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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 26 - Hap Arnold Executive Leadership Series #3

  • Published
  • By Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth

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.

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, CIDER, 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 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 ground work for the Air Force we have today.

We honor his memory with this outreach and strategic leadership program whose goals are three-fold. 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.

Lieutenant Colonel (Promotable) Kelly McCay: Long-time listener, first-time caller, I've been told I have a face for podcasting. It is truly an honor and humbling to be able to speak and record this podcast. That is where the humor ends today. My name is Kelly McKay and I've had the privilege to serve at the United States Army in this nation for over 20 years. I will start off with a question, who runs Alcoholics Anonymous? Alcoholics, right? Who recognizes someone with trauma? Someone with trauma. Hi, my name is Kelly and I have trauma. I hate speaking about myself. It is not my favorite subject, by any means. I like to talk about a teammate, the team, the unit, family, an advocate for what the whole is doing, not the individual, definitely not me. Only two venues I talk about myself, my leaders in brief and the topic today.

Normally, I would start off that I was born and raised and educated in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, first one in my family to attend college, commissioned and be a professional in the military, third generation to serve and not be drafted like my father and grandfather. Family, I have a wife, son, and a dog. You have a family as well. Deployed four times, twice with conventional forces and twice with special operational forces. I'm approachable, honest and use movie quotes from time to time. What I never talked about was living with trauma. By all accounts in the military, I am successful. I reached the rank of lieutenant colonel; was a battalion commander and I've served for 20 years.

Talk about it now, not for sympathy but the highlight, we all have trauma, even those that are successful and is not tied to combat. Trauma is trauma. We need to recognize it, use it to overcome obstacles and accept you will never get over it. Allow me to share my story that I have just started to share. When I was eight years old in 1987, my father, Ronnie, passed away, leaving now a single mother, Barbara, with two small children. My mom sacrificed everything to give us a normal childhood. My father's passing robbed us, not just of the experience of him but the opportunity to be a kid. In 2003, as a young 24-year-old first lieutenant, I lost two paratroopers, Jose and Doug, in combat during the Operation Iraqi Freedom. This took away two sons from their families, a young husband from his even younger wife and two members from the platoon.

I had been asked by more than one operational psychiatrist to tell me about my worst day. I simply give them the day, 13 October 2003. My father-in-law, Rich, who I never met, was killed by a drunk driver in 2005. My wife and I were still in the early stages of dating when it occurred but his death allowed us both to grieve together and it would not be the last time. The family homestead in Kentucky was destroyed by a tornado in 2008 when I was deployed to Iraq for 16 months. Luckily, my mother insisted the last time I was home to take my father's US burial flag presented at his funeral. I was hesitant because I was still serving and moving all the time. The movers would lose it. If I had not taken it, it would have been lost forever.

In 2010, my wife had a miscarriage when I was traveling in the Pacific. It took me 36 hours to get home and the loneliest 20-hour flight of my life. In 2012, we found out my wife had a serious potential paralyzing neck issue, which could only be corrected by major surgery and it was 50/50 chance whether she'd be able to walk. Luckily we lived at the National Capital Region and she was treated by the top specialists at Georgetown University. The total bill for a quarter of a million dollar surgery was $26.40 cents. Since 2006 and currently I've been fighting skin cancer. I have over 30 cuts across my body and over the course of 20 years I have had to learn how to walk three separate times due to injury, one time just two years ago and it was debatable if I was gonna be able to continue to serve before taking battalion command. In 2014, a paratrooper friend of mine was killed in Afghanistan with one week left of his tour, leaving a family without a husband and a father.

I'd been following Mike for years, basically he was always a year ahead of me. It was autonomous to find out that I was going to assume his next position. Every time I get good news in my life, I make the trip to Section 60 in Arlington, to personally tell him the good news. In 2017, former paratrooper from Mount Charleston was killed when serving as a police officer in Las Vegas during the mass shooting, leaving a wife and three kids fatherless. He just wanted to serve his community. When I first met him at the age of 18 as a young private, that's all he wanted to do and that's what he did. 2018, our son Julian, was diagnosed with anxiety. In 2019, my cousin Anthony, the closest thing I had to an older brother committed murder, suicide, leaving a son and a family. On command, I had a service member also named Julian, which made it hit even harder since that's my son's name, in the reception company, commit suicide while a majority of the unit was in a major off post exercise. Both of my grandfathers, Bruce and Lawrence, were alcoholics and passed away before I even met 'em, one by suicide. I've been off my career timeline for a year and just recently caught up by getting to attend the Air War College and selection to the rank of colonel. I've been living with trauma my whole life, not realizing it and I've still been successful.

