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Leading in times of trial

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Randy Naylor
  • 54th Airlift Squadron Commander
On the wall of my office I have a painting of Gen. George Washington by the artist Arnold Friberg entitled, "The Prayer at Valley Forge." In the scene, Washington is on one knee with his hands clasped, and next to him is a dappled grey mare among tall oaks in a forest.

The picture, to me, is a reminder of what it takes to lead when the times are difficult and the path is not clear. I don't know what he may have been requesting of Providence at that point. So much was going wrong and so little was going right. The British had captured Philadelphia, just 20 miles away, and the Continental Congress was scattered. General Washington had an army of about 12,000 ragged, starving soldiers of whom 2,500 would perish that winter. Clothing, food and shelter were poor if they were to be had at all. It was a bleak and weary winter, with little to be grateful for, and much to fear.

The Continental Army emerged from the Winter of 1777-1778 as a true fighting force, in a way that it had never been before. While many had deserted and even more had died, those who remained had gone through close order drill the entire winter. They had braved hardship together; they had leaders who had proven that they cared about their subordinates, both in their physical welfare and their military skills. Ultimately, that bleak winter was a time of preparation. As the passions of the summer of 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence cooled, true warriors were honed in the snow and ice of Valley Forge.

We are passing through a similar time in our military today. The passions that followed the attacks of Sept. 11th have cooled. The war to right the wrongs has gone on far longer than those who cried for retribution ever thought might be necessary. The scope of our activities and the costs are constantly questioned, and the sacrifices that are asked of every military member seem greater than what any of us signed up for. As budgets shrink and costs balloon, we find ourselves constantly challenged as we answer our country's call.

President John F. Kennedy had this to say about the struggle while addressing the Class of 1962 at West Point: "When there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed."

So what is the solution to getting through hard times and maintaining a strong, vibrant military? I can sum it up in one word: Leadership. We need it at every level. It wasn't just General Washington who brought a prepared fighting force out of Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. It was the tireless work of Prussian born Baron von Steuben to teach the Continentals close order drill that enabled them to mass, maneuver, and attack effectively. It was the engagement of NCOs of the suffering troops who helped mitigate their privations and teach them to serve. It was the camaraderie of the soldiers, supporting one another, and remembering that Freedom was their cause, not the support of royal masters or a political elite.

These are the things that we must hold on to today in our service. We must remind one another of what selfless service truly is, and that the support of the Constitution is our sworn task. Every generation since the founding of this nation has had to fight to maintain liberty. Though our times are not as bleak as those of the Continental Army under General Washington, we must still exercise leadership to keep the world's premier fighting force fully prepared to meet the enemies that would remove Freedom from the world.

There has never been a more critical time to be engaged in a good cause. Though the enemy may not be plainly visible, we must be prepared, determined and resolute in meeting them. We must exercise leadership in all its forms, by leading our subordinates, by strengthening our peers, and by showing loyalty to our superiors. While it is a simple prescription, the application remains with each of us. Doing our best each day, and keeping in mind the reasons we chose to serve, will help prepare each of us for the trials to come. Do your part. Lead!