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NEWS | Sept. 12, 2013

Learning lessons, easy or hard?

By Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Hughes 437th Airlift Wing command chief

Some days, I, like many others, only learn life's lessons the hard way ... through significant emotional events. Do we have this trait in common? Some of these significant emotional events are very positive and some painfully negative. For some, it's the first time away from home, an encounter with a military training instructor, the bus ride at the Academy, a flight in an airplane, or flying an airplane. For others the experience may have been a first deployment, combat mission, death of a friend or fellow Airman or family member, or the sight of a flag-draped coffin. Well, I recently relived a significant emotional event that taught me a couple of very important life lessons. My hope is if I share my story with you, I may spare you the need to learn or possibly relearn a few of life's lessons the hard way.

It was Friday evening like any other in the Hughes house. I was lying on the floor, rough-housing with my kids Sean (son) and Katie (daughter). They were trying to roll me over onto my back so they could get to my vulnerable underbelly. At 8:30 p.m., my wife Lisa gave them the "bedtime" call but relented when Katie begged to watch Thundercats. It was a new episode and she just had to see it. At 8:37 p.m. Katie climbed onto the arm of the couch like she had a hundred times before; normally she is met with "off please, this is not a jungle gym," or "get down before you fall down." On this occasion, the standard warnings were not given.

The next few seconds seemed to last 10 minutes. I could see Katie out of the corner of my eye. I saw motion as she came off the arm off the couch. Katie landed right next to my head and I heard a very distinct "snap". The snap was the sound of Katie's humerus bone as it snapped in half two inches above her elbow joint. The snap started a chain reaction ... a significant emotional event.

Instantaneously everything moved in fast forward. Before I even looked directly at Katie I told Lisa that we were going to the emergency room. I told Sean to put on his socks and shoes, we needed to go now! Katie had landed on her side and her left arm was doubled up behind her back. I rolled Katie onto her stomach so I could get her arm out from underneath her body. I scooped her up and Lisa was right there with two ace bandages. I wrapped Katie's arm directly to her body while Lisa filled a gallon Ziploc bag with ice and we were out the door.

The seconds turned into minutes and minutes turned into hours of endless waiting ... waiting in the emergency room, waiting for the nurse, waiting for the doctor, waiting for X-rays, waiting for transfer to a different hospital, waiting for the surgeon, waiting for Katie to come out of surgery, waiting for Katie to wake up, and waiting to be released from the hospital. Twenty-six hours later I tucked Katie into her own bed at home, gingerly placed her rebuilt arm on a stack of pillows, and kissed her goodnight.

The endless hours of waiting gave me lots of time to think ... and think I did. Rudyard Kipling once wrote, "I have six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, I call them What and Where and When and How and Why and Who." I employed Kipling's wise men and they helped me evaluate this significant emotional event. Through my evaluation I learned or more appropriately relearned two valuable life lessons. These lessons are like peanut butter and jelly ... alone they are okay but when put together they are great.

Lesson #1: Rules, as silly as they may seem sometimes, come from somewhere and have a purpose. Each individual's life is made up of significant emotional events. Based on these events, we make our own personal rules that govern the things we will or will not do. Sometimes we even project our personal rules on our friends and families.

While none of my siblings ever broke a bone falling off the furniture, there was a reason my parents had the house rule of no climbing on the furniture. Likewise, I can now vehemently state, there is a very good reason why my wife and I have the same house rule.

In the military, we take life lessons from significant emotional events and turn them into standard operating procedures, Air Force Instructions, or Rules of Engagement. We believe "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." The goal is if we follow the guidance, no one else will learn a life lesson the hard way.

So, if simple rules have an origin and a purpose, and if we do not follow these little rules people get hurt, then maybe we should we should adhere to life lesson #2.

Life lesson #2: If there are simple rules and these rules have a purpose, then we must enforce these rules. This sounds so easy, but in this instance I failed miserably.

Take a look around, at home and at work; what rules are you letting slide? If it is so easy, then why is it sooooo hard? Of Kipling's six wise men, "Why" is sometimes the hardest to answer. Why do we revolt against any perceived encroachment on our personal freedom, seem unable to take sage advice, and fail to follow and enforce simple rules? Is it because we don the superhero cape and shroud ourselves in the mantra "it will never happen to me?" When something happens to someone else we chime in with "they did it all wrong" or "that was a rookie mistake." Two of the scariest phrases in the military are when a lieutenant says, "based on my experience" or when a colonel or a chief says, "hey junior, watch this."

Likewise, we cringe when the mystical "They" climb the bully pulpit and preach adherence to technical orders, AFIs, the enforcement of standards, or publish new rules. As a chief, most of my days are spent as They. Day in and day out I use that pulpit to shepherd Airmen who fail to follow safety precautions or standard operating procedures. Even before I round the corner I hear, "Oh @%$#, here comes the Chief."

On occasion I find that I am one of "We." I vehemently disagree with a specific rule and become part of the mob that passes around the old rhetoric "one person pees their pants, everyone wears diapers." I find myself chanting "no more diapers, no more diapers, no more diapers!"

Are we doomed to learn or relearn the same life lessons over and over again because we did not see, have firsthand experience, or were unaffected by the event? Or is it because we have forget-itis and don't remember just how painful the lesson was the first time? Is it as simple as we don't know history, or we are incapable of learning from other people's mistakes?

George Bernard Shaw said, "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."

While George Santayana proposes, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

So I ask you, which one is it? Or is it a little bit of all the above? Is the problem so complex that it takes a significant emotional event before we are willing to remove our heads from our backsides? We use all the justifications to soothe our conscience and boost our ego, but the reasons cannot erase the fact that we either ignored or failed to enforce a simple rule ... a rule that was a result of one of many life lessons.

Sometimes maybe all we need is a reminder, much like this past weekend when I saw Katie chase the gaggle of neighborhood kids down the street. As she dashed off in hot pursuit with her left arm held out to her side, at a slightly canted angle, like it was still in a sling, and her right arm swung freely, I felt a lump well up in my throat and was overcome with emotion. While Katie's arm has long since healed and she is as rambunctious as ever, I will never forget the night I failed to enforce a simple Hughes house rule.

Using Kipling's six wise men one last time I ask you the following questions: What simple rules are you letting slide? Where at home and or at work? How did these simple rules come into existence? Why are you letting rules slide? Who is about to have a significant emotional event? When are you going to put aside all the reasons why and engage?

Kipling, Rudyard (1903). The elephant's child. Just so stories (pp. 57-76). London:
Macrnillan and Co.