Think how much more successful we all can be if we realize it early and be the generation to talk about it. I am the first in my family to talk about it and I was the first in my unit to talk about it. I'd like to share five tenets of living with trauma. One, trauma is trauma. Two, it's okay to talk about problems. It is actually liberating to tell your story and open up at the top and then all the others will open up as well. Three, the deadliest enemy is ignorance and isolation. Four, let's be the first generation to talk about it. Five, add the feeling and experience to help or touch someone's life. In closing, I charge you to sit down, list out the trauma you've been living with. As mentioned throughout, we all have it. Hi, my name is Kelly. Remember that I want you to share it with someone. It could be a friend, peer, family member, subordinate, superior. Just share. You have it within you, the highlight, the trauma you have lived with. Sharing it will be cathartic and it will lead you down a road to help others.

You know someone who's struggling with trauma and if this will help prevent people from committing suicide and other destructive behaviors that is destroying us, let's be the first generation to talk about living with trauma and show that we care. Trauma is trauma. We need to recognize it, use it to overcome obstacles and accept you never get over it. Thank you for listening to my story of living with trauma. My name is Kelly. I'm living with trauma and I am the first to talk about it.

Host: Kelly, thanks so much for sharing your story. It's a powerful message for all of us. So you talked about self-admission of trauma. How do leaders create an environment where others feel safe but more importantly, they have that strength to recognize their own trauma?

McCay: Now, thanks for the question, Matt. Self-admission, right? I didn't really self-admit this. About 2019 where I actually started going through just thinking about things in my life and it really started with, we were trying to tackle suicides as a whole within the Army. And at the division level, we were trying... Basically ended up being three of us workshopping different ways to do it. And what it really came down to was it had to start at the top. The leader had to be self-aware and actually share, because if people would see that the leader has this, then it's okay for me to talk about it and to develop and foster the ability to share. So I've done this before, again, workshopped it a couple times at the battalion level, even before we took it back up to the division to see if we could get this approved as the division standard on how to address this. And it was a three hour breakout and I had people admit things that I had no idea. And we did it in groups. I didn't do it lieutenant colonel to private. I kept it starting first class E seven, senior leaders and above in different block times. And we did it with mid-grade leaders, senior leaders and junior leaders.

And I had someone admit for the first time they'd been sexually assaulted by a family member. I had someone admit they'd been raped. And it was just... Again, I get emotional and I'm again not gonna use names because I don't have permission to tell their story but it was just talking about it. That's really all we have to do and just be the example that we should be. Thank you.

Host: You know, trauma is such a significant issue in all of our lives. Thanks for sharing some of your personal experiences. So as an Army officer, your profession continues to be very demanding in those significant challenges you've faced. How do you keep inspiring yourself and others to serve in such a demanding environment?

McCay: Now, Matt, thanks. The first part is you have to be self-aware. You have to be self-aware that you have this trauma. And the Army as a profession and whole is very demanding. And one of the speakers earlier today talked about presence and I'm a big believer in presence. Presence is what will allow you and others to open up to you because they actually see you, they know who you are. But there's a different kind of presence too, when you're there, you're really there. You're not just doing the facade of, "Yeah, I'm listening to you," kind of thing and thinking about something else, you're actually listening. You're actually caring. So I would say that's another big point and then now lastly, inspiring myself and others to serve. Honestly, it's by telling that story, if I can do this, then you can do it. I overcame a lot. Like I said, I was pretty close to not being able to continue to serve the last time where I had to learn how to walk again. It was close, real close. But I've always used that. During physical therapy, I think that's probably where I probably had the biggest impact, because there'll be soldiers that didn't show up to physical therapy, they took a role at 631.

