Legacy Project: ride of your life

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
He fumbled with the blue, index cards as he leaned into the microphone and spoke to a crowded room.

After 23 years, this was the last time he would wear the U.S. Air Force uniform. He was retiring, and May 8, 2015, was the last day anyone would call him Master Sgt. Shawn Leach.

"Life happens," he began, slowly. "Your career is going to be like a rollercoaster. My career was like one."

The former superintendent of Emergency Management at the 501st Combat Support Wing paused and raised his hand - simulating the motion of a rollercoaster beginning its journey.

"When you first get on that rollercoaster and start that long crawl to the top of that first drop, you feel the butterflies in your stomach," he said. "You know you're going higher - you know there is something on the other side. You might not know what it's going to be like, but it's that anticipation of the first drop that is exactly like points throughout your career."

He paused, his mind wandering back to Senior Airman Leach, who just returned to his home station after a deployment. With a line number to staff sergeant, Leach was transferred to a logistics section to manage an equipment account - where he learned his first significant lesson during his career.

"The significant lesson I learned there was CYA," Leach said, with a smile. "It was the first time I ever had to sign something and say I was taking control of a specific, large account worth millions of dollars."

As the sole owner of the account, Leach followed his training and conducted an equipment inventory and annotated several discrepancies.

"I knew stuff was missing," he said. "I knew I had to put paperwork in, and I wasn't going to sign the account - but I was told to. It was a big mistake."

By signing the document, prior to initiating a Report of Survey, Leach became responsible for the inventory error. He said the account investigation was long and arduous, and almost negatively impacted Leach's career. However, the results revealed past inventories had not been conducted correctly, and Leach was cleared from shouldering the responsibility.

"The system works - trust me it works," he said. "But, it took a long time. The lesson I took from all of it was to be 100 percent certain, before signing anything, make sure you are covered - CYA."

Leach smiled, remembering what seemed like a low point at the time as simply another twist on the rollercoaster of his career.

"But, I kept my eyes open," he said. "I told myself, 'don't blink, Shawn.'"

He never did. Leach said his entire span of service has been several incredible lessons with a single concept at the center - trust.

"Trust is the key," he said. "It's not just trust in yourself, it's the relationship between a supervisor and an Airman. Airmen have to trust that supervisors are going to take care of them - through both the good times and the bad ones."

Leach said a supervisor has to give Airmen the feeling of always having their backs, even if it means writing paperwork - the supervisor still has a responsibility to mentor and turn a negative into a positive and build from there.

"In turn, Airmen have to trust their supervisors are doing the right things for them," he continued. "But, trust isn't inherent, it's earned. I want someone to trust me as a person and not as a rank on my sleeve. The way to earn that is to always, always, always be truthful."

"Lip service," as Leach calls it, must be actively avoided. He encourages current and future Airmen to always deliver on their promises - because trust is a fragile concept.

"Trust can be broken, just as easily as it can be earned," he said. "Once you have broken that trust, it is very hard to get it back."

Throughout his career, Leach always drove himself toward demonstrating integrity at all times. During all the curves and loops of his life, Leach said he stayed true to himself and those around him - which made the high points seem even higher.

"I had pneumonia and was on quarters when my superintendent called me into work," Leach said. "I was told money had dropped and I, being the government purchase card holder, was needed to purchase items for our shop within 24 hours."

Dragging himself out of bed, Staff Sgt. Leach threw on his uniform and rushed to the shop - only to find out it was also the day the wing commander and command chief were conducting a walkthrough. Wavering while standing at attention, Leach felt the world spinning and wished he would just make it through the day.

"As they were getting ready to leave, the command chief turned to the commander and said, 'Sir, there is someone who is egregiously out of regulation in his uniform,'" Leach recalled. "I'm looking down the line wondering who could be out of uniform so badly that the command chief is bringing it up right in front of the wing commander."

Suddenly, the command chief called Leach out of formation and in front of his entire unit.

