By: Orlando Lopez
(Colorado Springs, CO, USA)
My professional career — 18 years and counting in the USAF — was established from a single failure. In the Spring of 1996 I failed a mandatory block of instruction during my technical training phase. Policy dictated that I be afforded a second opportunity and If I passed the exam, I could continue through the “pipeline” with my current class. I failed the block exam for the second time. Seven of a scheduled nine months of instruction were suddenly thrown out the window. I was 19, less than year into my service commitment and because of this failure, I could be going home.
After being notified of my second block exam failure, I was removed from class and ordered back to the barracks to report to the Officer-in-Charge, Capt Driscoll. The Captain was a nice lady, but she was blunt about what would occur over the next 24-48 hours: my student file would make its way to the Squadron Commander’s desk for review to determine re-classification into another career field or administrative separation for “failure to adapt to military standards”.
The following day, word got to me that I must report to the Squadron for a one-on-one with the Commander in full dress blues. That day was a blur. I can’t remember how I got there or what time the meeting took place. I was shown to the Commander’s door by someone on his staff. I took a 5-second pause, knocked firmly on the door and walked in with confidence (I think). I saluted the man behind the desk and shortly there after was asked to sit down. The Lieutenant Colonel was of average height, thinning hairline and big glasses. He spoke confidently and summed up why I was sitting in a chair directly in front of him.
The conversation was 95 percent one sided. I said yes sir or no sir a few times as he thumbed through a folder. I can’t be certain it was mine, but I suspect it was. He probably noticed I was scared and intimidated. He literally held my immediate future in his hands. He chose to re-classify me into another career field under his Squadron’s purview. Thus I would not have to move out of the present barracks I was assigned to or switch school houses. I was placed on “additional duty” until my new class began the following week. That Squadron Commander, whose last name is Moffett gave me a second chance.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that man showed great emotional intelligence. He could have been a real ‘hard-ass’, as most officers were perceived by new recruits and cut the Air Force’s losses by discharging me. However, he observed in person as well as on paper that I was a good troop and made a conscious decision to continue to invest in human capital. It probably helped his decision that I was a model Airmen with no derogatory remarks in my personnel file in the seven months I was in the unit. I simply could not pass a test on a subject I had neither the aptitude nor interest in attempting.
I started in my new class a week after that meeting in the Commander’s office. To my surprise, I graduated on the exact same day as my former classmates from the course I was removed from. I literally didn’t skip a beat. The only draw-back from being removed from that first course was my orders to the United Kingdom were cancelled. My reward for graduating with my new class was to remain in place at the same base I was already attending school in, Biloxi, Mississippi, and inside the same building where I failed my exams, met that Commander, was re-classified and graduated — just one hallway over. In fact, I saw the very same instructor that failed me consistently for the next 3 years….
Your life is shaped by the decisions you make. I like to think that my adult life, post 1996, was shaped by Lt Col Moffett. The faith and courage he had in me to give me a second chance continues to pay dividends for the AF. Thanks, I owe you!
Leadership and Motivation go Hand-in-Hand
Excellent post, Orlando. Leadership is about investing in human capital, as you aptly put. Development is a key aspect to this, and leading is about spotting paths to help others succeed. You will always remember your best leaders with a debt of gratitude, and if you do, i think these are the ones that have fulfilled their roles as being good leaders.
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Thanks for sharing you encouraging story. I believe that every body deserved a second chance, and I’m glad you did it this time.