USAFE commander to cadets: Get ready

Gen. Mark Welsh III speaks to Air Force Academy cadets in the Academy's Arnold Hall Theater Nov. 1, 2011. Welsh, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and a 1976 Academy graduate, told cadets they would make a difference as Air Force officers and shared with them what the Air Force would expect after they graduated. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)

Gen. Mark Welsh III speaks to Air Force Academy cadets in the Academy's Arnold Hall Theater Nov. 1, 2011. Welsh, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and a 1976 Academy graduate, told cadets they would make a difference as Air Force officers and shared with them what the Air Force would expect after they graduated. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe spoke with Air Force Academy cadets during a visit to the Academy Nov. 1.

Gen. Mark Welsh stressed the importance of learning leadership skills while at the Academy and how cadets' experiences would prepare them for their Air Force careers and their lives.

"I'm always reminded of things I didn't appreciate when I was a cadet," Welsh began. "Places like the Honor Court. Have you ever been out there in the evening, when no one else is around?"

The Honor Court is one of the areas on the Academy that captures the moments and memories of those who have previously served, said Welsh, a 1976 Academy graduate.

"You stand next to this B-17 (Flying Fortress) here and look over your shoulder at that P-40 (Warhawk), put your hand on the marble and close your eyes. Strange things happen. You'll hear the bogey calls, then you'll hear the bandit calls," he said. "You'll hear the waist gunners testing their guns. You'll sense the tension as they anticipate the attack. You'll sense the fear. Then you'll feel the pride."

Another location that carries a heavy history is the Academy's Graduate Memorial Wall, Welsh said.

"Sometime, just walk up to it while nobody's around," he said. "Just stare into the stone. Put your hand on it. And then send me an email and tell me you felt like you were alone -- because you won't."

The first time he did this, he said, he saw a name he hadn't seen before when he moved his hand.

"It was Robert Lodge," Welsh said. "Anybody heard of him? I went and looked him up. Robert Lodge is a member of the Class of '64; graduated from (Cadet Squadron 02), which I got the chance to visit this morning."

Lodge was killed in Vietnam May 10, 1972, when a MiG-19 attacked his F-4 Phantom fighter. He was a five-time Silver Star recipient and received the Academy's Jabara Award for Airmanship posthumously in 1974.

"Robert Lodge is part of your Air Force heritage," Welsh said. "Visit the wall. Pick a name. Learn something about who you are."

The general spoke about Airmen -- leaders -- making a difference within USAFE and other places around the world, and he reassured cadets that they would do the same. One recent graduate now leads a flight of 56 Airmen at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England; another keeps 54,000 Defense Department employees in Kaiserslautern, Germany, informed about ongoing events. A third led the effort to assemble a command-and-control network for air operations over Libya earlier this year.

"They're you. The names and faces are going to change, but this is what you're going to be doing," Welsh said. He also touched on graduates who had made a difference due in part to their sacrifices.

"Dave Wisniewski was on his third flight into a hot (landing zone) to pull wounded British soldiers off the battlefield when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his helicopter, and it crashed," the general said. "Four Airmen were killed, and three were horribly wounded. Dave was one of the wounded: He died about three weeks later in Bethesda Hospital, Md.

"I think you know that Roslyn Schulte was the first female Academy graduate to be killed by an enemy combatant. What you may not know is that she was an intelligence officer, and her job was teaching Afghan military officials how to collect and interpret intelligence. That job made her a target ... she was killed outside Kabul by a (roadside bomb).

"These people made a difference," Welsh continued. "Everybody I just talked about is making a difference. And you will, too. Don't worry about that."

What the cadets should focus on instead, he said, is making sure they're prepared for what awaits them after graduation.

"We expect you to be credible," Welsh said. "When you tell your Airmen later that you're going to do something for them, you'd better do it. If you tell them you're going to follow up on an action for them, you'd better follow up. If you tell them you're going to look into something for their family, you'd better look into it. Folks, you get one chance. One chance. Be ready."

Another expectation the Air Force will hold, Welsh said, is that cadets will maintain their level of attention to detail after they graduate.

"John Vosberg was flying 22 feet low on a low-level route in (South) Korea," Welsh recalled. "He was certified to 100 feet, but he was about 22 feet low. He didn't have a radar altimeter; it's hard to tell 22 feet. Unfortunately, there was a new cable that had been strung at 78 feet above the ground, and when he turned into the sun -- another minor mistake -- and because he couldn't see it, his OV-10 (Bronco) disintegrated in midair.

"Attention to detail: Is it important? You decide. But when you leave here, you'd better have it," he added. "You'd better be ready to make decisions as well."

Welsh segued to a battle during Operation Desert Storm on Feb. 27, 1991. An F-16 Fighting Falcon had been shot down, and the pilot, then Capt. Bill Andrews, had landed in the path of a retreating Iraqi Republican Guard armored division.

