Inspiration for trainers can come from unexpected sources. In their own way, the people I want to talk to you about this month provided me with motivation. I don’t know most of these folks on a personal basis. I do know, however, their heroic, courageous and, in some cases, tragic stories. During the past year, they’ve influenced me as a law enforcement trainer and as a human being. Perhaps they’ll do the same for you.
I’ll start off with Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past year, you know him. A phrase that I use is, “Sometimes in police work we only get one chance to do things right.” Although obviously not a member of our profession, Capt. Sullenberger is an excellent role model for all of us. You or your students may not have to face a situation on quite the same scale as he did, but being able to confidently take action that will make the difference at a critical moment is certainly applicable to our line of work.
Teaching our students this valuable lesson and helping them prepare—as well as encouraging them to maintain that edge—is a worthy goal for any law enforcement trainer. Sullenberger has also repeatedly insisted that the “Miracle on the Hudson” wasn’t just his moment in time. Instead, he says that equal recognition should go to his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, as well as the flight attendants. Such a down-to-earth, team-player attitude is refreshing and welcome these days. It’s something we should encourage in our trainees.
I’ve gotten to know Tony Lujan during the past year and am proud to include him in this list. Of course, you don’t know him, but I hope you know of his peers and friends. They’re referred to as the “Band of Brothers.”
Lujan jumped out of a C-47 over Normandy one summer’s night in 1944. He jumped out of another airplane over Holland later that same year. And a few months later, during a freezing night just before Christmas, he jumped into a foxhole not far from a little town called Bastogne. There he was wounded and sent home with a diagnosis that he might not walk again. He proved the doctors wrong. A veteran of the legendary 101st Airborne division during World War II, Lujan could righteously claim huge bragging rights over just about anyone reading this.
But here’s the truth about the man: He’s one of the humblest people I’ve ever met. And that’s the point for you and me as instructors. The knowledge and influence we sometimes have over students just might go to our heads unless we keep a balanced perspective, including remaining suitably humble. When I think that an inflated, self-worshiping ego is starting to take hold of me, I compare what I have done in life with someone like Lujan and “instructor slap” my ego back into place.
Yup, you heard me right. Why? Because when I was young and very sick with rheumatic fever, Soupy Sales taught me how to have fun. This was a time in my life when my parents later confessed they didn’t know if I’d survive. The “Soupy therapy” made me laugh and helped my recovery.
So when the good Mr. Sales passed away last year, it brought back memories and reinforced an instructional goal I’ve adopted: Whenever possible, make the learning process fun for students. We have to keep it professional, and we have to keep the class on track, but as often as possible, it should be a fun learning experience when we step in front of police officers looking to us for quality training.
Samuel R. Bird
You probably don’t recognize the name. I learned about him this year and, like many of you, I’d seen his picture without knowing it. Samuel R. Bird was a U. S. Army captain. His most visible presence came during President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Bird was the officer in charge of the casket detail, standing ramrod straight in the Capitol rotunda, marching behind the coffin through Washington, D.C., supervising the internment of our murdered president.
You can’t be a poor leader when chosen for such an honor. But it was his actions in Vietnam a few years later that really defined him. By then Bird was in command of an infantry company. He’d gained a reputation for taking care of his troops under very difficult conditions. On what was supposed to be his last day in Vietnam, Bird delayed his departure and joined his troops on a dangerous assault into a hot “LZ.” It came under devastating enemy fire. He suffered terrible wounds to his legs and head. These injuries left him partially crippled and blind, and in constant pain for the remainder of his life. Some years later, his wounds ended his days.
Before that finality, Bird was told that he was eligible to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Instead of accepting such a great honor, he chose instead a local military cemetery. The reasoning he shared: He would be taking someone else’s place that deserved it more. Up until the end, Bird cared for and took care of those he served with—not a bad thing for an instructor to keep in mind.
I once saw her in person and agree with many of you: She was a stunning beauty. But last year another vision of Farrah Fawcett: A human being facing the ugly challenge of fighting a terminal illness. I was reminded by her story of how courage can be found in unlikely and surprising places.
We know that in the “cop world” there are those who want to kill good people, including our students. It can be just because they are police officers. Having the courage to confront and act decisively is something we should teach constantly. Reinforcing such behavior so that our officers have the strength to do the right thing under life-threatening stressors is an important goal for law enforcement trainers.
Taking this a little further, even today, women officers are still sometimes looked down on. I don’t like that. As an instructor, I look at the potential each student holds rather than things like gender, physical appearance and other issues. I’ve worked with both men and women who lacked commitment and courage. I’ve also served with some great ones, such as my old partner, Carrie Drayer. She chose to transfer to the U.S. Secret Service and eventually won a spot on the presidential protective detail. You don’t get that type of job unless you have the smarts and the courage to do things right under very dangerous circumstances.
I grew up watching Walter Cronkite. He told me what was going on in the world, and I believed him. When I “returned to the world” after a tour of duty in Vietnam and heard Cronkite tell America that it was not the right war for us, I knew he was telling us the truth.
To sum it up, he personified the word integrity. I don’t think our current news, sports and entertainment worlds have anywhere near the same integrity that followed him out the door at the end of his final broadcast. But our profession needs to reassert its integrity as well, continuously proving that depictions of “bad” cops are mostly wrong. Isolated incidents of police indiscretion must be identified, dealt with and prevented from compromising our collective standards. Law enforcement instructors should be at the forefront of this, teaching and modeling the importance of integrity—to the same extent that some news people, sports figures and entertainment celebrities need a visit from Uncle Walter’s ghost.
The Most Important
This past year, the Good Lord threw some especially hard moments at us in law enforcement: Pittsburg, Pa.; Fort Hood, Texas; Oakland, Calif., Lakewood, Wash.; and too many others. To me, the most important people of 2009 were folks like Dan Sakai, Ervin Romans, John Hege, Mark Dunakin, Greg Richards, Mark Renninger, Ronald Owens and Tina Griswold. It’s bad enough that we are losing young men and women who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for America in our wars. It’s even worse when police officers die in our own country at the hands of people who are at war with American law enforcement.
As an individual instructor, I recognize that if I work hard at it, I can influence police officers in such a manner that those I touch may not fall victim to such a fate. If we agree to do our best to keep more names from going up on that wall in Washington, D.C., we could have a tremendously positive effect nationwide.