Armed with Science: The Final Dispatch from Antarctica

US Air Force Lt. Col. Vaughan is the Chief, Joint Operations and Plans, Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica.

This is the 42nd and final entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.

Christchurch, New Zealand — End of Tour Report: Relentless Execution

With a 4.5 hour C-17 flight from McMurdo Station to Christchurch, New Zealand, my short tour in Antarctica has come to a close. I spend this time reflecting on my tour. I’m very lucky to have served alongside a team of exceptional problem-solvers. They made my job easy. More importantly, they executed our mission without fail.

As warfighters deployed to a non-war zone, we’re fairly well positioned under the radar, as it were. I look around the airplane at the men and women with whom I served over the past two months. Not surprisingly, I see many of the same qualities I saw in my compatriots in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Qualities like ownership, integrity, service, excellence, creativity, commitment to the mission, accountability, teamwork, and thrift.

There’s no way to succeed in an environment like this without each person digging deep and finding the risk taker and innovator within him or herself. On a daily basis, they are tasked with succeeding in the face of unknown and difficult obstacles. The regulations and guide books don’t cover many of the challenges they face here. They must think on their feet, and they must do it fast. There is no time for whining, no time for laziness, no time for blaming anyone or anything, and certainly no time for bureaucrats. These fine humans make their mission their personal business. And then they mind that business with the sense of urgency and attention to detail of a sole proprietor.

So each day they execute. They execute relentlessly.

Superficially, I’m looking at Airmen and Sailors and Soldiers. Each one managing and leading and making things happen for most potent effect. The Technical Sergeant responsible for repairing and replacing LC-130 propellers fearlessly leads his team into sub-zero temperatures to make sure his venture is responding to his customer’s needs. When other shops might close their doors, the Prop Shop is open for business. The crusty Master Sergeant busy organizing and inspecting cargo loads puts his name and reputation on the line with each pallet he certifies—the sense of ownership in his method is so strong one expects to see a company logo with “inc.” after his initials. Watching the young military medical doctor caring for the sick and injured, one might get the sense that he just opened his own clinic and is willing to go the extra mile to ensure the community is served. After hours? He’s there when needed, 24/7.

The sun sets on McMurdo Station and this year's Dispatches from Antarctica series. (Photo by: Col Gary James)

The sun sets on McMurdo Station and this year’s Dispatches from Antarctica series. (Photo by: Col Gary James)

The bottom line here is not revenue and profits, but these deployer/business leaders ensure each day that the taxpayers get the highest possible return on their investment in this operation. Expressions of satisfaction by inter-agency customers like the National Science Foundation make the case. So in a very real way, I see would-be entrepreneurs and business owners, I see future employers, I see innovators, I see commerce and progress all around me.

I see in their faces the core values and core competencies of our great nation. After World War II, returning veterans of the “greatest generation” came home and rebuilt the country. And in the process, they put their fellow citizens back to work and catalyzed an economic (and baby) boom that was unprecedented. I remember stories from my grandfather about those days. Seeing all this energy and competence here and on America’s other front lines, it occurs to me that these fine people hold in their hearts and minds–today, right now–the solutions to many of our nation’s challenges.

If we let them, they may too rise to become a greatest generation for their time.

Unfortunately, I’m also reminded that front line operations differ tremendously from the big organizations within which many of these men and women normally toil. Too soon, these entrepreneurs and proprietors, who’ve parsed up our mission into so many successful small businesses, will be once again assimilated by the bureaucracies from whence they came. They’ll spend their days, not leading change and executing strategy with fire in their eyes, but pushing paper, squinting into Blackberries, and typing slides into PowerPoint briefings.

Maybe I’m wrong. Just maybe, as these men and women return home, whether from Antarctica or other deployments, their supervisors, their commanders, their organizations will recognize the entrepreneurial and innovative potential within each of them. Maybe it will be a series of self-realizations that sparks the shift. But if enough of us do this, this next great generation of veterans could be well on its way to relentlessly and fearlessly executing our nation’s business, both within and outside of government.

As the C-17 touches down, and we all prepare to travel home to our families and normal lives, I reflect on this series of dispatches. I hope the videos, photos, and comments have offered a small glimpse into this mission and into the lives of the men and women who execute this mission on a daily basis. I hope through these small windows, you too could see the relentless execution that makes success possible.

Visit AF.mil to learn more about the conclusion of the U.S. military’s 55th year of support to the U.S. Antarctic Program and National Science Foundation activities as part of Operation Deep Freeze.

NOTE ON NEW ZEALAND EARTHQUAKE: In September 2010, a major earthquake centered near Christchurch, New Zealand caused extensive structural damage, but no fatalities. On 22 February 2011, however, a more devastating earthquake hit the city, killing and injuring hundreds. While ODF operations were not materially impacted by the earthquake, professional and personal bonds between program participants and their New Zealand hosts mean that the full affect is yet to be identified. The final Dispatches from Antarctica post predates these events. Note provided courtesy of Lt. Col. Vaughan and Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica.

LC-130 on the runway back at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii. (Photo: Col Gary James)

LC-130 on the runway back at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii. (Photo: Col Gary James)

Explore the entire Dispatches from Antarctica series.

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