I can't be there because my squad leader, team sergeant, told me I had to go do this. Physical therapist is like, "That guy is a battalion commander. He's here every day. He's got a lot more going on than you do. Why are you not at physical therapy?" And then of course, we challenged each other as we were all learning how to walk again or run or whatever it was. So again, presence is the biggest piece. Presence and caring. Thank you.

Lt. Col. Mike Carlson: I've been blown up, shot at, sworn at, knocked down, knocked out, detained, deported, impinged, unhinged, slightly singed, defamed and defunded all during my time in my beloved Marine Corps, none of it killed me. What almost did kill me was my nose. Yes, my beezer, my sneezer, my hocker, my booger generator, this beautiful matter horn of a snooze that keeps my mouth from getting too big by subjecting it to a perpetual withering shadow, harbored a cancerous tumor that almost ate its way to the layers of bone at the back of my nasal cavity and into my brain stem. Beating my tumor became the most urgent difficult fight of my military career and I am here to talk to you about how 10 simple leadership lessons served as antidotes to the uncertainty and despair that consumed me as I fought cancer.

That's leadership lesson number one. Enunciate clear expectations. I beat my cancer in eight weeks because I told my doctors I wanted the most aggressive treatments possible, I am trained to fight any number of foes, hand to hand, with rifles, pistols and surface-to-air missiles but Mr. Belvedere, as my tumor came to be known, was an enemy who left me helpless and I hated that. I hated the fact that a tiny fleshy flab borne from leftover spinal cord material had grown unnoticed to the point where it could take my life, I hated being vulnerable to a tiny-sized pink monster. At first, I only told my wife about the tumor, which I had nicknamed Victor Charles and even with her, I boxed it, my fears over this tiny self-determination sapping killer.

The tumor only became Mr. Belvedere after she persuaded me to share the truth with close neighbors and friends and they renamed him after the genial butler from the '80s television series, subscribing to the fact that Mr. Belvedere wouldn't hurt anybody, so how could this tumor hurt me? Here's the Belvedere background. In 2006, I was on a convoy heading back from Baghdad, a rocket hit my truck but didn't explode. The shock left me with a pinched nerve, the pinched cabin went for years. Finally, I went to medical to get a scan. Inadvertently, the tech set the MRI aperture too high on my neck and instead of a bad disc, the docs found Mr. Belvedere where he'd been hiding and eating for most of my life. Now, pause and think about this. An unknown Iraqi insurgent tried to kill me but the unintended consequence was that years later, another unnamed MRI tech set the machine incorrectly and found a cancer that was going to kill me. So your second lesson is this, be grateful 24/7 for your leadership opportunity. You will be helped in so many coincidental ways as a leader, by superiors, peers and subordinates and you will never know the breath of their kindness.

Ironically, I'm forever grateful to the insurgent who shot at my truck as if not for that, I would have never found Mr. Belvedere in 2018. Belvedere had to go and soonest. And here is lesson number three. Nurture a bias for action, particularly in crisis situations, be a pinball of progress and bounce your way off obstacles to success. If a decision goes poorly, make another one but resolve never to let yourself or your team quit moving forward. I elected to undergo a biopsy to let the experts see Belvedere's true nature. But first, I had to tell my family. Naturally, I worried most about talking to my nine-year-old twins. I was addicted helplessly to the tide of unbridled joy brought on by the rapid, pitter-patter stocking feet, racing into the bedroom on a Sunday, the sudden stoppage of sounds, their little bodies launched into the air, the near simultaneous woofs of impact as my boys bounced on to my chest, their happy voices urging me get up as my nose inhaled the contrary mix of No More tier shampoo and morning dragon breath.

Well, my heart was the only one in danger of breaking. Being nine, the boys reacted without a shred of fear for my well-being and only focused on the fact that I might have to get radiation treatments that could turn me into the Hulk. And herein is leadership lesson number four, attitude is everything. My boys flipped the disastrous news on its head and left me thinking about what color my skin would change if I did radiation. I would be awake through the biopsies where an ear, nose, throat specialist would insert a flexible tube with a leach-like sucker on the end up my left nostrils and a fiber optic camera up my right. The leach would latch onto Mr. Belvedere and rip him potentially out of my life forever. An aside here, just so you can visualize how far the probe had to go, put your index fingers behind your ears and draw an imaginary line through your skull. That was Belvedere's abode. So I'm awake, I'm slowly ripping through the paper cover on the vinyl examination bench as the leach prods around my nasal cavity and then I hear, "We've got a bleed." Which could be bad but then the doctor says, "I'll tap it down." And yet another probe shoots up my nose coded with liquid epinephrine to constrict the ruptured capillaries. Epi, as I found out, is another name for adrenaline. Artificially high levels of the body's action drug plus already hyper-aggressive Marine, got you friends, the story is about to get really good.

