Flying from a combat zone to a 120-degree Fahrenheit desert air base and back, the C-17 crews of Operation Allies Refuge loaded their airplanes with more people than they’d ever carried. The medical teams, trained to treat American troops, took care of entire families from an unfamiliar culture. Aircrews and medical personnel alike had to make decisions without any precedents to rely on, and they often had to break the rules.
Flight nurses weren’t technically allowed to treat patients whose names weren’t already on a flight manifest, yet many such patients received treatment and a ride out of the country, including the victims of a suicide bombing.
It’s a really serious, ugly business we’re in.Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger Towberman
Stuck on the tarmac at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, for hours with passengers on board, waiting for a bus, one C-17 crew made the call to let everyone off the plane to wait on the flight line. The heat inside had become unbearable.
Their dilemmas and the mission’s undisputed success brought three of the Airmen who took part in Operation Allies Refuge to the Air Force Academy in February where they added their voices to those of top leaders from the Air and Space Forces, among others, during the Academy’s 2022 National Character and Leadership Symposium.
Organized around the theme of “Ethics and Respect for Human Dignity,” these were some of the lessons that cadets or anyone could learn:
Compassion as a Human Evolutionary Advantage
From their reclined seats inside the darkened dome of the Air Force Academy Planetarium, Kimberly S. Dickman, assistant professor in the Center for Character and Leadership Development, prompted cadets to do the wave and to stomp-stomp-clap the rhythm to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
The simple exercises demonstrated motor synchrony, the phenomenon “that when we are connected physically, when we do things together physically, then we connect—we belong—more,” Dickman said. She teaches classes in human sex and sexuality and applied positive psychology—the field of psychology that looks at, ‘How do we make a good life? How do we be happy? How do we flourish and grow?’”
In her workshop “Leading and Connecting With Compassion,” Dickman dismissed old ideas that categorized compassion as a liability—the notion that only “the baddest, strongest, meanest people, the scariest … on the savannah,” would survive and that “there is no way that compassion is inborn within us.”
By contrast, Dickman presented compassion—a feeling of concern coupled with taking an action to do something about it—as an inherent part of the human constitution by comparing human babies to other newborn primates. Comparatively, helpless human babies can’t develop as far before they’re born or their big heads wouldn’t fit through their mothers’ birth canals.
Her point: The human race survived precisely because of parents’ compassion toward their infants.
“We need compassion to connect with others, and biologically, we know that we’re made for that,” Dickman said. She cited a study in which the brain scans of patients experiencing concern and caring “lit up” their brain stems—“the primitive part” of their brains.
She said leaders need to recognize that people on their teams could be struggling, such as with a personal problem, even if it’s not obvious.
“As much as we would like to think that we can leave that at the door, when we enter into our office, into our cockpit, into wherever it is that you work, we often don’t,” Dickman said.
“When it comes to the issue of compassion, your voice makes a difference. What you say or what you don’t say—whether it’s with a partner, a child, your neighbor, someone in the cubicle next to you—what you say or what you don’t say, what you do with your body or what you don’t do, impacts them and impacts you as a leader.”
People Form the Foundation
If Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. could plus-up support for any part of the military, he’d invest in the people.
Brown attended the symposium in person alongside the Space Force’s Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David D. Thompson and the Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force and Space Force, JoAnne S. Bass and Roger A. Towberman. The four senior leaders answered questions posed by cadets.
In reply to a hypothetical query about how he’d spend money if he got to decide, Brown chose “some of our foundational areas, because we tend to focus on platforms and weapons … and when I think about foundational, it’s some of our Airmen programs and how we take care of Airmen and families.”
High-performing organizations value the diversity of all the members and try to take advantage of that, Bass said.
“I often think back to what are high-performing teams and how … they become high-performing teams,” Bass said. “All of them, they value diversity and the strengths and the talents of every single team member.”
Whereas Brown sets up breakfasts and brown-bag lunches to meet with troops where he travels, Bass likes to drop in unannounced:
“It’s about listening to your folks and providing opportunities to do that,” Bass said. “I love to just go in and visit places where they aren’t expecting me to be there, and I’ll just cold pop in and be real and really ask, you know, ‘What are some of the challenges you guys are going through?’—and also kind of humanizing myself.”
