Strength in diversity: Col. Bargery's perspective

  • Published
  • By Col. Chris Bargery
  • 65th Air Base Wing commander
As a young U.S. Air Force captain, I served with British forces in a special exchange program. As the only American in an intense and stressful six-month selection course, I was forced to quickly adapt to the special culture into which I'd been thrust. The unique, two-year assignment that followed taught me numerous lessons.

I learned how our amazing British allies plan, train, lead and fight. But most importantly, I learned about the British thought process, their world view and how they live. I gained a better understanding of how to approach challenges, learned new solutions for old problems and in general, developed a broader diversity of thought.

Though I led British forces, I also worked intimately with troops from Jordan, Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Burma, Jamaica and France - all fighting the British way, but each contributing something unique.

My family was immersed in British culture as well, and by the time our assignment was finished, we all had British accents and a greatly-expanded world view. My family remains much enhanced by the experience, and I departed with new experiential 'arrows in my quiver' that I've used countless times.

In combat, skills gained through this exposure have saved my Airmen's lives and helped us accomplish complex missions through innovation. In the Pentagon, it offered me different perspectives and solutions to operations, policy and training.

Perhaps the most important 'arrow' I acquired was skill in learning how to quickly embrace diverse talents and thought and then assemble those elements to win the day. Drawing on diverse talents proved its worth as I found myself in Iraq seven years later fighting alongside Bulgarian soldiers. Not long thereafter, diverse talents played a key role during a midnight attack alongside Thailand's forces. Again I was grateful to fight within a diverse team the day some brave Mongolian partners gunned down an oncoming vehicle borne improvised explosive device, which massively detonated just outside lethal range.

Diverse experiences have grown me just as they grow our Airmen. But the true beauty of this fact is that each Airman comes to us with unique strengths just waiting to be leveraged.

During the Kosovo Campaign of early 2000, I worked with a forward deployed group opening air bases along the conflict's front lines. On one deployment we encountered our first military organization, an Albanian infantry company. With two groups of heavily armed, serious professionals staring at each other, they seemed to wonder who we were and why we were there. After some tense moments, we attempted to communicate through a series of languages to no avail. In a last ditch effort, the Albanian leader brought forward one soldier and asked, "Espanol?" I replied I had no Spanish speakers, when a voice behind me called out, "Sir, yes you do!"

Out of my ranks appeared a blond-haired, blue-eyed Airman from west Texas. This Airman had grown up familiar with Hispanic culture and had married a Hispanic woman. Not only could this American Airman and Albanian soldier communicate, they instantly connected, putting everyone at ease. Over the next few weeks, our forces cooperated and served our missions well. My force was instantly multiplied through one Airman's unique skills and background.

Here at Lajes Field's 65th Air Base Wing, we have no aircraft assigned. We have no high-tech weapons or elite forces. Instead, Lajes Airmen are our weapon system, and we deliberately focus them on understanding and growing each person's capabilities, maximizing what every Airman brings to the fight. Every Airman is an arrow in the wing's quiver - a human weapon system ready for action. Each of those arrows is unique, drawing on diverse history, culture and experience.

As wing commander, my job is to create an inclusive organizational culture where each Airman's talents and potential are maximized and aligned to support the mission, and our Diversity Council is going to help.

We're excited about our Diversity Council's potential impact and we're moving out. As we begin, our primary objectives are to create a diverse mentoring program, where people of different backgrounds mentor each other and to designate key, upwardly-mobile positions as 'diversity-seeking' to ensure the culture of valuing and leveraging diversity is sustained.

During a recent monthly professional development session one of my officers said, "we have to stop thinking of diversity as a social issue and look at the effects it can create."

You see, diversity is truly a weapon.