There were multiple bleeds and every time, more Epi. My heart rate spiked above one night, my mouth became a piggy bank for pennies, every life-threatening moment ever experienced flooded my consciousness. I found myself in a fight or flight yet I couldn't move because of the three probes and the worried nurse increasing the pressure on my shoulders to stop me from thrashing. And here is lesson number five, you must train yourself to remain calm even in the most extreme circumstances, because as a leader, everyone on your team will be looking to you for the example of how to behave. I pictured my wife smile and I kept it together. The Epi, however, did not relent. Off the table, the effects intensified.

Slick was sweat and shaking my hands lost their grip on calm. What does a body in chemical chaos look like? Here's me, wearing a patch of gauze rubber banded under my nose, a vaginal cotton version of Hitler's signature moustache lurching through the corridors, battling the lizard brain urge to hunt, fight and eat anything in my pack. I had become not the Hulk but Epi Godzilla and Naval Hospital, San Diego was my Japan. I came face to face with a posse of kids outside ophthalmology and as they stared at me with a balance of fascination and horror, my adrenaline fueled cortex labeled them as easy food sources. I reached out my claws to grasp the pigtail when a nurse thankfully confronted me with a King Kong smack-down of TRICARE paperwork. Repelled, I turned tail, leaving a trail of nose drool in my wake, now a humble troll in search of his bridge.

I needed to get home. But how could I in my half monster state? I learned lesson six, the corollary to lesson three, can I stop, breathe and pick up this burden again later? I walked Balboa Park until my heart rate fell into the 60s and then I drove myself home. The news came later that week that Belvedere was cancerous and that at least some of him remained. I would have to endure the probes a second time to evict him completely. And here's lesson seven. You could do everything correctly as a leader and you can still fail as free will and random chance both get a vote. Just don't quit. I hark back to lesson four, attitude is everything. And I hugged my boys and I put the paper gown on once again. Mr. Belvedere exited my skull in April, 2018.

I took the gas for the second procedure and I tamped down my oversized sense of self-reliance enough to ask my wife for help driving home. Lesson eight. Asking for help can be the smartest, bravest thing you ever do as a leader, especially if it allows you to connect with your team. My next MRI, Mr. Belvedere was gone and he's remained absent ever since. But for two years I got a gut check every six months when I would lie in the tube, listening to the magnets rattle, clunk and worry and wonder, is Belvedere back? He may return, he may not. I often imagine him there. I nasal cavity love child born of the Mucinex talking booger and miss Pacman. Because the memory of what Belvedere could have taken from me inspires me to live better. We are all bound for death but we are blessed with an infinite number of choices to make before we answer the reaper's knock. Your final lesson, we humans are creatures of habit. Grow the good and abandon the bad. Reject complaining as a coping mechanism and cultivate gratitude for your free will and ability to act. You can affect positive change every day in yourself and in your team from this second forward for the rest of your lives. I thank you for your attention.

Host: Mike, thank you for your story and your experience. Did you share this experience and leadership lessons learned from Mr. Belvedere with your subordinates?

Carlson: Actually no. This is probably the first time I've ever talked about it because I was somewhat sheltered, I don't know, embarrassed. It was a whole gamut of emotions that hit me and I don't think I really had a chance to process it while I was in command. This actually happened right before I took over command and the other part of it was over so quickly in about six to eight weeks. But I think I identified; I would say... Maybe defects is too strong a word but I was too self-reliant. Okay, lesson eight about asking for help, I was terrible at that. Absolutely terrible. I barely told my wife about it and it was very, very hard for me to tell the family because I think, as I say in the speech, I was just desperately afraid that I was gonna lose everything because of something that I had zero control over. And as I think a military member, like we are always taught to be in control and to have problems and branch plans and contingencies and this was one that I couldn't plan for and it scared the living daylights out of me. And as a reaction, I think I just clammed up and I just didn't talk about it to anybody. And I didn't tell anybody really much about it while I was in command, I would disappear to the MRI tube every couple weeks but it wasn't anything I had to tell anybody about.

