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Living legend receives ROTC Distinguished Alumni award

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Erica Picariello
  • 42 Air Base Wing Public Affairs
"Houston, we've had a problem."

Those were the famous words spoken by Astronaut Jack Swigert on April 13, 1970, to the mission control center in Houston, Texas, that ignited a series of events during the historic Apollo 13 mission in which the lives of the crewmembers were at stake.

Leading the group at that moment in mission control  was Gene Kranz, a 1954 Parks College of Saint Louis University graduate and recipient of the 2014 Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Distinguished Alumni award Dec. 16 at Maxwell Air Force Base.

"This is a really special day for Air Force ROTC," said Col. Eric Wydra, Air Force ROTC commander. "The reason I say that is, especially when you look at the officer trainees and ROTC cadets out in the audience, I see unfulfilled potential out there. Today we are honoring Mr. Kranz, who not too long ago was sitting there in an auditorium like this at Lackland Air Force Base as a cadet, just like you, and he is the epitome of fulfilled potential."

In order to be inducted into the distinguished alumni program, a cadet has to attain a high level of recognition or distinction for an accomplishment with Air Force-wide, national or international significance or historically notable service with combat achievements.

According to the award citation, this former ROTC cadet distinguished himself through exceptionally meritorious service to the United States Air Force and NASA for more than 40 years. In 1960 he joined NASA as a member of the project Mercury Space Task Group and served as flight director on 33 missions during projects Gemini, Apollo and Skylab.

Kranz is best known for his role in directing the mission control team during the first lunar landing and successful effort to save the crew of the Apollo 13 after its oxygen system failed. Though Kranz was the leader that day, he credits the collective effort of his teammates for the lives saved during that historical mission.

"I thank you for this year's honor," Kranz said. "This honor really belongs not to myself, but to my staff and many teammates that I worked with in mission control and those aviators that I worked and flew with."

Standing in front of future and current Air Force service members in an auditorium at Maxwell, Kranz thanked the crowd for their commitment and challenged them to take heed the lessons learned on their leadership journey.

"I offer my respect to you for the dedication that you have to our nation," Kranz said. "Duty - honor - country and sacrifice are not words to you. They represent a solemn pledge. 60 years ago I was commissioned and my single goal was to fly. In no way did I grasp the many events, challenges and opportunities, and people that would shape my life. In retirement I wrote a book about my life's journey and for the first time I came to recognize my debt to those who had trained me, taught me, guided me and steered me along the path and gave me opportunities along the way. Whatever role I found myself in, throughout my entire life, I was comfortable in my duty and ability to lead and willingness to risk. It was then that I realized that every skill I possessed and every problem that I faced came from lessons that I learned along my journey."

Kranz also reinforced some of the Air Force core values, reminding Airmen that values are the building blocks of leadership.

"The first lesson that I learned was that leaders learn from leaders but are not made from leaders, leaders make themselves," Kranz said. "Character and integrity is what builds a man or a woman. What builds the capacity to serve?  Integrity. You can build the character and with character you can build trust. With trust you can build shared values and once you have shared values, you can lead. Leadership is now your role in life. It can offer you many challenges."

The newly inducted 2014 ROTC distinguished alumnus ended his address to the crowd with a charge to take risks and control destiny.

"And in mission control, after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire, we sat down and wrote a document we called 'The Foundations,'" Kranz said. "It's a values statement that represents those qualities of excellence we must possess to be successful in our role in spaceflight operations. And it really talks about such things as discipline, confidence, responsibility, toughness, teamwork, but the final item talks about what I call the 'leadership moment.'"

The words "Houston, we've had a problem," signified one of Kranz's most recognizable leadership moments, and as he did, he asks all Airmen to have courage, take the risk and be a leader.

"The leadership moment is the time when risk is extreme, everything is on the line and the fate or the outcome depends on your leadership ability," he said. "The words at the end of this foundations of mission control state, 'Always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly you may find yourselves in a role where your performance has ultimate consequences.' Leadership moments come to everyone who steps in and accepts the risk to become a leader. When that time comes, you must stand tall because leadership is your destiny, as it was mine."