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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 24 - Hap Arnold Executive Leadership Series #1

  • Published
  • By Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth, LTC John Harvey, and Col. Marty "Metro" Smith

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.


The Hap Arnold Outreach Program Review

This episode of Wild Blue Yonder On the Air features two speakers from the Air War College General Henry Hap Arnold Outreach program, which celebrates its eleventh anniversary this year. To open the episode, Dr. Elizabeth Woodward provides an overview of the program and the life of Hap Arnold, the five-star general and first general of the Air Force for whom it is named. She also explains the threefold goals of the program: to share the mission and vision of the Air War College, create a bridge between the college and the American people, and connect to those they are serving alongside.

Next, our first speaker tells the story of the October day in 2019 when his life as a high-achieving battalion commander changed forever. It was that day he and his wife got the call that they had been selected by a birth mother to raise her brand-new baby girl as their own and had four hours to drive ninety miles to the hospital to pick her up. The chaos of that moment led to the most challenging but rewarding time of his life, and bringing up his daughter alongside his two sons has provided many lessons on how to be a better leader. These include the importance of calculated risk-taking instead of sticking to the status quo and of leaving the organization better than you found it to benefit those who follow. He also highlights how adopting a child born in challenging circumstances transformed his view of the world and made him more empathetic, a skill he now brings to his leadership approach.

The second speaker’s story begins in January 2007, when he was a new aircraft commander in the C130H Hercules. He and his crew were getting close to the end of their flying window when they were asked to fly to Baghdad, a call they weren’t happy about. However, when it turned out to be a mission to retrieve the remains of an Army Specialist killed in an explosion, they agreed to make the flight. The speaker recalls that, on the flight back, they discovered the Specialist’s name, Brandon Stout, which coincidentally came up again eight months later during a broadcast by the President. The speaker realized he knew that name and felt compelled to learn more about Brandon and keep him in his memories, which he has done by wearing a bracelet in honor of Brandon every day for the last fourteen years. He says there are three lessons he learned from this experience he wants to share: to know the possibilities that come with going the extra mile, to connect with the people in our lives, and to actively remember the wisdom from those who are no longer with us.


Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth: 2022 is the 11th year of the Air War College General Henry Hap Arnold Outreach Program, featuring talks by Air War College students and faculty focused on the power of storytelling and strategic leadership. Through the years, our speakers included civilian leaders in the DIA and the State Department as well as their military colleagues, including missileers, hospital administrators, coast guard helicopter pilots, navy pilots, special operations reservists, and attorneys. This year's cohort of Hap Arnold speakers consists of officers in the Air Force, the Army, the Kentucky National Guard, Marine Corps, and two international officers. Their jobs are as diverse as they are: Fighter mobility and test pilots, instructors, dentists, acquisitions, infantry, cavalry, intelligence, air defense, and human resources. Through the last few years, we've spoken to live audiences nationally throughout our region locally, on Zoom, on Teams via audio, and again, face-to-face and in person.

I am Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth, Director of Research and Electives at the Air War College. I teach classical rhetoric, creative thinking, and coach the Hap Arnold team. Our namesake for this program, Henry Hap Arnold, was born in the 19th century in 1886. In 1907, Arnold graduated from West Point. Just a few years later, the Wright brothers taught him how to fly. He is one of our earliest military aviators and served with distinction in World War I. In World War II, he became the commander of the Army Air Forces, and he grew the force to 2.5 million troops and 75,000 aircraft. Hap Arnold, who earned his nickname from associates for his happy disposition, ultimately attained the rank of Five-Star General and the title of First General of the Air Force. He died in 1950 having laid the groundwork for the Air Force we have today.

We honor his memory with this outreach and strategic leadership program whose goals are threefold. One, we want to share the mission and vision of the Air War College with our community. Our mission: To educate senior military and civilian teammates to serve as critical and strategic thinkers able to serve as national security senior leaders. Our vision: We are the foremost college for air, space, and cyberspace education and thought, preparing the world's best joint senior leaders. Two, we want to create a bridge between the college, its students and faculty, and the population we serve, the American people. And three, we want to connect to those we are serving alongside. We want to be courageous and unafraid to be vulnerable for our peers and those we are proud to lead. We want to inspire. Thank you for sharing this time with our Hap Arnold speakers.

