When I was a young captain at the Air Force Academy, I had the honor of escorting two general officers, Lieutenant General Devol “Rock” Brett and Brigadier General Robinson “Robbie” Risner. These two officers epitomized qualities that are worthy of being remembered and celebrated this Veterans Day; specifically, generosity of spirit and commitment to country.
When I recall Rock Brett, who passed away this August at the age of 87, generosity springs to mind. He came through West Point and flew cargo planes during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. He later climbed into the cockpit of more glamorous fighter planes like the P-51 Mustang and F-4 Phantom, but he never forgot his roots. When he visited the Air Force Academy in 1991, he advocated for aircraft static displays that would commemorate all the missions of the Air Force, not just those flown by fighter jocks. He also advocated that the Academy give more recognition to
non-commissioned officers (NCOs), to include inviting distinguished NCOs to speak to cadets (typically, only senior officers got invitations).
Advocacy of oft-neglected contributors to the Air Force’s mission was part of Rock Brett’s generosity. I felt his generosity personally. I helped him in the smallest of ways, arranging for photos of his bailout and rescue in Vietnam to be made into overheads for his talk with cadets; I recall his asking me for advice on the kind of stories cadets wished to hear (not that he needed my advice). A few days later, I received a handwritten and signed note in which he claimed I had saved him from falling flat on his face during his talk.
Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth: The man truly was a rock. His gracious note was simply one small instance of his generosity toward all ranks.
What I remember most from his stories to cadets was his appeal to honor. Vietnam, he admitted, was a conflicted war. It had not always been fought in honorable ways. But when he needed to know in that war if someone was trustworthy, he would appeal to their sense of honor as signified by the academy ring he had earned at West Point.
In my military career, I met my share of “ring knockers” – guys who adopted a smug air of superiority simply because they wore an academy ring – but in a time of conflict Rock Brett appealed to his ring to rekindle ideals of “duty, honor, country.” A fine officer and a finer man, General Brett deserves to be remembered this Veterans Day as an embodiment of our country’s spirit of generosity.
Robbie Risner made a different impression on me. What immediately struck me was the strength of his commitment to country – his powerful love of it. (Such qualities are evident in his moving account of his years as a POW in Vietnam, The Passing of the Night.) Risner’s faith in God and country helped him and his fellow POWs to survive torturous days, months, and years of captivity in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. His endurance, his patriotism, his spirituality were remarkable.
Risner’s commitment to country shone forth in a special banquet speech to cadets. In my twenty-year career in the military, I never heard a more moving speech. As General Risner spoke of his commitment to God and country and how it had preserved him through the darkest days of captivity, every member of the audience held on his words. The sense of military service as a calling was palpable.
I’ve written my share of articles that are critical of trends I don’t like in today’s military; of wars that I believe are both unwise and unnecessary. One thing that pains me about such wars is how they waste the generosity of spirit and boundless commitment of service members like Rock Brett and Robbie Risner. Such troops will be the last to cry “foul” when their country calls on them, which is precisely why our leaders must be judicious, must exercise due diligence, before deciding to tap such generosity and commitment.
This Veterans Day, let’s remember that America’s veterans have often exhibited remarkable generosity of spirit and awe-inspiring levels of commitment. Let’s also remember that America’s true “shock and awe” resides not in our weaponry, but in the hearts and minds of veterans like Rock Brett and Robbie Risner.