Be a part of something bigger - so what does that mean?

  • Published
  • By By Col. Deborah Van De Ven
  • 81st Training Group commander
We've all heard it before. Many of us have even said it. 
But what does it mean "to be part of something bigger than ourselves?"
"So there I was" (all good war stories start that way) ... I joined the Air Force for the adventure, the travel, and oh yeah, to make a living. I stayed, because I liked being part of something bigger than myself. 

The adventure began when I enlisted. The fact that I didn't know what I was getting into was highlighted the last few days of basic training, when our career fields were announced. My new best friend and I were told we were going to be aerospace control and warning systems operators. Still, we didn't know what we were going to be doing for the next four years of our lives. 

Writing backwards. 
I arrived at Keesler as an airman no-striper, although there was some advantage to that as someone mistook me for an officer and saluted me. I clearly remember marching, and learning to write backwards -- part of our job was to plot aircraft positions on a two-story plexiglas plotting board.
My first duty station was Duluth, Minn., where I lived in the dorm and performed shift work. Shift work was an excellent first experience. I worked on a specific team and quickly learned how each team member relies on each other to meet the mission, and how important it is for each team to pass on that mission to the next team -- no one person could do it all and every person had a critical part to play. 

Travel. Basic training, technical training and my first assignment already exceeded my expectations for adventure, so how about that travel? Within two years I was on my second assignment of 15 total: Hancock Fld, McChord, Pope, McGuire, and Maxwell Air Force Bases, ROTC duty in New York, the Pentagon, the Philippines, United Kingdom, Germany, Hawaii and Spain. Uncle Sam is one heck of a travel agent, which proved to be a win-win situation as at each of those locations the Air Force had a mission, and I had a skill to contribute towards that mission. 

Making a living. All too quickly my initial four-year adventure was up. Long before then I figured out I had a really good deal in the Air Force. Although none of us is going to get rich during our military careers, every one of us must be able to provide basic safety, security and comfort to our families, and we do. Past that, the fringe benefits are off the chart.   Above and beyond the adventure, travel and making a living, the best part is the Air Force provided me an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. 

Part of the shield. During my enlisted career, I was involved with monitoring and defending the skies as part of the Cold War effort, launching fighter aircraft to shoot down the bad guys, if needed. I couldn't do that by myself, but I was part of the shield protecting the United States. The part which would be the first to know there was a threat and respond. I was a small part of a huge machine that once activated, could deliver a terrible wrath upon anyone attempting to bring harm to our nation. Something, much bigger than myself. 

As an officer I've had three instructor tours. Instructors have the tremendous honor and responsibility to pass on skills and lessons to the students in our classrooms that directly impact the Air Force. That impact is infinitely multiplied as each student goes out and directly or indirectly passes on those same skills and lessons to others. I can't do that by myself, but I want to be a part of the organization that values education and training to the level that creates the greatest Air Force the world has ever seen. Something, much bigger than myself. 

Feeling pain, pride. The idea of being part of something bigger than myself, never hit home more than as a commander. Commanders are responsible for everything and everyone in the unit. However, they must rely completely on the men and women in the unit for the technical expertise, professionalism and leadership required to accomplish the mission, along with minding the health and welfare of all unit members and their families. Every single person has a part to play in a unit's success. 

Part of the commander's role is to feel the pain when a member is injured or fails at a task, and feel the pride when a member wins an award, succeeds at a task or is promoted. A commander hates to see members move on because of the expertise lost, but revels in knowing the next unit will benefit. When a unit benefits, the Air Force benefits, making it stronger and more lethal than before. Something, much bigger than any of us.