Commentary Search

Integrity: Get it, keep it, use it

By Lt. Col. Dave Dales 2d Bomb Wing Judge Advocate's Office

Integrity first. Along with the other core values of service and excellence, it's one of the first things Airmen hear upon entry into the Air Force. Over time, we hear it repeated so often that it's easy to tune out as being a sales pitch or recruiting slogan for the Air Force. So what does "integrity" really mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as "firm adherence to a code of especially moral or altruistic values." So, again, what does this mean to you?
Some say that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. My father used to say that every morning when you look into the mirror, you have to be able to live with that person looking back at you. Does that mean integrity is a personal choice? I believe it is. Everyone knows what the rules and standards are - the choice is whether we follow them or break them.
Over the past 17-plus years, I have seen otherwise good officers and NCOs throw away hard-earned careers over integrity issues. That's the downside to my career field - we see good people at their worst. I have seen a CMSgt who was destined for greatness lose everything and go to jail because she couldn't stay away from her married boyfriend and created fake TDYs so that she could visit him. She could have done anything in the Air Force; her APR/EPRs were eye-watering. Her only problem was that her moral compass was skewed. She didn't get it.
We were all witness to the carnival of embarrassment surrounding the former Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. We saw him resign in disgrace after he was caught engaging in a number of inappropriate relationships. Again, he had it all and threw it away. You'd expect someone who had been a JAG that long to get it. He didn't get it.
If you are hearing the message that integrity is only about keeping yourself out of trouble, you're not getting it either. Integrity is intertwined in everything we do, as individuals, as a service, and as a nation. Remember what happened when our integrity disappeared at Abu Ghraib. Sure, some individuals got into trouble and were court-martialed and a general officer was fired. It went much farther than that. In the month after the story broke, US military deaths in Iraq rose from 40 to 140 - in one month. This was a direct result of US service members not getting it. They were directly responsible for the deaths of 100 fellow soldiers.
Integrity has everything to do with our ability to accomplish our mission, whether it is adjudicating a household goods claim or turning a wrench. In the end, it all comes down to putting bombs on target. You can deviate from the standard and take a short cut, or you can exceed the standard. Who's going to know? You may think no one saw you pencil-whip a minor checklist, or walk by another Airman out of uniform without correcting him or walk by the fast-food wrapper without stopping to pick it up. But the junior Airman who saw your actions or inactions now thinks it's okay to act the same way. Just as bad, the civilian who saw you now thinks that you represent the USAF standard. Your actions reflect not just on you but on the entire service.
You will, undoubtedly, be faced with opportunities to "get over" or game the system by breaking the rules, taking short cuts and compromising your integrity. It may be as minor as not correcting another Airman who isn't within standards or as significant as falsifying a travel voucher to get money you are not entitled to receive. You may also see others personally benefiting from breaking the rules and compromising their integrity. Keep in mind that a reputation for integrity is something that is earned over a lifetime but can be lost in an instant. When we lose our integrity, we lose focus on the mission, we can lose careers, and ultimately people could lose their lives. Got it?