The price of vision

Lt. Col. Andrew DeRosa, 50th Civil Engineer Squadron commander

Lt. Col. Andrew DeRosa, 50th Civil Engineer Squadron commander

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

I believe we’ve all come across those people who seem to have a little more vision than the rest of us. 

One individual we revere in that manner and bring up quite frequently is Maj. Gen. Billy Mitchell.  Mitchell was a pioneer of a separate Air Force and Air power leading the war effort.  One can attest with some certainty this came about because of his efforts and outspokenness.

We don’t often discuss how his efforts to create a separate Air Force caused him to be court-martialed for violating “good order and military discipline” and displaying conduct that brought “discredit” on the service. 

His court martial was in session for seven weeks. It became clear the trial was a political court martial and it reached a sensational level of coverage among civilian reporters of the day.

His verdict read as follows: “Upon secret written ballot two thirds of the court ‘finds the accused guilty of all specifications and of the charge.’ …Upon secret written ballot the court sentences the accused to be suspended from rank, command and duty with the forfeiture of all pay and allowances for five years. The court is thus lenient because of the military record of the accused during the World War.”

That verdict and sentence was meted out Dec. 17, 1925. Col. Billy Mitchell tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army Feb. 1, 1926.

History has looked more favorably upon Mitchell after his death. President Franlin Roosevelt awarded him a posthumous promotion to major general and gave his family the Special Congressional Gold Medal. He is the only Airman to ever have a plane named after him.

History has proven Mitchell right on his numerous predictions, most often cited the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor.  I would venture a guess this was frowned upon when he spoke about it, and it did not endear him to his superior officers at the time.

Visionaries make people uncomfortable. 

To a certain extent I would assert that vision is synonymous with innovation.  A separate Air Force, was definitely an innovation at the time.  Visionaries are not walking on the provided path, they are not hampered by tradition and are independent thinkers who come to their own conclusions based on experience. They question the status quo. 

We talk a lot about innovation here at Schriever, it’s in our 50th Space Wing Mission Statement and our first Wing priority.

Do we understand the price real innovation and vision may cost?  I’m not advocating anyone start a fight of epic proportions over being a separate Space Corps, potentially ending in your court martial, but are we prepared to listen to ideas and courses of action which might make us uncomfortable?  Are we prepared to answer the tough questions about why we continue to do things the same way, month after month, year after year?  Are we prepared to say “it’s a bad idea,” to leaders?

Schriever is unique in many ways. If you ask me, it is the base of the future. Mission focused, no unnecessary infrastructure, no support facilities that can’t be found in the local community or within a 10-15 mile drive. To many, these would require a paradigm shift to be comfortable.

Perhaps innovation for Schriever would look something like 12 percent off your final bill at the off base grocery store for all Department of Defense card holders.  No gate to worry about, open 24 hours. Perhaps Schriever could procure a reduced rate at all the local gyms and offer that to their Airmen and civilians as a benefit of working on Schriever.

The paradigm that is still very much alive is that everything an Airmen ever needed or could need is provided on the base at every Air Force base location with Creech and Schriever being the exception to the rule.  Embrace issues, work with them and think outside of the box, or Schriever fence line. The space mission is demanding that of you every day, but the same attitude or vision it not often applied elsewhere.

One exception to embracing innovation is in communication.

My first deployment was in 1999 to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Southern Watch.  I was authorized a 5-minute morale call once a week to my family through a DSN operator. 

Ten years later, when I deployed to Iraq, I was making unlimited video calls to whomever I wanted for as long as I wanted with my internet connection. When I deployed to Vietnam for a month as the Joint Task Force President of the United States forward command I was using my personal phone and an app to send encrypted messages to my 50-man team and Google maps to get around.  

In under 20 years, advances in technology have revolutionized how we communicate with others and we’ve all embraced it with little discussion or indecision. Perhaps it is the speed of this innovation that has made it acceptable as there is no status quo. Even so, if someone had told me I would have my own handheld video camera on my phone and Global Positioning System enabled maps within 20 years of joining I probably wouldn’t have believed them.

 This article was written mainly to generate discussion amongst personnel at Schriever, military and civilian. I used a dramatic example, but we gloss over the ugly parts and focus on Major General Mitchell being the Father of Airpower not acknowledging the fact it ended his career and impacted his personal life and family.

Innovative ideas and vision often make people uncomfortable. It’s a departure from the norm. Are you prepared to have conversations with your personnel and others that push you outside of your comfort zone? Are you able to overcome the style of presentation to really consider the idea being presented?  Or do you shut them down and say: “That will never happen, moving on”.  

How are you promoting that calculated risk taking, and decision making within your office, your flight, your squadron, your group and ultimately your wing?  How are you training your personnel to be visionary, but hopefully not risk their professional career in the process?  Or is that the price of true vision?