Armed Forces Day: Pantex’s Dr. Michael Paston reflects on importance of unified purpose

  • Posted: Monday, May 10, 2021, 1:33 pm

I have sometimes wondered what goes into designating a day an American holiday. Armed Forces Day, which is May 15 this year, began in 1949 after the armed forces were unified under one department — the Department of Defense. As someone who served in the Air Force, I have seen the benefits of people unifying for a purpose. This intangible force generates success, particularly in chaotic and uncertain times. We all agree 2020 was COVID chaotic, and 2021 will present uncertainty with the contract transition. The guiding light in these times will be steadfast adherence to our unified values; what Armed Forces Day represents. Let me clarify this.

While assigned to Air Mobility Command in 2009 at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, I oversaw the health of the pilots, maintainers, other flight line operators, and their families. AMC,/abbr> tasked Charleston AFB to deliver cargo all over the world. Charleston provided airlift of troops and passengers, military equipment, cargo, and aeromedical equipment and supplies worldwide. In other words, the airlift mission flew to all continents, delivering people and cargo, beans and bullets, anytime, anywhere. However, let me tell you a secret.

The actual operation of a successful airlift mission is about as glamorous as drops of water on stone. There’s no frenzy, no flap, just the inexorable process of getting the job done. In a successful airlift, you don’t see planes parked all over the place; they’re either in the air, onloading or unloading, or being worked on. You don’t see personnel milling around; flying crews are either flying or resting so they can fly again the next day. Everyone else is also on the job, working quietly and efficiently.

The real excitement from a successful airlift comes from seeing lines climbing steadily on PowerPoint charts — tonnage delivered, aircraft utilization, and so on (while lines representing accidents and injuries remain down). That’s where the glamour lies in air transport. It is this beat, this precise rhythmical cadence, which determines the success of an airlift. Nevertheless, it’s not enough.

One key factor for success of an airlift (or any large operation) is everyone working toward unified goals. On a cold, windy January night, I was making rounds on the flight line (my rounds were not only in the hospital) because the mission called for launching 20 or so C-17s at 3 minute intervals — a colossal orchestration. I knew 3,000 or so airmen would be working 24 hour operations under floodlights toward this task. I always thought making myself available to the pilots and crew members, seeking them out and listening to their complaints, gave me insight into the true health and operations of the mission, which I could never have gotten sitting at my desk reading e mails and secondhand reports.

“How’s it going?” I asked an airman, who looked about 18 years old, as she crouched over a wheel well to tighten some bolts. She looked up, quite perturbed, and said, “Sir, I can’t talk. If I don’t finish this, we won’t launch these 20 birds.” Then it dawned on me that this 18-year-old sensed mission success depended on her. She knew her responsibility involved working collectively toward a mission. Seeing her dedication, I was reassured all 20 planes would launch at the precise time as ordered.

It’s this perspective that affects my current mission here at Pantex. That’s why I took particular pride when the American Association of Ambulatory Health Care inspected our clinic on April 30 and the inspector said, “It is very clear that your staff are aligned with the higher calling of national security that is the mission of Pantex.” I cannot imagine a higher praise.

We unify for a purpose — across all of CNS — despite the challenges we’ve faced this past year and the uncertainty ahead. As a doctor, I care about the health and welfare of people, and as a Pantexan, I contribute to achieving our mission — a mission that unifies us and embodies what Armed Forces Day celebrates.