And it probably honestly wasn't until I took the rhetoric course and I had some time and space and opportunity to think about something in my life that might help and to, as much as I hate it, address the idea that vulnerability kind of does matter and that it is something that you have to wrestle with and can be a very great bridging mechanism to, say an audience or subordinates because everybody's vulnerable. I think that was the first time that it really... And I really had the opportunity to confront it and to get my head around it and to want to talk about it. I hope that answers your question.

Host: Absolutely, you did. And actually looking from a different angle top down, I would say, how do actually your organization supported you? Did any of your leaders inspire you to get through this unfortunate moment?

Carlson: Again, I would say not really but I don't mean that in a completely negative way. What I mean is, I just didn't tell a lot of people. My immediate boss knew that I had to go to the hospital and he knew it had something to do with my nose but I just kind of kept it to myself. And I would say that... I try to hit this in my speech but I don't think it really hit me until I was literally pacing the parking garage, high out my mind on epinephrine after the initial procedure. And they're like, You can just drive yourself home. And I'm like, Can you see me right now? I am literally about to like claw your eyes out because I'm so hopped up and the nurse is just like, Oh yeah, just walk it off. And so it was that moment where I realized like I had almost unintentionally isolated myself to the point where I couldn't even take care of myself. And that was a huge kind of wake up for me that this was bigger than anything I could handle on my own. And again, I hated that feeling of having to ask for help but that was what made me realize that was probably the smartest, best thing I could do and that I wasn't gonna be perceived as weak for doing it.

Host: Thank you Mike. You really... I think you're gonna inspire a lot of leaders with your story and I really thank you for that and good luck for your future.

Lieutenant Colonel (Promotable) Kelly M. McCay, United States Army
LTC(P) McCay had been assigned to the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. A twenty-year career Signal Corps officer, he has served in Airborne, Light, and Mechanized Infantry Divisions, Joint Special Operations Forces, and the Pentagon. Lieutenant Colonel McCay has commanded at the Platoon, Company, and Battalion Level. His previous assignment was Commander, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized). He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Western Kentucky University and a master’s degree from Georgetown University.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Carlson
LtCol Carlson was assigned to the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. He graduated from the University of Southern California with bachelor's degrees in print journalism and creative writing in 1993. After working seven years as a reporter and editor in Bakersfield, California, Los Angeles, Singapore, and Hong Kong, he commissioned as a second lieutenant in December 2000. From 2000 to 2004, he served as Group Adjutant, Platoon Commander, and Training Officer with 1st Stinger Battery, Marine Air Control Group 18, in Okinawa, Japan. In 2005, he joined a reserve artillery unit, 1st Battalion, 14th Marines, and deployed to Iraq in 2006 to 2007 as a Platoon Commander in charge of the Regional Detention Facility in Fallujah, supporting 5th Marine Regiment. His Marines processed 1,200 detainees during a seven-month period with zero escapes and no incidents of detainee abuse. In 2008, he served as Adjutant and Commanding Officer, Battery A of 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, Camp Pendleton, California. Deployed in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in 2010, his unit provided external base security to the north of the Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak Complex. In 2013, he completed a master's degree in Regional Security Studies for Southeast Asia at the Naval Postgraduate School and Indonesian language training at the Defense Language Institute. He worked as a Foreign Area Officer in Jakarta from 2013 to 2014. He returned to 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion in 2014 as the Executive Officer. He served as the Logistics Officer and Control Group Detachment Officer in Charge with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced) on the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit from 2015 to 2017 when his unit deployed aboard the USS BOXER and supported contingency operations in Yemen, Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and South Korea. From 2017 to 2018, he served Marine Air Control Group 38 in Miramar, California, as its Assistant Operations Officer, Operations Officer, and Executive Officer. In 2019, he became the Commanding Officer of 3d Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, where he led 400 Marines as they trained and deployed to kill enemy aircraft and drones with Stinger missiles and counter-drone jammers. His command tour concluded in June 2021.


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