Smart and tough

  • Published
  • By Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr.
  • Commander, North American Aerospace Command and U.S. Northern Command
Many things about our country are fairly unique, beginning with the fact that, on July 4, 1776, there was only one democratically-elected national government "of the people" on the face of the planet.

In a number of countries, groups of folks go into a ring with bulls, ritually killing them with lances, barbed sticks and then a sword. Here in America, cowboys strap-in on top of the bull and ride it. If anybody gets hurt, it's most often the man, not the bull. Not many other countries beyond our Canadian and Australian friends are into actually riding the thing.

On November 7, 2009, I had the pleasure of being a guest of Air Force Recruiting Service to administer the Oath of Enlistment to about 20 Delayed-Entry Program enlistees ... at the Professional Bull Riders 2009 World Finals in Las Vegas. The PBR folks also let me talk briefly about the Air Force to the audience via the Jumbotron.

You may have noticed that rodeo and bull-riding crowds are pretty patriotic.

Just recall what happens when that cowgirl rips into the ring on her quarter horse carrying the American flag. Rodeo cowboys and cowgirls who can stay in the competition are smart, tough people. The Air Force is full of smart, tough people ... and we can use more.

Before bulls started jumping and twisting, I had a chance to coin and talk one-on-one with the mostly blue-jeaned enlistees, and the recruiters who'd been mentoring them. Thanks to AFRS, the enlistees had a good understanding of what was ahead of them, and great enthusiasm to get on with it. They knew of many opportunities in the Air Force. Of course, I know of a few more they didn't even realize yet -- some of which I enjoyed suggesting, as we discussed their futures. Administering the oath on-stage in the Fan Fest area, with beaming families and rodeo fans watching, was pure pleasure.

After this good time with the enlistees, we walked down a red carpet into the Thomas & Mack Center rodeo arena. The announcer introduced us to an appreciative crowd with a booming "United States Air Force" and we had a quick behind-the-scenes tour past pens of massive, powerful bulls -- interestingly lined up based on whether they bucked turning left or right.

Arriving at our seats, we looked right down into one of the two sets of chutes ... just before the spotlights and pyrotechnics of introductions for the competing cowboys, to huge cheers from us fans. As this was U.S. Border Patrol night in the arena, suddenly our friends from the Border Patrol came rappelling down from the ceiling, revealing a 50-foot American flag. The National Anthem ended with a thunderous cheer, and the bull-riding was on.

Leaning from our box, we could see and hear the riders doing their "pre-flights." I'll have to admit that this reminded me of pre-flighting an A-10 ... though I think of that jet as a friend -- and these bulls certainly weren't. Calm, steady conversation. Systematic checks. A small team of experts, each doing their part quietly and efficiently. Everybody physically fit for the task. Safety first ... for the cowboy and the bull. Lots of adrenaline ... and total focus. The rider strapped-down on 1,500 pounds of muscle-bound anger ... ready to take care of business ... then looked up and nodded.

Watching, hearing and smelling 90 rides that night -- many of them from just 15 feet away -- isn't like watching on TV in your living room. When the gate snaps open, bodies jerk abruptly and dust flies. The packed house doesn't start cheering until about five seconds into the ride, and then the arena begins to roar. It's just that one man and one bull, and it's really violent. I thought it was pretty neat to fly around with the Warthog's 19-foot 7-barrel 30-mm Gatling cannon under my feet. But now I have a better idea of what that smile means when you've just stayed on a huge bull's back for eight seconds.

Even perhaps ... the smile when you've bailed-out successfully and the bull's running after the bullfighter clown instead of you.

Like those impressive cowboys, we in the Air Force succeed with careful preparation, steady teamwork, individual courage and collective excellence.

Like them, we can focus on learning our jobs because the Air Force is organized and motivated to help us learn ... and succeed. Like them, we're surrounded by people we can and must trust ... often with our lives. With the finest professional training in the world, we enjoy serving a cause much bigger than ourselves. We are all winners.

You know, as we walked away from that exciting night at the PBR World Finals, I was proud of those cowboys ... proud of our enlistees ... and proud of an arena full of enthusiastic fans who weren't shy about showing their respect for the Air Force and their love of these United States. Good people. Then again, being surrounded by good people every day is a major reason why I've been wearing this uniform for 38 years.

This inspiring experience with new enlistees and their families was made possible for me by the Air Force Recruiting Service ... another group of winners. We have the right folks out there in America bringing more good people into our Air Force. Recruiting is hard work, but they're succeeding.