Avoiding the Vertical Pronoun

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
  • 82nd Training Wing commander
Staff Sgt. Zachary Rhyner is one of only three Airmen since Sept. 11, 2001, to receive the Air Force's highest honor--the Air Force Cross--and the only one who did not receive it posthumously.

A combat controller, Sergeant Rhyner saved countless lives by calling in more than 50 "danger close" air strikes, many virtually on top of his own position, after his special operations team was caught in a 360-degree ambush in Afghanistan's Shok Valley in April 2008. Even as he controlled eight Air Force fighters and four Army attack helicopters while perched on the side of a cliff, he laid down suppressing fire so wounded teammates could be extracted from the line of fire.

Sergeant Rhyner's actions that day were truly heroic, and his story has been rightfully used by many, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, to illustrate what Airmen bring to the joint fight.

But I'd like to use his actions off the battlefield to illustrate another principle.

Earning the Air Force Cross was a big news story, and many interviews followed. Sergeant Rhyner's conduct during that time demonstrated his character almost as much as the Shok Valley did.

You find one word repeated over and over when Sergeant Rhyner is quoted: "We."

"We had to pull the wounded guys out..."

"I think that was the moment when the insurgents we were fighting called time-out."

"What was going through my head was we don't have another option. We are still taking fire. We need it to stop..."

Even noted news personality Glen Beck couldn't get Sergeant Rhyner to talk about himself.

"You make this sound like it was just, you know, another day at the office," Beck said in a Fox News interview. "But there are only--what is it?--192 people that have ever received the Air Force Cross... How do you put that together in your head? I mean, you are in a very elite group."

Sergeant Rhyner's response?

"Any other combat controller put in the same situation would have performed in the same, exact way. Credit that to the training we receive and the process that we go through to become a combat controller."

No other Airman would have been more justified in basking a little in the light of fame. Yet given the ultimate opportunity to make it "all about me," Sergeant Rhyner chose instead to make it all about "we."

That is a great, great lesson for all of us.

"It's all about me" sometimes seems to be the mantra of our time, but that attitude has no place in our Air Force. We are taught from the first day we don our uniforms to subordinate our personal ambitions and desires to the needs of our unit, our service and our nation.

We can't allow ourselves to get puffed up because of rank or position, or to let awards and accolades go to our heads.

We know that "we" is a much stronger word than "I." What "I" can accomplish is insignificant--but what "we" can accomplish is virtually without limit.

Sergeant Rhyner understood that well. We can learn much from his great courage and selfless sacrifice in the line of duty. We can learn much, too, from his humble ability to avoid the vertical pronoun, even as the cameras rolled.