"I was looking down, looking everywhere and wondering what I did," he said. "I thought I had put something on backwards. On top of being sick, this made everything absolutely terrible. They turned me around and immediately tacked the technical sergeant stripes on my sleeves."

Even through the incredible experience of being STEP promoted, Leach said he knew the high points on the rollercoaster, which left him feeling like he was on top of the world, were sometimes followed by sharp drops. It was a hard lesson he learned very early in his career, when he was still an Airman first class working as a firefighter. A lesson he faced with both eyes open and refusing to turn away or blink.

"The worst day of my career was the day I found out my best friend committed suicide," he said, sadly. "He was my hero and my first mentor. He was the person who did everything right and looked like he got out of bed every morning and his uniform just jumped on him."

Leach's friend exuded professionalism and excellence. He was selected for senior airman below-the-zone, made staff sergeant on his first time testing and became an inspiration for Leach.

"Everything about him was exactly what I wanted to be," Leach said. "Unfortunately, there were things going on in his life nobody knew about - not even his own family. When he committed suicide, it was hard to accept. I was around him all the time and never saw it coming."

The suddenness of his friend's actions made Leach reevaluate his outlook on life.

"One day he was just gone," Leach said. "It made me really stop and think that just because something seems perfect doesn't mean it truly is. Life is not perfect."

Years rolled by before Leach was able to get over his friend's death, but he stayed on the rollercoaster and kept his eyes open. He didn't blink. Leach found he poured all his efforts into work - driving toward excellence, which ultimately led to the singular regret he has from his entire time in the Air Force.

"If I could go back and do anything differently, I would only change one thing," he said. "I would take care of myself. I know that sounds a little bit selfish, but it's not. You can get caught up in the mission and caught up in doing the job -- so much that the job becomes your life."

Leach found he began putting his family, his education and his path to promotions behind the mission.

"I was so focused on the mission for so long I stopped caring about anything else," Leach said. "I was part of the 'do more with less' era. It was hard not to get caught up in the job and put your all into something just to stay above water."

Putting his job on the highest pedestal caused a lot of problems, Leach said. It wasn't until he made master sergeant that a mentor spoke to him about career progression and work-life balance.

"It was as though a light clicked on in my head," he said. "It was a late light, but it showed me there was other stuff I needed to take care of. I needed to trust in the system. The system works, it's people who are faulty. Taking care of yourself isn't selfish. You are your best, and sometimes only, advocate."

Even though Leach said hindsight is 20/20, he also pointed out that his rollercoaster couldn't go backward. He could only move ahead, with both eyes open.

"I am extremely happy with my career," he said. "You couldn't ask for more. I did what I set out to do. I made master sergeant and I am retiring after 23 years - the first one in my family to retire from military service."

Pausing to look at his retirement shadow box, Leach said the inscription on it will always remind him of the time spent on his Air Force rollercoaster.

"It's not the destination that's important," he said. "It's the ride that gets you there, and it's been a long ride - but a good one."

As this particular rollercoaster slows to a stop, Leach is already anticipating the next ride he will embark on. However, Leach said he hopes he is leaving this ride in better shape than when found it - with a legacy future generations can learn from.

"I think I would want people to remember me as dependable," Leach said. "I always wanted people to know that if I committed to something I followed through with it."

Leach paused and looked out at his family, who smiled back at him.

"At the same time," he began. "I want people to remember me as a human being, not as Airman 1st Class Leach, Staff Sgt. Leach, Tech. Sgt. Leach or even Master Sgt. Leach. I want people to remember me as someone who lived according to his values."

He smiled, one final time, before stepping off his Air Force rollercoaster, taking the hands of his family and walking toward their shared future - with eyes wide open.

"I want people to remember me as a good man."

Editor's Note: The Legacy Project is part of an ongoing series highlighting the wisdom and stories of retiring Service members as they move on from their military careers.