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NEWS | April 17, 2008

Earn this

By Col. Theresa C. Carter Director, Installations & Mission Support

In the summer of 1998, there was a lot of discussion in the media about the opening 10 minutes of the film "Saving Private Ryan" and how traumatic it might be for our greatest generation, those who actually stormed the beaches at Normandy and lived to tell us their tales. As I sat in a very cold theater in the Pentagon City Mall in the midst of a Washington DC heat wave, I braced myself for the worst. Director Steven Spielberg's depiction of the Normandy landing was all it was advertised to be and more. Thanks to the surround sound system you could feel the booming artillery guns in your chest and clearly hear the cries of those struck down exiting their landing craft. I simply couldn't imagine being one of the brave Americans who stormed the beach and survived that ordeal. Yet, as moving and emotional as those scenes were, no one talked about how the last five minutes would move you to your very core. Do you remember it? 

As Capt. John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, lay mortally wounded on a bridge, he called Pvt. James Ryan, played by Matt Damon, over to his side. With a look that spoke volumes about the sacrifices made by his platoon, Captain Miller said two words that I'll never forget - "Earn This." Holy cow, I thought...what an incredible weight to put on the shoulders of this young private and in a larger sense, to put on all of us who are benefactors of the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparents, our uncles and cousins. Earn this. Don't let our sacrifice be in vain. Remember us. Honor us. Earn This. 

Spielberg tugs at our heart strings again when he brings us to present day Normandy and the American cemetery perched prominently on the cliffs overlooking the English Channel. An elderly James Ryan breaks down weeping at Captain Miller's grave and asks his wife whether he lived a good life, whether he lived up to the captain's order to live a life worthy of the sacrifices made to find and save him. 

I walked out of the theater in a daze. Instead of taking a cooler trip home on the Metro, I decided to walk back to my apartment. I simply couldn't stop thinking about the phrase uttered by Captain Miller and the huge challenge it placed before every American and every Airman. 

I've thought a lot about that challenge over the past few weeks as we honor and celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift and the Airmen who kept a city alive and brought hope to millions. I also thought about all of the Airmen and aviation pioneers who have gone before us, many who made the ultimate sacrifice. 

I thought about Airmen who have earned the Medal of Honor, men like 2nd Lt. Frank Luke, Staff Sgt. Archibald Mathies, Maj. Charles Loring, Capt. Lance P. Sijan and Airman 1st Class John Levitow. I thought about brave men like Tech. Sgt. John Chapman and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham who earned the Air Force Cross for their heroic efforts on a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. I thought about the thousands of Airmen now serving with distinction in the Global War on Terrorism at austere locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

I thought of the hundreds of airpower legends who fought and ultimately won the battle to establish our Air Force as a separate service. Men like Generals Hap Arnold, Claire Chennault, Jimmy Doolittle and others who once walked the corridors of the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and whose priceless contributions in two world wars secured victory and laid the foundation for our modern day Air Force. I reflected on the bravery of our Tuskegee Airmen, whose flawless performance in the air and incredible dignity and grace on the ground saved the lives of hundreds of Airmen and broke down barriers for those who followed them. I reflected on the "candy bomber," retired Col. Gail Halvorsen, and his inspiring message of airpower's ability to provide global reach and hope during the Berlin Airlift, the first major test we faced as an independent service. I pictured all of the past chiefs of staff and chief master sergeants of the Air Force, the challenges they faced, and the leadership they provided in guiding our Air Force to where we are today. 

And then I thought, wow, how can I possibly live up to all of that? How can I ensure my service is worthy of their sacrifice? It seems so insignificant in comparison. As I continued to reflect, I realized we honor and remember the Airmen who came before us by having the strength to stand tall and do the right thing when faced with the hundreds of choices and decisions that come our way each and every day. We honor their sacrifices being willing to hold each other accountable and living our core values being disciplined and doing the right thing, even when no one is looking speaking up when we believe we have a better idea or believe something is wrong eating right, exercising and staying medically ready to deploy calling for a ride instead of driving home after drinking being a wingman 

When viewed in that context, the challenge from Captain Miller is not as daunting as it may seem. Our example as leaders, as warriors, as American Airmen serves as our tribute, our homage to the Airmen who paved the way for us over the past 60 years. It's now our turn to go forward and whisper in the ears of our basic trainees and cadets, "Earn This," then show them the way ... and in so doing, they can look back on our 75th anniversary as a service and say thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for answering your nation's call, thank you for being an American Airman!