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Our Airmen are true American heroes

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Hickey
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing command chief
As we begin our 10th year of the war, it never ceases to amaze me at how our Airmen are stepping up to the challenges we face. Despite the longest sustained combat operations in American history, we continue to meet or exceed our retention goals and the service has developed into arguably the most capable combat force in history.

If you would have asked me nine years ago if this level of effort was sustainable over this length of time, I'm sure I would have told you it wasn't possible. Not that I'm a pessimist, but it would have seemed incredible for me to expect Airmen to be able to cope with the stress of continued combat operations for such an extended period of time. So, nine years later, I'm happy to say that I would have been completely wrong.

Today, we have a force that includes Airmen who have spent half their military careers at war, some with a constant one-to-one dwell rate. Those Airmen are capable, motivated, and excited about what we bring to the fight and their impact on the battle space. I have to admit, I've never seen a more profound example of selfless service.

Today's Airmen are true heroes in every sense of the word. They have joined at a time when the nation is at war and continue to serve honorably despite grave risks to personal safety.

Recently, we have seen several Airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice in an effort to bring basic human rights and security to Afghanistan. Many others have left the battle space with significant life-altering injuries. We all know we can never repay them or their families for these sacrifices. What we really need to remember though is that they truly made a difference to both the safety of America and the lives of the Afghan people.

Many Airmen also endure significant family hardships brought on by extended deployments and demanding home station operational tempos. Although the services continue to make great strides in family support programs, this cost had been a steady strain on our Airmen and their families throughout the last nine years.

Yet, despite all of this, America's Airmen never falter. Airmen consistently step up to the challenge...not because service is mandatory or because they draw huge salaries, they do it because they believe in our country and its ideals.

In a recent lecture at Duke University, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made these remarks: "But beyond the hardship and heartbreak -- and they are real -- there is another side to military service, and that is the opportunity to be given extraordinary responsibility at a young age, not just for the lives of your troops, but for missions and decisions that may change the course of history."

So I'm proud that I was wrong when I underestimated the resolve of our Airmen nine years ago. Our Airmen are an absolute privilege to lead and I look forward to serving with them each and every day. They are, without doubt, America's true heroes and I have no doubt that they will continue to impress and make history long after I leave the service.