No Bad Wingmen

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PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In too many mishap investigations we find out there were other Airmen present. Some were in a position to physically intervene or at least say, "knock it off," and potentially prevent the mishap person from dying or sustaining severe injuries; but for some reason they chose not to. Law enforcement calls these negligent bystanders witnesses. I call them bad wingmen. Any one of them could have stepped in to change the outcome.

Bad wingmen exist everywhere. They are the supervisors or co-workers who condone shortcuts in the work place or ignore safety protocols for dangerous operations. They are the co-workers or friends who convince you to go bar hopping on your bikes or the ones who film your latest dare-devil stunt so you can brag on YouTube. They are the ones who pass by a known hazard and rationalize their lack of action with, "not my problem." We know Airmen are smart enough to know right from wrong; some just don't have the guts to do the right thing.

The most glaring example involved the death of a promising young Airman not too many years ago. He was partying with a bunch of friends at the dorm and decided to do a handstand on the second floor balcony railing. Alcohol was involved and the railing was wet. He had successfully performed this stunt before in the presence of other bad wingmen but this time he slipped. Eight pairs of eyes watched him fall to his death.

We usually find out what happened to the mishap person -- some are shipped to their hometown in a casket so their loved ones can say their last goodbyes; some spend months recovering as best they can from debilitating injuries before they are medically discharged; the lucky ones return to duty. But we never find out the fate of the bad wingmen. Their fate is in the hands of their commanders, supervisors, and most importantly, their peers who have to decide whether they can be trusted to be good wingmen in the future.

Soon after the balcony tragedy, we heard about another Airman who was actually saved by his wingmen before he had a chance to kill himself or others. This not-too-promising Airman decided to drink heavily and drive the night before he was to be involuntarily separated from the Air Force. Despite his friends' objections he managed to make it to his car and attempted to drive away blitzed out of his mind. His friends blocked his car in so he couldn't leave -- they were heroes that night -- they stuck by their friend.

If bad wingmen cannot be "re-blued" into good wingmen, then maybe they aren't cut out for military service. After all, the military is a very special club, a band of brothers and sisters who share time-honored common core values, who serve as our nation's sword and shield and never leave a buddy behind, whether it's on the battlefield or on the street.