Why we fold socks

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Russell Voce
  • 336th Training Squadron commander
When I was on the faculty at Air Command and Staff College, I watched a video of a speech by a senior Air Force officer as he discussed transformation and the changes the Global War on Terrorism had forced on the Air Force. 

One example he used to describe Air Force change involved training's need to evolve to reflect reality; he concluded that it was unnecessary to teach Airmen "how to fold socks." 

On the surface, this makes perfect sense, but at its depth reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason for having Airmen all fold socks in exactly the same manner -- to instill discipline, the bedrock of any successful unit. 

While I admit folding socks may seem to be a trivial matter, the lessons in discipline it teaches are not. Too many supervisors, commanders and other leaders assume every Airman has self-discipline. The degree of self-discipline in an Airman is often directly related to the degree the lesson of "folding socks" has stuck with that Airman. 

In Air Force technical training, we have the Phase Program which allows leaders to evaluate the self-discipline of our Airmen. If an Airman displays self-discipline, greater liberties are given to further test the degree to which the "folding socks" lessons of basic training have become ingrained. On Keesler, you can see Airmen who have yet to be tested or who have failed the test of self-discipline -- they're the ones marching in uniform to every location. Outside of the training environment, we have our daily customs and courtesies to gauge the degree to which individuals have mastered self-discipline. In cases where the degree to which individuals have mastered self-discipline is low, leaders must enforce the standards for the sake of that particular individual and others that may bear witness. 

Some leaders assume enforced discipline, or accountability, will lead to low morale. In the movie "Lean on Me", Morgan Freeman played a principal of a high school and had a great line, "Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm." Truer words were never said. 

Consider the unit failing an inspection due to lack of discipline, and then consider the unit whose hallmark is discipline and passes the inspection with flying colors. In which unit do you think the level of enthusiasm is the highest? 

Our Chief of Staff has stated the Air Force needs to get back to basics. To me, that sure sounds like "folding socks." Unfortunately, the means available to leaders to enforce discipline, such as correctional custody, are in decline. Much of the scandal impacting our Air Force can be boiled down to lack of discipline. When this lack of discipline appears, we must realize it's not the product of an overnight experience, but the product of a period of time where people were not "folding their socks" properly, and leaders failed in their obligation to take corrective action. 

Leaders at all levels need to realize the Airman they fail to discipline today could be the infamous Abu Ghraib prison guards of tomorrow. We'd better make sure the lesson on "folding socks" has stuck and turned into the self-discipline needed to successfully accomplish the mission.