were a medical school professor? What should I do with this patient? Where did you live before? Do you have kids? I have had more meaningful and touching conversations on the track than I can count.
Then, occasionally, my commanders come to walk with me. They never ask me if I can pass the PT test in a few weeks. They ask, “How are you doing? How did things go this week?” I have spoken to my commanders more on the track, I think, than in any other venue.
In December of 2008, when I had just arrived at my base, I was running during a fitness session. Again, I was FAR at the end of the track. I was having a very bad running day. All of a sudden, I realized I could hear running feet BEHIND me. The Senior Master Sergeant who was the “first shirt” of my squadron had run the course and then re-run the course to look for stragglers. Here I was. He ran with me. He gave me hints on how to pace and run. He asked me what it was like to practice medicine. He ran WITH me. I apologized for taking so long and for my poor performance and urged him to run forward and get with the rest of the squadron. He looked over at me and said, “Sir, no man is ever left behind. We will finish together.”
And we did. And the crowd applauded.
In the ensuing months, I saw this behavior recur. It is not lip service, it is reality. I have seen it everyday in small ways and in big ways. I saw it in Iraq when troops would come in with a wounded colleague and absolutely refuse to leave the bedside — “Sir, he’s my battle buddy. I cannot leave him.” So, they stayed. I have seen it when people were sick stateside and needed help. I have experienced it when I needed help. I have NEVER been left behind.
This is one of the most important things I have learned in the Air Force. I would not have come to understand how important it is to never give up on someone had I not been forced to run on those tracks. Maybe I have finally started to come to grips with the thought that there WAS a redeeming value to those PT tests after all.