Building Bridges: The Framework for Mission Success

Maj. Dwight Minnick, 552nd Maintenance Operations Squadron Commander

Maj. Dwight Minnick, 552nd Maintenance Operations Squadron Commander

22 October 2008 -- 1986 seems almost like a lifetime ago. I was a young Airman First Class assigned to the 391st Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Our AMU maintained a fleet of F-111A's, an aircraft that has long since retired from our inventory. The work was hard and the hours long because the mission always came first. My AMU Chief was a Chief Master Sergeant who lived up to every expectation you could ever want from a Chief... he was a "Chief's Chief." What I remember of the Chief is that he was a man of few words but when he spoke, we all listened, and we always learned something. 

Such was the case one Friday night on swing shift. Our jets landed early in the day and in fairly good shape, which meant our workload for the night would be pretty light and there might be a chance that a few of us would get cut back from the shift early, something that did not happen too often. We were wrapping up the last few jobs and getting ready to turn in our tools when one of the other AMU's Expediter called ours over the radio and asked to borrow some test equipment. We stood by listening to the conversation between the two Technical Sergeants hearing things like "double AB (afterburner) blowout" and "engine rollback," terms that make any aircraft maintainer responsible for those systems cringe. Based on what we heard, the other AMU had a long night ahead of them, maybe a long weekend and we were glad we weren't in their shoes. 

After giving our updates to the Expediter we made our way to the Entry Control Point (ECP) leading back to the AMU. Our plan was to turn in our tools and equipment, make a few logbook entries and then hopefully get the thumbs-up from our boss to get released from work early. But before we could make it to the ECP, we ran into the Chief. It was as if he appeared from thin air (something he and the other Chiefs were notorious for then and still are today). We stood there before the Chief, his Styrofoam cup spittoon in hand, another "ism" since retired. The Chief asked, "So are you boys heading down to Yellow to give them a hand with that jet?" Yellow was the squadron color of the other AMU. The silence that followed was almost deafening. 

We stood before Chief for what seemed like an eternity, knowing that he was waiting for one of us to say something. My mind was racing with questions, but mostly excuses. That wasn't my AMU and it wasn't my jet that was broken. We had already fixed everything on our end of the ramp and deserved the cutback. I knew these were excuses, but at the time they seemed valid, to me anyway. 

I could "feel" the Chief looking right at me, the way Chiefs do when they are about to "mentor" someone. After working up some nerve I said "Chief, they didn't tell us they needed anyone," which was followed by an even longer and more uncomfortable pause. The Chief raised his spit cup, never taking his eyes off of us, and it was clearly obvious he wasn't happy with my lame response. After a few more unnerving moments he finally replied, "did you ask?" I just stood there speechless, waiting for the wrath that was sure to follow, but that never came. Instead, the Chief calmly asked if we wanted "to be part of the problem or part of the solution," and then followed with, "you can either build bridges now or can put up walls to deal with later."

While this wasn't the first time I had ever heard those questions, it was the first time the questions were being asked of me. Was I now part of the problem or part of the solution? 

We worked as a team late into the night and early into the next morning repairing that jet. We came together as a team to get the job done so together we could meet our mission. That was over 22 years ago and the life-lesson I got from the Chief that night had a huge impact on how I've approached daily issues, both in my personal and professional life ever since. 

Throughout this journey of my Air Force career, I've learned that building bridges is nothing more than being a team player; and that alone can be difficult at times. To do so often requires us to put others ahead of ourselves and make our own self-interests secondary to those who have more pressing needs or requirements. I've seen bridge builders help others, not for personal gain but simply because it's the right thing to do. I've also learned that some of our best bridge builders are those who take the time to mentor, provide praise and support, and yes, even the necessary mentorship like the Chief gave me so long ago. 

One thing we should always remember is that regardless of our rank, position, or responsibility, the decisions we make may be the one that builds the bridge and enables mission success or builds the walls for failure. So the next time you are challenged with making a tough call, ask yourself if you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution because at the end of the day all of our decisions impact our Air Force mission to Fly, Fight, and Win.