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NEWS | Aug. 7, 2009

Famous Last Words

By Senior Master Sgt. Marcus Marsh 316th Civil Engineer Squadron First Sergeant

"No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris," so said Orville Wright. "Everything that can be invented has been invented," was quoted by the U.S. Office of Patents commissioner in 1899. Ah, famous last words these famous men probably regretted ever thinking, let alone saying. What about you? Have you ever said anything you wish you hadn't? Or perhaps you didn't say something you wish you had?

We probably have all found ourselves in that situation. Our feelings of stress, frustration, anger, or disappointment may result in us saying some fairly regrettable things to people we care for, lead, or supervise. Fortunately, for most of us, after issues are resolved, and things cool off, we get an opportunity to make amends, regain our confidence in them, restore their dignity and move on. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that opportunity will come. A sudden and unexpected tragedy may prevent us from ever getting that chance. I'll never forget the tragedy I faced as a first sergeant at Little Rock AFB, Ark., when I was left to ponder "famous last words."

It was a typical Sunday afternoon and I was preparing for work the next day when my phone rang. "Oh great," I thought. I immediately recognized the phone number on caller ID ... it was the base law enforcement desk calling! As all first sergeants know, they rarely call to give you good news; it's always bad.

I thought back to a month prior when the LE desk called. They had called to inform me of the second DUI in our squadron in consecutive nights. I remember I was exhausted from dealing with the DUI from the night before, and I had to drag myself out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to pick up an Airman who must've thought "don't drink and drive" was a suggestion, not a mandate.

That night, on my 20-minute drive to the base, I said to myself, I'd stay calm, give the young man the silent treatment, and we would discuss it the next duty day. I knew I was too tired and too frustrated to do otherwise. That was what my mind said, but once I saw him, my mouth said something completely different. I let him have it! I was so disgusted with him and his foolish actions, by the time I was done talking, he was left with no doubt how much he'd messed things up for himself.

The Airman was reduced to the rank of Airman Basic as Article 15 punishment for the DUI. When he was given his punishment, my commander took his turn as "bad cop" (I had already done so that night at the LE desk). My commander sure let him have it! I was impressed. I knew it was my turn to play the "good cop" role that day, so I consoled our Airman afterwards and treated him with dignity, reassured him that this is temporary and he needed to see the big picture, that this was a setback, but one that could be overcome. Over the next few days and weeks, the Airman showed what he was made of, he would come to my office weekly and update me on his progress in alcohol treatment, or to volunteer for things around the squadron, to prove that he was worthy to be maintained in our glorious Air Force. The Airman even volunteered to talk about his experiences at our next commander's call, so that no one else in the squadron would make the same mistake he had made.

At our next commander's call, he spoke to the squadron and did a great job telling his story. My commander and several other unit members congratulated him afterwards on a job well done. They told him they appreciated his efforts and the progress he was making. For most of us in attendance that day at commander's call, that was the last time we would speak to this Airman.

The phone call I got on this particular Sunday afternoon was the LE desk calling to tell me that this Airman crashed his motorcycle just hours before. He hit the corner of a bridge at a high rate of speed and his body was propelled over the railing, dropping 150 feet. He died instantly.

After the shock wore off, I began thinking about the last time I saw him. What did I say to him? What were my "famous last words?" I am so thankful my commander and I had the opportunity to restore his dignity after the tongue lashings we gave him. What if we hadn't gotten that opportunity? I learned a very valuable lesson from this experience, a lesson that shapes how I treat people on this short journey we call life. I have learned everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, at all times. Yes, people will frustrate and disappoint us, but we should always strive to keep their dignity and respect intact. We aren't guaranteed an opportunity to go back and do that. We never know when we our saying our "famous last words."