During my career as an Air Force chaplain, I was assigned to make regular morale visits into the work areas of the base. One day, I went to visit the Military Personnel section and found most of the 30 airmen hard at work. Their supervisor, a chief master sergeant, stepped out from behind his desk to greet me.
His mannerisms were cordial and professional, befitting the highest enlisted rank in the military. Chief master sergeant is a rank that subordinates will sometimes nickname “god.” So, you can see how I might have assumed that our conversation would be absolutely no-nonsense — an assumption quickly disproven when a 2nd lieutenant stepped into our impromptu meeting.
To understand what happened next, you need to know that we technically outranked the chief. However, his 25-plus-years of experienced easily outranked our rookie status. In fact, many subordinates will refer to their chiefs as “god”
“L-T!” the chief said, pronouncing each letter of the abbreviation for lieutenant.
The man stiffened in his polished shoes. “What can I do for you, chief?” he asked.
“Well, for starters,” he boomed, “you can tell me just what in the hell you have done for your country today!”
The lieutenant wavered in the face of what seemed to be a public upbraiding, but the glint in the chief’s eye told me that this was a comic routine, a regular part of their snappy repartee.
While I don’t remember the lieutenant’s exact words, I believe his hyperbolic intent is best expressed in a dialogue like this:
“Chief, in selfless service to my country today, I have thrown myself on two grenades, knocked out a machine gun nest and singlehandedly rescued three airmen from a burning building.”
The chief, smiled at the lieutenant’s chutzpah. He knew, of course, that the L-T had done none of that. But more importantly, he also knew that the lieutenant was learning a valuable truth about work: Heroism isn’t always measured by an individual’s dramatic and drastic deeds.
The heroism of doing one’s daily job isn’t always romantic or adventurous — there is grit in the details. Mundane tasks sometimes are accomplished only through tireless work for many thankless hours.
Helen Keller best expressed this heroic truth when she said, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.”
Then, as if thinking of folks like this lowly lieutenant, she added, “The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
The chief had one last satirical question for the lieutenant.
“Is that all you’ve done the live-long day, L-T?”
“No, chief. I’ve also completed and filed the weekly personnel report, finished the commander’s PowerPoint presentation, and to top it all off, I filled a cup for the mandatory random drug screen.”
I looked at the L-T and then back at the chief. Both seemed to be holding their breath.
“Now, that is impressive,” the chief master sergeant boomed. “Carry on, L-T!”
With that, the L-T smirked, giving us all “permission to laugh.”
If you want to read more about military heroes, download a free chapter from my new book, “Hero’s Highway – A chaplain’s journey toward forgiveness in a combat hospital.” It’s available for sale on my website or at Amazon.com.