LTC John Harvey: On September 15th, 2019, I passed the battalion guidon onto the new commander, concluding a successful battalion command tour. My family celebrated the occasion with me, as did a collection of colleagues and friends. At this point, on September 15th, 2019, I had a productive, successful life. I was married to Miranda for 13 years, had two smart, sweet boys, and I had been assessed as a high achiever and quality leader during my two years in command. One month later, October 6th, 2019, everything changed. My family received a call that we were selected by a birth mother to raise her brand new baby girl as our own, and that we had four hours to drive the 90 miles to the hospital to pick up our new daughter. The chaos of the moment followed by the turbulence of the past two years has been the most challenging, rewarding, remarkable time of my life, and the lessons I've learned would've been unimaginable that September day I relinquished command of the battalion. Adopting our sweet Edda Jo has taught me to take better care of those I'm fortunate enough to lead. Through this gift of a sweet baby girl, I could better align my priorities while gaining a more holistic understanding of what is truly important.

The lessons Edda Jo has taught me have made me a better leader, capable of making a positive impact on my organization and the lives of those I'm entrusted to lead. In the summer of 2019, my wife, who'd spent her career as a broadcaster covering the issues surrounding the need for adoptive parents, approached me about adopting our own baby. I didn't want to. After all, we had two great boys, one nine, the other six. They were becoming independent, which allowed us to spend more time together. I was scared to death that we would fall in love with the child only to have it pulled away and given back to the birth parents. But Miranda pushed hard, and since I didn't think we'd be matched anyway, I agreed. Immediately, we were matched, and the most incredible blessing of my life entered our family forever. The risk we had taken to put our hearts on the line, put our lifestyles in check, and to start the parenting game over again was rewarded with an immeasurable gift. The lesson I learned by taking a calculated risk made my family the absolute best version of itself. I cannot imagine our lives without Edda Jo.

This taught me that being risk-averse in my career will maintain the status quo, but will likely never move the organization forward. Being good enough is not an inspiring way to lead and will never engender the trust necessary to be a top-performing organization. Instead, by taking calculated risks, the organization has a chance to become the best version of itself. A week after we brought Edda Jo to our home, Miranda and I were out of leave. We were told it would take 18 months to be matched, but when the time arrived, it only took 18 days. It all happened so fast we couldn't build the time necessary to bond with our new daughter. In just over a week, a babysitter had to keep Edda Jo while we went back to work. This was typical for adoptive parents in Kentucky. Parental leave did not exist for adoptive parents, and the ability to bond in those critical early days was not afforded to those parents choosing to adopt. We were fortunate that we could afford in-home care for Edda Jo. If we were relying on daycare, one of us would've had to take leave without pay until Edda Jo was at least eight weeks old and able to be cared for at daycare.

Seeing this glaring omission in the system, Miranda was determined to fix the loophole and worked with state legislators to make a law that adoptive parents received the same parental leave that birth parents were given. Turns out our little Edda Jo became the face of the bill, appearing before Kentucky's workforce development committee, while Miranda explained our family's experience and why the law needed amending. On March 23rd, 2021, Kentucky's governor signed into law House Bill 210, that states that if an employer gives leave to birth parents, they must provide the same duration of leave to adoptive parents. On behalf of Edda Jo, Miranda had been critical in changing a law that would positively impact adoptive parents in Kentucky forever. The lesson I learned witnessing my wife doggedly fight for change that would never benefit us, but will benefit generations who will follow us, is that you must leave the organization better than you found it, so it benefits those that follow. As a leader, I have to identify an opportunity for important organizational change and encourage and support subordinate leaders to do the same.

No system or structure is perfect, and improving the organization allows those that follow to identify and fix other problems, thereby enhancing the function and overall effectiveness of the organization. You have to understand, I grew up in a loving family, in a home where we had plenty. My mother was a school teacher, my father a lawyer. My rural community was safe, and there was very little diversity of culture, race, or thought. This is the foundation of who I am and the spectrum of how I see the world. And while I believe I'm a good person who wants all others to succeed on their merit, I carry a blind spot in my ability to indeed be empathetic. Edda Jo entering my life helped me better identify that blind spot and work to understand the situation of others more.

Edda Jo was born to a mother addicted to drugs and a father who was in prison. Her mother had been arrested the previous year, and her other three children were handed over to Child Protective Services as she worked to rehabilitate herself. When Edda Jo was born, she had a cocktail of drugs in her system that she would have to detox from in the first weeks of her life. This background was extraordinary to me and distinct from the life that I had known and crafted. Edda Jo brought with her the heartbreak of drugs, prison, and a broken family. Watching her grow daily into a funny, sweet, smart little girl reminds me that she is not her circumstance, and she's not bound by the poor decision of others. Being a part of Edda Jo's life shows me that other people's past doesn't define them. Sometimes, they just get dealt a bad hand. If Edda Jo's mother had not made the brave decision to give her away, she likely would have grown up in a far different environment than she's in now.

