Passing through Germany on yet another trip to my favorite desert “vacation” spot, I met a fellow aviator who was as bored as I was. We struck up a conversation to shave a few moments off our long hours and soon realized our paths had crossed many times throughout the years.
Within minutes, we had named some of the same people we’d crewed with, and within a few more we had traded stories of good times with great people. When he said it was a small world, I answered that it was the six degrees of Army aviation.
After getting a confused look, I explained that the old game, “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” was even more applicable to military aviation. For those who don’t know the game, “Weird Al” Yankovic explained it best in his song, “Lame Claim to Fame”: “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows Kevin Bacon.” (The concept is much older than Bacon or Yankovic. In 1929, the Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy, theorized that, by connecting common interactions, everyone and everything in the world is only six or fewer steps away from each other at any given time.)
I’d be willing to bet my solo nickel that all military aviators are separated by far less than six steps. The truth is that each of us has in some way been in touch with a long list of suspect characters, whether we were stationed together or had flown, trained or interacted with each other. The problem is that each of our lists contains so many of the same names that combining them produces a more spherical entity than a linear listing.
The importance of this small-world concept, however, isn’t the idea we’re all interconnected but how those connections reflect upon us. We often form opinions of others based on the briefest of interactions; those interactions might or might not be representative of reality. Call it first-impression syndrome or just the way the rotors turn, but we often don’t make our best impressions until people actually get to know us.
While most of us want to be viewed as professional and able aviators, leaders and mentors, our actions don’t always reflect that desire. Unfortunately, we are often remembered for things we would prefer to be forgotten, and it is likely that those mistakes will follow us far longer than our many successes.
It would be immensely hypocritical of me to suggest that we should never make mistakes or always act professional, but I would suggest that we always remember to treat each other with the respect and kindness that we would appreciate ourselves. How we perform our jobs is critical, but how we treat each other often is just as important. Being nice isn’t always required, but being considerate should be.
While I truly believe that too many people are overly sensitive today, I also think that being respectful of others is paid back in kindness. Respect cannot be demanded; it must be earned by doing the right things, taking the hard jobs and standing up for those in need. Our conduct is reflected in how others view us, our units, our services and our nations. When we act in ways that bring doubt, criticism or shame to those establishments, we are disgracing the many amazing men and women who have gone before. We belittle their accomplishments and ignore their sacrifices by connecting our poor behaviors within those six degrees.
As the U.S. military draws down toward peacetime levels, it will become ever more difficult to do our jobs safely and successfully. Peace is a tough time for those of us employed by battle, but we cannot allow the hard lessons of war to be forgotten. In war, we protect our battle buddies, but in peace we sometimes forget. As we make this transition, we must protect our fellow warriors in the past, present and future by being an honest ambassador and good steward of those who share the same uniforms and flag. Make them proud to serve beside you and make others proud to have known you.
Outside our six degrees, we must also remember that most Americans have never served in the military and most of those inhabiting Earth have never been to the United States of America. You may make the only impression that many have or ever will have of the military and the U.S. Let them see the professionalism, pride and heroism that your dedication to this amazing country should exemplify. Let them speak within their own six degrees of how your behavior and bearing impressed them.
Together, we can show the world what a great nation we belong to. We can be the small spark in reminding our fellow Americans what a blessing our forefathers have given us.