Welsh, then a lieutenant colonel, was flying in his own F-16 over Iraq at the time. A strike controller relayed Andrews' location to other pilots and asked if anyone could conduct a search-and-rescue. A Chinook pilot answered the call.

"I'm thinking, that's the size of a double-decker bus, it's got no guns, and you're going to fly that thing into the middle of a retreating Iraqi armored division to pick up one pilot? First time in my life I ever said 'Hooah.' I was impressed," he said.

After he returned to the United States, Welsh said he went to look for her. After he confirmed her identity, he set out to meet her.

"I wanted to tell her thank you, because she was inspirational at a time when people needed it," he said. "It took me a little while to find her, but I did."

A photo of Rossi's tombstone appeared on the screen behind the general. Two days later, on March 1, Rossi's helicopter had hit an unlit radio tower near Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia while returning from an aeromedical evacuation mission.

"I kept my promise," he said. "I went and met her. And I stood in front of that rock and thanked her for her courage, for her dedication, for the inspiration she gave so many of us that day, for her sacrifice and the sacrifice of her husband and young daughter.

"You'd better be willing to make decisions, because you're going to need to," he continued, returning his focus to the cadets. "You're going to need to make them without all the information you'd like, and you're going to need to make them when people's lives are at stake. And you're not always going to have time to ask somebody else to help you."

As leaders, cadets must know their Airmen's stories, Welsh said. He related his own tale that began with an encounter at a Fourth of July picnic at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.

"My chief master sergeant and I were standing there, and we looked up the sidewalk, and there's a guy walking toward us. He's got black combat boots, black knee socks, cutoff jean shorts and no shirt. He's got nipple rings; he's got a chain between them, and the chain's connected to a big leather dog caller with silver spikes on it, which matched the one on his wrist," Welsh said. "So the chief and I talked to him and gave him some fashion advice, which I'm sure he appreciated."

He got to know the Airman, who was an F-16 crew chief and young NCO. They met frequently on Welsh's trips along the flightline, the general said. So he was surprised when, about six months into his command, the Airman shows up -- along with his supervisor, flight chief, first sergeant and squadron commander.

"This tech sergeant, brand new to the wing, been there about four days ... drug him into my office and said, 'Boss, you've got to fix this,'" Welsh said. "I'm thinking, 'He took his shirt off on the flightline, he had those nipple rings in ... this is horrible.' Then that tech sergeant explained to me, that wasn't the problem.

"His daughter was 4 years old. He'd gotten divorced right before he left because his wife was on drugs, and he couldn't get her to stop using them. After exhausting every other possibility, he divorced her," Welsh continued.

The NCO's ex-wife won sole custody because he did not mention the drug use in the custody hearings, but his daughter was at risk of being placed in foster care when her mother was convicted for selling drugs. Welsh made some phone calls and had the staff sergeant reassigned to a base back in the United States so he could reclaim custody of his daughter.

"Let me ask you a really important question: Why didn't I know about his daughter?" he asked. "I saw the guy all the time, talked to him a couple of times a week. Why didn't I know he had a daughter? It's not complicated: I never asked him."

Finally, Welsh said, he expects cadets to be worthy of their Airmen's leadership after they graduate. He presented a video featuring now-retired Tech. Sgt. Matt Slaydon, an explosive ordnance disposal technician formerly stationed with the 56th Civil Engineer Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

"I want to thank the Air Force for giving me the honor and privilege to carry my country's flag into battle," Slaydon said in the video. "After a short period of time, I gained a great sense of purpose in what I did. I've thought of what I'm going to miss the most: wonderful family and this great sense of purpose. But I hope to take it with me."

Slaydon suffered severe injuries after a roadside bomb exploded about two feet away from him. The blast amputated his left arm, blinded him and left shrapnel wounds throughout the left side of his body.

"And he's saying things like that at an award ceremony," Welsh said. "Are you ready to lead him? Let me leave you with these words: Leadership is a gift. It is given by those who follow."

Welsh concluded with a toast to Vosberg, who had been his roommate at the Academy and his classmate in pilot training.

"He was my best friend. He's my brother in law, Betty's brother. He's the godfather of our first child. He's like the people sitting next to you: The bonds you form here will not end," Welsh said.

As the general sat with his friend's coffin in an empty hangar at the Oakland Army Depot in California, he made Vosberg a promise: "I promised him that every year, sometime in the month of November, I'd toast him with people I knew he'd respect. Well, this is November, and you qualify."

Welsh, with his wife and with Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould joining him on stage, toasted Vosberg. Welsh recited the Ode of Remembrance: "He shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary him, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember. To John Vosberg: fighter pilot, classmate, my friend and our brother.

"Thank you for the life you've chosen," Welsh told the cadets. "Thanks for being good enough to be here. Make sure you're good enough to graduate. Take care of yourselves, and I'll see you out there."

VIDEO: Gen. Mark Welsh speaks with Air Force Academy cadets (50:12)