DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
July 30,1996

SUPERIOR IN SEATTLE

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, WASHINGTON - This base runs like a giant Swiss military watch. Tick, tick, tick. Click, click, click.

We're talking military perfection at its finest at every level.

The grounds are White House immaculate, with every bush and every blade of grass precisely manicured. The trees virtually stand at attention, and even the deer, who pretty much have free run of the place, seem to prance in step through the base's well-groomed woodlands.

Every piece of equipment I saw, from giant C-141 cargo aircraft to lawn mowers, stand tall and ready for the most demanding martinet's white glove inspection.

In all the years I've been looking at military bases and gear, I've never seen a sharper outfit. A lot of leadership and sweat has gone into achieving these high standards, and many good people here take great pride in doing what they do to serve our nation.

People, not machines or well-groomed landscapes, are what make an outfit click. And the airmen and airwomen I've talked to at McChord are among the best and the brightest soldiers I've seen in a long while.

Now this is one hell of an admission for an old Army doggie to make - especially for one who's on recent record saying that the Air Force should be disbanded and its primary functions returned to the Army and Navy and that a new outfit called the Strategic Mobility Command be created to do the long-distance air and sea transporting.

After interviewing so many outstanding people, I suspected my escort officer, Lt. Adriane Wood, of stacking the deck and only dealing up the top aces to yak with me. Of course, she swore this wasn't true.

But I'm the last of the non-believers - especially when dealing with Air Force flacks, whom I've held since the Gen. Joseph Ashy spectacle as the slickest of the slick.

So, with the help of an old buddy, Ken Sheldon, who was a 17-year-old in my recon squad during the Korean War, and my retired Army ID card, I made several unescorted runs through the base at odd hours and talked to a bunch of folks without the public relations officer's official seal of approval stamped on their foreheads. They were as outstanding as the groups that Wood had lined up for me.

I talked to dozens of cooks and clerks, medics and maintenance sergeants, crewpeople and air controllers, drivers and sky divers, brand-new airmen and veteran squadron and wing commanders.

All were together types who had their heads screwed on properly, were highly motivated and were really into their mission. They were consistently bright, idealistic and well educated and looked at their Air Force duty not as a job but as a hard-core calling.

All the people I talked to were working their butts off. Even though the post-Cold War drawdown has cut the force, the tempo of operations has only gotten heavier. Yet there was no moaning or groaning; instead, there was just a quiet resolve to get the job accomplished as professionally as could be done.

Senior Master Sgt. Larry Ray, a casting director's dream for the perfect Air Force sergeant, summed it up for everyone I talked to at McChord: "We're professionals. We're not here for the dollar, but to do the job correctly."

Most of the soldiers I talked with have valuable, highly transferable skills that are needed on civvy street. They also know they could get out and make a lot more money as civilians, work shorter hours and not wake up a few weeks from now as a moving target in some hell-hole like Rwanda, Somalia or Haiti.

They stick because they're throw-backs to times past: They love their country and want to serve her.

When you get depressed and wonder if this country and its young people are going down the tubes, visit McChord or any active-duty military base and take a peek at the quality people who still follow JFK's declaration: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can
do for your country."

Thanks to Wood, a flack with integrity, and all the fine folks at McChord, my three-day visit has recharged my inspiration batteries and given me a new appreciation for the boys and girls in blue.