Bringing Edda Jo into our family has made me a better leader, because I can extend the empathy to others that a parent understands. Birthdays are important, as is the first day of school and doctor's appointments. I grow each day to understand that bad decisions made by soldiers based on economic and societal factors shouldn't define the person. And a second chance followed by compassion and mentorship may be the opportunity to set a new path for the individual while aiding me further in lessening my blind spot. The choice my family made to adopt Edda Jo has been the most important choice of my life. I'm now a #GirlDad, wrapped around my little girl's finger, and the first man my daughter will ever love. I'm also a better leader by leaps and bounds.

By adopting a little girl born into a challenging circumstance, I now have empathy that had escaped me prior. I now understand that by taking calculated risks and supporting subordinates to take calculated risks, we can create a more efficient, dynamic, and effective system others can look to as a model. Finally, I now know that it's not enough to maintain an organization as a leader. Instead, I must leave it better than I found it. I must identify opportunities to improve on a problem affecting the organization, so others following me can benefit while also fixing the problems affecting them. Edda Jo is now two years old and is happy, healthy, and is the most amazing little girl I know. Bringing Edda Jo into our lives has been the biggest blessing of all our lives, and it's taught me there's are still plenty of lessons to be learned and plenty of good work to do.

Woodworth: We have some questions from the audience. I wanted to pull up one of them right now. "Thank you so much for telling us about the lessons that you've learned. I'd like to know, how have your sons changed with the addition of a new family member, and what did this teach you about how change can impact organization?

Harvey: So my sons have changed. They've been great kids, but watching them grow into the role of big brother in care for a little girl; there's, you know, six years between the youngest one in the den and the little girl, and there's nine years between the older one and the little girl. So, just to watch them kind of start caring for her and just becoming... As great as they are, they even became better, so that was fun to watch. As far as the lessons I've learned from Edda Jo for the organization is, as I mentioned in the conversation, she did bring another side to me. As I mentioned, her mother was addicted to drugs and her father was in prison. This was something I hadn't had any experience with, and... But people around me in my organization had had experience with that. A lot of them had. So, I realized that my family is not... You know, we're not 1000 miles away. We're close to that, in that I could easily see their past through my daughter, and it helped me be, again, more empathetic and understand them better and not push them off to the side and say to that 10% that I can't trust, but maybe they are people that just need a second chance, and they're going to be as valuable to the organization as everyone else.

Colonel Marty “Metro” Smith: I guess you could call it a war story, but when I think about war stories, it reminds me of pilot training, and we had these Vietnam veterans that ran our simulators, and they would tell these stories, war stories with their hands and often, it was waving of the hands, and one hand would shoot the other hand, and they would kill their watch. And so, my watch does not die in this story; it's actually a fairly straight and level flight. But my worst story is about a gift given to me by an army specialist. It was January 22nd, 2007. I was a new aircraft commander in the C-130H Hercules. I was leading a crew of six Airmen, and we were flying tactical airlift missions throughout the Iraqi theater. We were busy. On a typical mission, we'd load up, fly mostly at night using night vision goggles. We'd proceed on a one to two hour leg, and then we'd depart. High altitude, safety. In transit, the riskier lower altitudes: Those envelopes where enemies, small arms, and surface-to-air missiles were most effective.

We'd land in an Iraqi airfield, keep the engines running so we could depart quickly if needed, offload, upload, and we'd do it all again. And because of the high risk, we were limited to a 12-hour crew duty day, and any extensions or delays would require higher headquarters approval to continue the mission. So on this day, my crew and I were getting close to the end of our 12-hour flying window. We're on the ground in a place called Balad, Iraq, and we're offloading troops. And we got a call from Command and Control, and they said, "Hey, don't offload your plane cargo. We need you to go to Baghdad." And upon receiving this call, the crew wasn't really happy.

They were tired. It had been a long day. None of us wanted to make it longer. And technically, they couldn't force us to extend beyond our 12-hour window for safety reasons. But I had final say, but for some reason, my gut told me to query higher headquarters. And I asked them what they were tasking us to do, and the response came back as two letters: HR. We knew those letters well. It stands for Human Remains. At this point in the war, we'd flown dozens of HR missions, and I got the crew together and I said, "I feel like we need to take this one. I don't want anybody to fly if you feel unsafe to perform the mission, but if we put ourselves in the shoes that people whose entire world just crumbled tonight, you'd want your loved one home as soon as possible." And so my crew is tough and they felt it, and we accepted the mission.

