A final salute to the Airman's commander

  • Published
  • By Gabriel J. Myers
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
Several days ago, our nation lost a great patriot, the Air Force lost a great Airman, a family lost a husband and father and thousands of people like me lost a mentor and a friend. 

Brig. Gen. Thomas Tinsley lost his life just 60 hours ago and I've had 60 hours to think about how to describe what an incredibly unique person this man was and what he meant to me. This story is only my own account and I'm sure there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of people who have similar accounts of General Tinsley -- the kind of person we may be lucky enough to meet once in a lifetime. 

As I try to think past my grief at losing my friend and mentor, I remember what the general leaves behind: a legacy of leadership, integrity, strength and compassion that we who had the privilege to serve with him will try to emulate in our careers, homes and lives. 

I first met him in the winter of 2002 when he was the squadron commander of the 12th Fighter Squadron "Dirty Dozen" at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. At the time I was a staff sergeant and the assistant NCO in charge of his life support shop. I found him to be very personable, charismatic, loud, and confident. He was unmistakably a fighter pilot. He immediately introduced himself to me and said "Welcome to the Dozen, you're family now and we expect great things out of the members of our family." 

For some strange reason I knew this was not simply a commander saying the right thing to a new Airman but that (then-Lt. Col.) Tinsley wanted me there and trusted that I would do great things. I could see it in his eyes and I knew I couldn't let him down. He had this intangible ability to motivate people and I felt as though he could sell me anything and I'd take his word as gospel, salute and get ready for battle no matter how ridiculous the request. Not just because he was my commander but because he made me believe in what he said. 

A few months passed and my boss left for another assignment. The wing had a few qualified up and coming technical sergeants that were poised to take over the job as NCOIC of my shop. I was about eight months from my separation and was focused on pursuing a career in public affairs through the Air National Guard. 

I got a call from Colonel Tinsley telling me he wanted to see me in his office in five minutes. My first thought was "Am I in trouble?"

When I got to his office, he told me that he wanted me to take over as NCOIC of his shop. I said "Sir, are you sure? I'm eight months from separating and I think the Airmen will be better served by someone who will be here longer." 

He said, "Gabe, the Airmen know you, trust you and I'm confident you have what it takes to motivate and guide them. You have eight months and I expect and know that you will give me, the shop and the Dozen your heart and soul until it's time for you to move on. Am I wrong?" 

I said, "No sir!" 

I did give my heart and soul to the mission and the Airmen who worked for me until I separated because I knew I could not fail and break the trust that he had in me. He had motivated me and I knew I owed it to him, the Dozen and the Airmen who worked for me to be at my best. As a leader General Tinsley possessed so many intangible qualities and an absolute sincerity in everything he said. When I brought ideas or concerns to him he would listen and provide me with direction. When I needed to be righted he applied the tough love as needed. 

Shortly before I separated he moved on to his next assignment. But before he left he did everything in his power to ensure I had the tools to succeed as I pursued my career goals -- despite the fact that I was leaving active duty. He made calls and wrote letters recommending me for retraining into PA. He mentored me and pushed me to finish my bachelor's degree a few months before I separated. 

This is who he was: he genuinely loved his Airmen; his actions day in and day out consistently exemplified this. He did things for people not because he had to but because he wanted to. 

Over the last five years I've kept in close contact with General Tinsley through calls and e-mails. I followed his career and he kept close tabs on mine, still mentoring, guiding and bringing me back on track when he felt I was making a bad decision. 

Ever since I left Elmendorf I've worked as a PA, first for the Air Guard, then as a DOD civilian at Minot and now Randolph Air Force Bases. There is absolutely no way I could have done it without his guidance, leadership and friendship. 

When I found out he was going to be the next wing commander at Elmendorf I bought an airline ticket and flew to Alaska from Texas so I could have the honor of congratulating him in person. 

That was the last time I saw my friend. 

We spoke a few times since and exchanged brief e-mails frequently with the last one coming to my work inbox on July 23. It's still in my inbox and I've probably opened it a hundred times the last two days. I still can't believe he's gone. 

I've been working for the Air Force for 17 years now and have yet to meet a leader as strong or a person as good as "Pugs" (General Tinsley's call sign). 

It's been 60 hours and I still can't understand why he left us so early. I probably never will. 

I will deeply miss my mentor and friend for I am one of the lucky ones who had the privilege to know Tom Tinsley. I will take what he has taught me over the last seven years and try my hardest to apply his principles to my own life. For those who never knew this great man it's important to know what he represented, the way he treated people, how he led his Airmen and the positive impact he made on so many. 

That legacy, like his memory, will live on forever.