Education key to Airmen personal growth

  • Published
  • By Maj. Christopher Iriarte
  • 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron
As a commander, one of my personal "foot-stompers" is education. I will take any chance I can to encourage Airmen to further their formal education, fully aware of the question, "how does going to school make me a better Airman?" 

During the American Revolution, General Washington assigned a Prussian military man, Friedrich von Steuben, the task of training American troops at Valley Forge. Von Steuben found himself faced with a group of untrained, ill-equipped citizen soldiers to whom the concepts of military procedure were completely foreign. 

Von Steuben's training regimen was successful because of his ability to adapt proven European training techniques to the demands of the American soldiers he had to train. American soldiers were unlike all the others he had encountered; they wanted to know the reasoning behind the orders. 

This often resulted in protracted bouts of Von Steuben swearing in French and German; he eventually had to have an English-speaking captain translate for him so he could swear in English as well. 

In a letter to a Prussian friend, Von Steuben stated, "You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it; but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that' and then he does it." Though it often proved frustrating, Von Steuben appreciated this American trait of asking why. He recognized that a soldier who understands the reason a particular maneuver is executed has a distinct advantage over one who performs it from blind obedience. 

That being said, there are varying levels of quality in the question "why," from the "why" of a child seeking to get out of a task, to the educated "why" of a person who seeks a better understanding of the task. A big factor in this quality is education. 

Technical training is vital to an Airman getting started in the Air Force, but as time passes, those who remain in the service find their leadership skills more in demand than their technical skills. The answer to technical dilemmas can be found in training, but to answer those "why's" that come with leadership situations, one needs an education. 

Having recently completed an MBA myself, I was surprised to find many parallels between the Air Force and the business world. Of course, there are many differences as well, but given the current resource constraints we are forced to deal with, it becomes clear that the Air Force, like any industry, must deal with the overarching issue of cost-quality-time; how do we as Airmen deliver a product of acceptable quality, whatever it may be, on time and within our cost restraints? The answer, as many businesses have found, lies in efficient processes. 

However, dealing with these abstract concepts of AFSO 21, Lean, Six Sigma, and so on, takes many of us out of our intellectual "comfort zone." This is where a formal education comes in. 

An education, whatever subject it may be in, not only provides specific skills but also opens a person's mind to the art of learning, which is really the art of asking "why" intelligently and seeking the answer. Americans asking "why" played a large part in the creation of this nation, and is the reason it continues to be a world leader.