Earlier that day a platoon from the 46th Military Police company, the Michigan National Guard, was returning back to their barracks after a day of assisting Iraqi police in downtown Baghdad, and one of the Humvees in their convoy was hit by a roadside explosive. The blast literally blew the vehicle off the road. A passenger in the vehicle described the heat of the blast, it was so hot it fused her eye shut, and she could hear what was going on around her but she couldn't see. Unfortunately, the driver, a US Army specialist, and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in the blast, and the other two passengers were severely wounded. My crew was tasked to retrieve the army specialist.

So we made the short flight from Balad to Baghdad International Airport. And at this point in the war, there's always a lot of activity around Baghdad Airport. It was common for us to see tracers and gun fire over the airfield, but that night it was an easy approach. And going into Baghdad, you land to the north. The international airfield is to the east off the right of the main runway. So you take a left towards the military ramp, and normally there's this hustle and bustle of aircraft loading and unloading, but on this night, it was 2:30 in the morning, it was near silent. All movement on the ramp had stopped, except for our aircraft. We taxied up to a scene of dozens of army soldiers standing in formation.

For air crew, HR movements are somber and raw, and on this night we arrived, we shut down our engines. We didn't keep them running like we normally did. We achieved complete silence. My crew exited the airplane. It was dark. It was actually fairly brisk. For a January in Baghdad, the temperature was fairly brisk. It had that usual smell of Baghdad though. It's like a dry metropolitan air that's soured by the smoke of the US burn pits where trash was burning adjacent to the ramp. And my crew lined up at the back of the aircraft, and we stood at attention at the bottom of the ramp, and we saluted as members of the deceased's unit, those closest to him, walked the flag-draped coffin onto the aircraft.

And as I said, it's a raw experience. For the aircrew, fallen soldiers are typically anonymous. There's no label on the coffin. Their loadmaster gets a sealed envelope and a manifest. And we'd completed dozens of these missions, and I never once knew who was in the back of my airplane or how their life ended. But this mission was different. The individual's information wasn't in an envelope. It was handed to our loadmaster as loose papers, and on the flight to Kuwait International, my loadmaster read the individual's birthday. And she said, "Wow, he's so young." And I asked the question, "What's his name?" And she replied, "Brandon Stout." And for some reason, I don't know why, I wrote his name down on my knee board and when we returned, I included his name in my personal log of our missions in Iraq.

Brandon was the first and only name I ever wrote down in any of these mission recaps, and honestly, there wasn't no reason behind it, no intent. I just scribbled it there and didn't think much about it afterwards. But eight months later I was back in the US, and I'm sitting in my living room and I'm watching television with my wife, and the program was suddenly interrupted by a special message from the President, and it was President Bush and he was addressing the nation from the Oval Office to explain the critical state of the insurgency in Iraq and inform Americans that he was about to surge US troop levels in response. And he closed his message with a thank you from the parents of Army Specialist Brandon Stout. The President stated that they had written him a personal letter after their son died in Iraq on January 22, 2007.

And I thought to myself, "Man, I know that name for some reason." I asked my wife, "Why do I know that name?" And then it hit me. I immediately opened the spreadsheet to my mission recaps, and there he was, the one name I had written down. And it was a crazy coincidence. And afterward, my wife and I had to learn Brandon's story. He had a young wife, he had loving parents, he was raised on a lake in Michigan, he loved to fish, he was drawn to service, his platoon mates loved being around him, and he dreamed of becoming a military chaplain. And learning Brandon's story hit me really hard. This strange circumstance put him in my path, and I felt almost guilty. Here I was living my life doing everything he would never get to do.

So I resolved that I would remember him. My wife had this bracelet made for me. I wear it on my right wrist, and I'm sure some of you have noticed many military members wear these bracelets. They were first introduced in the 1960s to bring awareness to Americans that were still prisoner, missing, or unaccounted for in Vietnam. Since their introduction, the purpose has evolved. Today they serve as personal memorials, reminders to the wearer of the person they carry with them. It is a way to keep their spirit alive and connect them to our daily lives. And my bracelet says, "Specialist Brandon Stout, Michigan, US Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom, killed in action, January 22nd, 2007."

