By John E. Michel, Brig Gen, USAF – Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan; Commander, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing
“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand,
as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven,
we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but
we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
As all of you have likely heard me say since my arrival, human beings are moved by stories. Stories stir the soul, ignite the imagination and engage our hearts and minds in ways no other medium can.
Our mission here in Afghanistan is unique in that every day, we interact with our Afghan partners for one primary reason – to help them create a better story. We serve alongside men and women who hope for a better, brighter future for themselves, their families and their country. And they look to each of us to set an example worth emulating.
What a privilege.
What a great story.
Our story is that of a team of people working diligently far from the limelight in support of a noble cause; a team of people trying to do their small part to help move a nation beyond its current challenges, so that its citizens can enjoy a life of greater meaning, purpose and abundance. It’s a story about YOU, serving shoulder to shoulder with brave Afghan warriors, giving your all to leave your part of the world a little better than you first found it.
History reminds us that the reason all world-changers and universe benders lived great stories is because they, and those around them, knew exactly what they wanted. Be it racial equality, liberation from oppression, dignity for the poor, or the establishment of a more just society – those who succeeded in leaving the world better than they found it understood promoting positive progress isn’t easy…but then again, nothing worth doing ever is.
We too, are clear on what we want: To set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally-capable Afghan Air Force that meets the security requirements of Afghanistan today…and tomorrow. After serving more than a year as your commander, I could not be more grateful for what each of you do each and every day to help make this story an emerging reality.
As I wrap up my final 24-hours in command and share this, my final Sunday Soundbite, I would like to leave you with one final story.
An ancient legend tells of a general whose army was afraid to fight. Though they doubted their potential, he did not. Though they were unsure of their abilities, he was not. He knew they were strong and capable. He knew without question his team could win.
Pondering how he could infuse them with the confidence and conviction needed to take new ground, the general had an idea. He assembled his soldiers and told them he possessed a magical coin–a prophetic coin–a coin which would always accurately foretell the outcome of the battle. On one side was the image of an eagle. The eagle represented courage, perseverance, strength and leadership. The other side of the coin bore the image of a serpent. It represented cunning, deception, and surprise. He would toss the coin. If it landed eagle-side up, they could win. If it landed serpent-side up, they would lose.
The army was silent as the coin flipped end-over-end in the air. Soldiers encircled the general so they could see the coin hit the ground. They held their breath as they looked and shouted when they saw the eagle. Infused with a renewed sense of possibility, the army believed they would win.
Bolstered by their new-found assurance of victory, the soldiers marched forward against the enemy stronghold and won…confidently; courageously; decisively.
It was only after the victory that the king showed his soldiers the coin. The two sides were identical. The symbol of the mighty eagle was engraved on both front and back.
Though the story is fictional, the truth is reliable. Confidence, courage and decisiveness are the keys that unlock victory.
To be clear, it is difficult enough to build an Air Force in peacetime, but training and developing sophisticated capabilities and integrating new technologies while concurrently fighting and winning a war is unprecedented. All, mind you, with limited time, diminishing financial resources, fewer people and scores of logistics and supply challenges. Add in a culture that is hungry for positive change but lacks so many of the elements many of us take for granted in western society and it is easy to believe we have been asked to pull off mission impossible.
But nothing could be further from the reality of what is actually happening.
You see, despite widespread illiteracy, a resilient and determined enemy, a largely tribe-centered culture, seemingly forever competing political factions and a score of other factors reflective of a culture at war for over three decades, progress abounds. Why? One reason-You! Confident, courageous and decisive warrior leaders.
Never in my adult life have I been surrounded by so many inspiring men and women committed to doing their part to write a better story for a nation hungry for hope and change. At no time in my career can I remember having the great privilege of working alongside so many accomplished professionals who, despite the daunting nature of their circumstances, choose to selflessly give their best to serve their fellow man. Be it American, Croatian, Greek, Czech, Mongol, Turk, Hungarian, Italian, or any of the fourteen nations who are part of this command, each and every one of you inspire me (and those around you), daily.
Your selfless actions throughout the last year have contributed to unprecedented progress. Airpower capacity has grown by over 200%; scores of lives have been saved, battles have been won; billions of dollars saved and, just as importantly, a renewed sense of potential has been restored. As a result of your efforts, Afghanistan is stronger and more capable. Your confidence, conviction, perseverance, strength and leadership have infused a renewed sense of possibility in those with whom we serve. Because of who you are and all you do, our Afghan partners are marching steadily forward…confidently, courageously; decisively.
As I close this Sunday Soundbite series, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the late, great Ralph Waldo Emerson. I love these words because they paint a vivid picture of what true success-in life and in leadership-is all about:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
Thank you all for exercising the confidence, courage and decisiveness to make our mission of building an independent, sustainable and capable Afghan Air Force an emerging reality. Thank you for doing your part each and every day to create conditions for a safer, stronger, more resilient Afghanistan.
Thank you for succeeding in what really matters-setting an example worth emulating-in America, Afghanistan and for every nation in between.
And last, but certainly not least, thank you for the privilege of allowing me to serve with you this past year in what has been the highlight of my twenty-six year military career. I am better for having worked, laughed, fretted and fought alongside you.
Know you and your families will always remain in my thoughts and prayers. God Speed.
JOHN E. MICHEL, Brig Gen, USAF
Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan;
Commander, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing