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1st SOW/CCC: "I refuse to fail"

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Walking into the 1st Special Operations Wing command chief's office, one may be struck by various pictures, citations and awards placed around the room: a Bronze Star with Valor and an oak leaf cluster; the Air Force Combat Action Medal; and the 2005 Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award for a Senior NCO.

But perhaps more fascinating is a Spartan spear and shield hanging above a door in equal reverence to a mask and blade belonging to their sworn enemies, the Persians.

While the former belong to popular icons revered by Air Commandos and fellow special operations warriors, the inclusion of the latter, who defeated the Spartans in key battles, may leave some inquiring.

"You have to respect your enemies," said Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, the office's new occupant. "I've heard from a couple of my family members and civilian friends, 'How is it possible for some people who live in mud huts and have antiquated weapons can give you guys a good fight with all you bring out there?' The answer is simple: they have been fighting for centuries that same way. They don't have planes; very few have [night-vision goggles,] optics or other things that we have on our weapons. But the one thing that they have is a will to fight. Technology doesn't make it better... it's the mindset of 'This is the battle, and this is what I have out in front of me and what I need to get done.' Our enemies have got that. If we fail to respect who they are, what they do and how they execute it, we're going to come out losing. That is why I say 'respect the enemy.'"

There's more behind his words that can't adequately hang on a wall: battle-hardened experience from serving in the front lines of war since 9/11 and nearly 20 years as a pararescueman, ensuring "that others may live."

"I refuse to fail," he said. "That was ingrained in me going through PJ training. There was no room for error or failure. The time when I felt the worst was when I was unable to save somebody. I did everything to the best of my abilities and still there was no chance of doing that. That's when you really find things about yourself - when you are pretty much limited in everything that you can do. We're humans, and there's only so much that we can do."

Having assumed his duties as 1st SOW command chief from retired Chief Master Sgt. Dexter Mitchell Nov. 30, Colon-Lopez came to Hurlburt Field, Fla., from Pope Army Airfield, N.C., having served as senior enlisted adviser to the 724th Special Tactics Group.

"My whole theme for my office as the command chief is 'Dignity and Respect to Everyone,'" the command chief said. "Only that way, by being good to other people, we permeate that mindset. It's not about people getting special treatment. We treat each other with respect at all levels, even if you have to get a good old-fashioned [scolding.] Do it with dignity and respect. Everybody has got their own needs, and there are always circumstances that lead to certain behavior. We've got to take everything under consideration."

While donning a maroon beret as a pararescueman, Colon-Lopez said he hopes to bring an unconventional perspective as the top enlisted Airmen for one of the most deployed wings in the Air Force. As a battlefield Airman and a special tactics team leader, he directed in austere ground locations while Col. Jim Slife, commander of the 1st SOW, commanded MH-53s in the skies above.

"The 1st SOW is pretty air-centric, and what Colonel Slife wanted when he was looking for a new command chief was a different perspective other than what is organic to the wing, " he said. "I bring a ground perspective, not only as a fellow special operations warrior, but as a recipient of their services from the ground standpoint. When you talk about gunships, in-air refueling or CV-22 infiltration/exfiltration, those are things we look forward to when we're hanging it out on the ground."

Having received that air support in past missions, the command chief expressed appreciation for the tradition of being part of the Air Force Special Operations Command's character and heritage.

"The one thing that I have to say about the Air Commando community and AFSOC as a whole is that we're the carnivores of the service," Colon-Lopez said. "We're the ones that get out there and get it done by any means necessary. People take pride in what we do. We're small for a reason, and there's a reason why special operations says 'special.' Every single person under this command is special. The more pride you have into what you do, the better off you're going to be."

However, the command chief issued a warning to those who may not share that pride in the mission and commitment to excellence.

"I encourage people to go ahead and use the peer network to single out those couple of herbivores who are out there to take care of themselves," he said. "They want to be a part of the herd and are not willing to venture off and take what they want or what the organization needs. Be a carnivore. Don't get caught up with the herbivores. Eventually, the herbivores become the food of the carnivores."

Regarding his most important organizational goal of "continuing to enable and grow the most combat effective force in the world," the command chief emphasized a "soup-to-nuts" approach to professional development starting as soon as Airmen arrive on station.

"Bad habits are like a comfortable bed: really easy to get into, and really hard to get out of," he said. "We're creatures of habit, and if we start slacking early on, we're going to be slackers for the rest of our career. If you have somebody who is slacking in uniform or wearing a baseball hat and saying 'Well, I don't have to do that today because nobody is watching,' that's where we start treading some dangerous ground. Pretty soon, they'll say, 'Well, I don't have to load that weapon today,' or 'I'll do it later.' Suddenly, something gets overrun and you're pretty much hanging it out there. God forbid, somebody dies because one of your teammates was not prepared to do what they signed up to do. If we have highly effective people at all levels, people who can take care of the minutest details in everything that they do, they'll do the same thing in the battlefield."

As for what one may expect if they're summoned into his office or they see him around their shop, Colon-Lopez insisted he is straightforward, blunt, honest and expects the same from everybody else.

"If I come around to each section, I expect people to just bring it," he said. "Don't sugarcoat it. I don't get anything done when people sugarcoat it. But if you tell me there's an issue, then I can find out who can help and who can make things happen for the organization. From the youngest Airman to the crustiest of chiefs-- bring stuff forward and just be candid and honest. Honesty is the best policy--always. Even if you screw up, just come clean and let us know. Then we can help you out and know no one is perfect."

Colon-Lopez said the job entailed not so much about what he knows as much as it is about creating and utilizing a network of people who can fix any issue.

"In this position, I will seek out everyone," he said. "We have a highly technical and important job to do, regardless of what you do. There's a reason why we have administrative personnel, security forces, services, etc. As a pararescueman, I couldn't do all those things. That's what it boils down to: every single thing is intertwined into a web that concentrates on the mission. Everybody does their job, and they have to do it great because it's an intrinsic part of success in the battlefield."

With dignity and respect for all people as his foundation for leadership, he looks forward to working with all groups and squadrons to uphold the 1st SOW's mission any time, any place.

And, according to Colon-Lopez, it's about every role, including his as command chief, complementing the other.

"My only expectation out of this job is for me not to fail you."