I've worn this bracelet every day for the past 14 years. And in my war story, the extraordinary circumstance, Brandon crossed my path, and he gave me a gift, and I almost missed it. Even though I've never met him or ever will, he gave me a gift. I'm not sure how this directly translates to any definitive leadership lessons, but maybe just some takeaways for leadership perspective. So in my story, I hope to leave you with three things. First, know the possibilities that come from doing extra. My crew didn't have to take the mission that night, but that seemingly small decision had a significant impact on my life. Second, grab a hold of the gifts in your life: Your family, your friends, your co-workers, the humans that you encounter every day. Whether here with us in spirit or alive in the flesh, feel their presence. See their gift. Give them love. Be kind. Say hello. Connect.

Finally, just one word: Remember. Whether it means sporting your grandpa's watch or wearing your grandma's ring, a picture in your wallet, or a token on your key chain, these are ways we remember. We also remember through war stories. Tell your war stories, and those of others. Remember the wisdom from those who are no longer with us. Share their reminders to keep the important things important. The bracelet reminds me of things that Brandon will never experience in life: The birth of a child, birthday parties, walking his daughter down the aisle, pushing his grandkids in a swing, growing old with his wife. He gave me a reminder to celebrate life, a reminder to keep the small things small, a reminder to accept the gifts of the present, and those in my presence. I'm very appreciative of Brandon's gift right here on my right wrist. I carried him on the first leg of his journey home, and now he carries me every day. Thanks for letting me share my war story.

Question: Hey, Metro, thanks for sharing your story. When you look back at yourself as a leader, what's the difference between how you led in the past and how you do today after you decided to wear the bracelet?

Smith: It's a good question. I don't know if it's the bracelet per se, or just sort of the collection of my experiences, and I think this is true for all of us who've been to combat. I take myself a lot less seriously. I certainly take the mission very seriously, but in terms of me or situations, I think life and death situations are serious and everything else, we just sort of... It's about perspective. And so I think, yeah, to answer your question, I think it just sort of changed my perspective a little bit. But if my wife was here, she would tell you that I operate in a low earth orbit at all times on a level 11, and that I probably don't handle situations, cool, calm and collected as I should. So really, I think the biggest thing is that, like I said, it's just a reminder to me to calm down, keep the small things small, and take deep breaths. I don't know if that's a sufficient answer, but thanks for the question.

Question: Hey, another question too came in. Sharing this story here, very powerful for everyone that listened to it. Have you used this story in the past in other leadership situations with another type of audience to share the goodness that your message is?

Smith: I have not. In fact, I've only told this story prior to this to some close family members. Sometimes you meet people and they say, "What's the meaning of your... Is that a medical bracelet or what you got there?" And I'll just say, "No, it's a gift that someone gave me in Iraq." And I think most military members sort of know what it signifies. So to answer your question, I have not, and I'm not sure how I'll weave that into my leadership experience going forward. Certainly the chance to deliberate on it, and maybe there's some lessons there to pass along. But I think for anyone that's listening, particularly civilians, take notice when you meet a military member and they have a bracelet because there's a story there, and so maybe ask them the question, ask them what their story is and why they're wearing a bracelet and who they're remembering. Thanks.


LTC John Harvey was an AY22 student assigned to the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. LTC Harvey enlisted in 1996 and was commissioned through the state Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 2001. He deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004 and to Q-West, Iraq, in 2010. LTC Harvey works full-time for the Kentucky National Guard with key full-time assignments as the Kentucky National Guard Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Personnel Services Branch Chief, and Administrative Officer for the 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. LTC Harvey is branched Transportation, Logistics, Adjutant’s General Corps, and Military Police. He has served in various command and staff positions. LTC Harvey lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his family.

Colonel Marty “Metro” Smith was assigned in AY22 to the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. Col Smith is a career mobility pilot, and he has fulfilled multiple operational assignments as a C-130 aircraft commander, instructor pilot, evaluator, and weapons officer. Concurrently, he completed five combat deployments supporting operations in Southwest Asia, accomplishing over 140 combat missions. Col Smith also completed assignments in multiple command and staff positions. As the Air Operations Officer for United States Africa Command, he was the Command’s lead air planner and advisor for theater-level joint air operations and air asset force management. In 2017, he assumed command of the 29th Weapons Squadron and led a total force of over 50 active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard Airmen and graduated twelve C-130H/J weapons officers and ten advanced loadmaster instructors annually. Before attending the Air War College, Col Smith served as the Deputy Commander of the 86th Operations Group at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. In this role, he assisted the commander in leading more than 600 airmen and civilians in five squadrons to provide operational support, tactical airlift, aeromedical evacuation, and airfield operations for the European and African theaters.  

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