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Red marks build excellence
Though red pens are often seen as leaving negative remarks on one's career, they are in fact used as tools to help better Airmen. From fixing aircraft to correcting papers, each stroke makes a mark in pursuing excellence. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Daniel Phelps)
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Posted 1/6/2013   Updated 1/6/2013 Email story   Print story


Commentary by 1st Lt. David Liapis
39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

1/6/2013 - INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey  -- You could say that my Air Force career has revolved around a red pen since I joined in July of 2004.

I grew up in the world of aircraft maintenance as an Electrical and Environmental Systems specialist, always with a "red" stuck in my sleeve in order to "break" an aircraft with a crimson "X." Now, as a public affairs officer, I have an "editing tool" of the same color handy to mark up articles and photo captions as necessary.

You might be wondering where I am going with this, and how a summary of my career should matter to you.

Well, the point is not about what I did, or do, or how I went from turning wrenches in the bitter cold on an Alaskan flightline to writing this commentary in an office in Turkey. It's about the process of breaking something down in order to build it up to be better and stronger than before.

When a pilot, crew chief or other maintenance person notes a critical discrepancy on an aircraft, they will mark a red "X" in aircraft's forms. The jet is then considered broken - non-flyable. The point is to alert the maintenance crews to a problem, but it doesn't stop there. They don't just shrug their shoulders and walk away, leaving the jet to rust. Rather, they take the necessary actions to correct the deficiency, "clear the X" and get the plane in the air again so it can accomplish the mission.

When one of my photojournalists brings a product to me for editing, I don't simply "bleed" all over it and let them publish it as is. The intent of the markings, verbal feedback and subsequent edits are to ensure you, the reader, receive an error-free, informative product.

It's no different with us and the various forms of feedback we receive. Whether it's an official feedback, a performance report or even a form of non-judicial punishment, it's about the process of breaking down and building back up - or at least it should be.

From the outset of our military careers, various aspects of our lives - habits, language, respect for authority, etc. - were targeted by our Military Training Instructors and/or flight commanders, and we were broken where needed so they could build us back up better, stronger and ready to execute the mission. However, that focus is sometimes lost and the value of those lessons can be forgotten as time-in-service points accrue and initial-issue uniforms fade to grey.

If you have received feedback that had more negatives than positives or a performance report you felt should have required all the fingers on one hand to count the score but didn't, realize that this "breaking down" is meant to build you up. How can we expect to improve without first being shown what our weaknesses are?

Maybe you've messed up big time, and you're in dreadful suspense waiting to find out which letter of the alphabet is going to follow the "LO." Or, maybe you're the supervisor writing that paperwork. Don't forget it's about rehabilitation, not hammering someone just for the sake of punishing or giving them what you think they deserve.

What we all deserve is the opportunity to be resilient and bounce back from the valleys we sometimes find ourselves in. From Airmen basic to four-star generals, we all make mistakes. The difference between an Airman basic who makes chief or a butter bar who makes general and those who find themselves being escorted out the gate as a "mister" or "misses" is often times how they deal with being broken down. Are they willing and patient enough to be built back up? Are you?

As for me, I will continue to watch as my Air Force life orbits around a red pen and do what I can to learn from my mistakes, receive negative feedback graciously and strive to be stronger, better and more prepared to accomplish the mission. What are you going to do?

2/4/2013 10:02:02 AM ET
As an ex USAF E-7 I greatly appreciate this article. As an former Aircraft Navigation System Specialist 32871 their were many time my guys complained about Red X's being put on the aircraft forms when the crew could have flown on. I just told the guys -and girl's sorry for the verbiage but I'm an old fart- that the Aircrew and the Pax- for you old farts too- lives depend on our actions. I would hate to see us loose and aircraft and lives then always wonder if it was because of my actions or my lack of action. New airman need to be reminded of that everyday.
Terry Overton, East Tennessee
2/4/2013 9:25:24 AM ET
I served in the '70's and had my share of run-ins being fresh out of high school upon enlistment. I'm thankful my CO was an understanding man and although he did reprimand me several times he always took the time to explain what I could do as an airman in the USAF to better myself. I was honorably discharged in May 1980.I'm now retired after a successful career in civil service and this man's guidance in the beginning set me straight Thank you LTC B. for your help.
Mark Miller, Lake Havasu City AZ
2/4/2013 9:10:07 AM ET
Great article wish someone would pay attention to the picture.Pockets will be secured and items stowed in pockets will not be visible except pens stowed in the pen pocket on the sleeve.Just providing 'red' feedback.
Grem, Tyndall
2/4/2013 8:43:54 AM ET
As a former enlisted member Honorably Discharged I had my share a valleys and experienced the punishment process. At that time in the early 90's there was not a form of mentor-ship to guide me through this process. I was left to flounder in the mess I created. I hope some progress has been made to mentor young Airmen in areas outside their AFSC. I feel if they do not get some of this guidance that the USAF will lose some valuable assets that are ineligible to re-enlist due to some immature decisions and no one there to show them the way out.
Jim Luke, Raleigh NC
2/4/2013 8:18:47 AM ET
We all need to take our lumps and learn from them. Not a bad commentary...considering it came from someone who was a Hoya.
Spaff, Wright-Patt
1/22/2013 4:35:52 PM ET
The picture doesn't comply with AFI 36-2903 Para 5.1.1.
Captain Regs, Hill
1/5/2013 3:20:11 AM ET
FANTASTICALLY expressed and POSITIVELY motivating for all Airman Thank you for your commentary.
Ellen, Incirlik AB
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