Sunday, August 12, 2012

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Norty Schwartz: "I Stood Tight with You to the End"

General Norton Schwartz, Nineteenth Chief of Staff of of the United States Air Force, retired yesterday.  I was not present, but was able to watch the events live in Afghanistan on The Pentagon Channel. 

Still, I will say that during my two years as Commander of the United States Air Force Honor Guard, "Norty" and I shared some good times together.  Or at least some very interesting ones.

Certainly there were some high-profile events, such as the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for Senator Ted Stevens (who flew in the US Army Air Forces during WWII), and the big CONJEFAMER "Tattoo" of 2010.  There were a number of foreign Air Chief arrival ceremonies and various general officer retirements.

The most memorable for me, however, was one that attracted very few spectators and no cameras.  It was a funeral for a retired Air Force 4-star general on a hot summer afternoon in 2010.  It was a very simple full-honors ceremony, meaning that we had the Air Force Band and Honor Guard formations, but no chapel service and no flyovers.  Just a transfer to the caisson and a quick march to a nearby gravesite. 

And a fast-moving thunderstorm.

It's the officer-in-charge's job to make the weather call before a funeral.  Though I could see the storm on the horizon, looking at the circumstances I judged we should be able to get through with the ceremony before it hit.  So we pressed ahead ... full honors, no raincoats.

Did I mention it was a very fast-moving thunderstorm?

As the procession moved down toward gravesite, I could sense the storm bearing down on us with alarming switfness.  At this point the die was cast, however.  There was nothing more to be done. I followed the casket from the caisson to gravesite, took up my post at the foot of the casket.  I found myself staring up along the American flag held at at "tabletop" over the casket, with General Schwartz staring back at me at the head.  The chaplain moved through his remarks as quickly as dignity allowed, as we all grew increasingly aware of the crack of the thunder and the lightning flashing above us. 

The Firing Party performed three perfect volleys.  The bugler played Taps.  Then I heard the band marching off as the thunder rolled and the winds picked up.

General Schwartz didn't flinch.  Neither did the Honor Guard.   The Body Bearers conducted a perfect flag fold and passed it to the Chief of Staff, who knelt and handed it to the next of kin while we waited ... motionless.  The wind began to howl and the first raindrops appeared.  The Arlington Lady spoke a few soothing words to the family.  Finally, the ceremony was concluded.  I called "Bearers, post!"

Within seconds after we began our march-off, the storm crashed violently in on us.  The party at gravesite scattered to their waiting vehicles, as we marched toward our buses.  Hats flew in the shockingly sudden hurricane-force wind gusts, but in typical Honor Guard fashion the formation held together.  We were almost instantly deluged as the rain came down in buckets.  Fortunately, it was the last funeral of the day, and we drove the soggy troops back to base.

It was, in a word, epic.  But the story didn't quite end there.

The next day featured a large general-officer retirement ceremony, in which the Chief of Staff was in attendance.  After the ceremony wrapped up, I walked outside for our "hotwash" (after-action review).  When I arrived I learned that General Schwartz had already been there to give out his attaboys for the just-completed ceremony.  But what all the Airmen remembered was when he asked who had been at the storm-drenched funeral the day before.  When the hands went up, he said, "I stood tight with you to the end!"

Godspeed, sir.
2010 CONJEFAMER Tattoo on the Ceremonial Lawn.  General Schwartz is in the center saluting the colors next to
Maj Gen Altuna (Dominican Republic).  I'm in the left foreground with my back to the camera.

6 comments:

  1. "Norty" patting himself on the back again - notice he didn't thank the Airmen for standing tight...

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    Replies
    1. Perhaps for General Schwartz, he looks at these strong young men and women and remembers a time when he, too, held such valor and strength. Perhaps as he has been growing closer to retirement, he is faced with the reality that this time may well be passed. Being vulnerable is a human trait that supercedes even fancy titles set upon us. This one moment of being able to stand the storm may have served as a moment of bliss, a moment of recognizing that he, too, 'still had it' in him to do so. Let's allow him that possibility as our day is not far behind.

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  2. Sounds like the good old Norty we knew and loved when he was at Hurlburt Fld.

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  3. Norty Schwartz will be standing tight with all Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marine until he catches the last flight heading home. MR, MC-130.

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  4. Fascinating comments. To me as a B-52 Nav in Vietnam, who's seen good and bad leadership. It was not so much the statement that "I was there," it was the fact that he was there. It's what makes great leaders. Hate to say this but it brought tears to my eyes. This is the kind of leader we need

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  5. I was privileged to attend many of Gen Schwartz' staff meetings when he was at TRANSCOM (representing my boss, the AMC Command Chaplain). I never ceased to be amazed at his gentle and respectful demeanor, regardless of the rank of the person he was speaking to. As an O5 I can't pretend that I got to "know" the man, but I remain impressed by his keen intellect and obvious sincerity. I enjoyed your column, Ray, but it definitely didn't surprise me.
    Chaplain Rob Stroud
    USAF (Retired)

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