“So as you’re getting ready to go out there and as you’re, you know, leading in the capacity that lieutenants might lead,” Bass advised the officers-to-be, “I would offer: Go out there and know your folks and look at the talent and the strengths and the diversity that those folks bring to the team.”
Towberman doesn’t like to get too caught up in the idea of “leadership.” His approach instead is:
“Every day I just hope to make every person I meet’s life a little better,” Towbernan said. “It really is the little things that will matter the most. So I think if you … value yourself by the change that you make in the world, by the changes that you make in the lives of other human beings, that developing leaders will sort of happen as a natural extension of you investing in every person that you meet.”
Towberman offered a tip as well—that cultivating a wide variety of interests can help spark a connection. For example:
“It’s important to know that when you meet someone from Connecticut to remind them that they’re officially known as Nutmeggers,” he said. “That’s just fun, right?”
Taking Stock of Biases and Breaking One Rule Every Time
Flight nurse Capt. Hannah Swysgood’s first mission of Operation Allies Refuge carried civilians who’d been hurt in the suicide bombing while they waited to get through the Abbey Gate security area and into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
“We carried a lot of children on that flight, and they were very wounded, and we took care of them,” Swysgood said. In nursing, “human dignity is a huge part of what we do. We work with a variety of people every single day, and you have to understand each individual person and their culture and their background while working with them,” she acknowledged.
As a woman, Swysgood treated other women. Meanwhile a male medical crew director could step in “if we needed a male to take care of something.”
A technique she said worked for her team was taking stock of their own biases that may have gotten in the way of their work:
“So we acknowledged them,” Swysgood said. “We talked about the limitations that those biases might have had, and then we put them aside.”
Helping to seat families together turned out to be one of the most compassionate acts the medevac teams could perform—“allowing people to board and making sure that their family members are with them, keeping them together, trying to seat them appropriately so that there’s not the fear aspect. They’re not freaking out. They’re not panicking. Their family is with them.”
Early in the evacuation, her chief nurse decided they would break a rule—the one about not treating patients who weren’t on a manifest.
“Our chief nurse said, Day One, he was like, ‘I will give you top cover.’ He said if there is someone standing out there that needs a ride, you will bring them on board. That had not been passed down from any other leadership at that point in time—it was very early on. He made it very known,” said Swysgood. “So we broke those rules every single time.”
A Flight Crew That Chose Gratitude
Asked about good habits to start forming, C-17 co-pilot Capt. Jasmine G. Leyro—whose missions as part of Operation Allies Rescue included letting off the sweltering passengers on the flight line in Qatar—zeroed in on “choose your perspective.”
“We get so caught up in this feeling that the system is out to get us, or we’re not being met where we are, or we’re not being treated properly—and the system is ambivalent to us,” Leyro said.
“The important thing is to wake up every morning and choose your perspective. You get to choose to be good, to be noble, to live gratefully. … I had an awesome experience because of my crew, and we chose to have a perspective of gratitude every day.”
Their trick for maintaining morale: a daily “vibe check” started by another co-pilot.
“He would start every day with a vibe check. Everybody would be on the headset, and he would be like, ‘Vibe check, guys.’ We’d be like, ‘Word up—vibes are good. Vibes are through the roof. Vibes are to the moon!’ And it was a way to keep our heads in the game, to keep morale—maybe not its highest because things were kind of intense. But to keep everyone focused.”
Facing the Ultimate Ethical Dilemma Head On
The military’s very existence poses an ethical dilemma, said Towberman, the Space Force’s top enlisted leader.
And being ready in a difficult situation could come down to facing that fact upfront.
“We’re in the business of killing people, which we don’t think is OK, right?” Towberman asked.
“And I’ve had many instances in my career where seconds after I made a radio call, I knew someone was going to die. And they did. And I always, myself, knew that that was about saving lives and that there was a choice that needed to be made. But I’ll tell you, I never scrambled after the mission to find the video so I could high-five everyone over a life that was lost.
“It’s a very serious business that we’re in, and the better that we wrap our heads around that from a very early age—the more open we are about talking about those hard choices—the more, the better we prepare for those, the easier we’ll navigate a real ugly, difficult business that we’re in.”