The bestselling author of Make Your Bed shares an excerpt from his latest book, The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived.
Below is an excerpt from Admiral William McRaven’s latest book, The Hero Code: Lessons from Lives Well Lived.
Doing your duty need not require the sacrifice and valor of a John McCain. A few years earlier I was in Afghanistan when President Obama made a sur- prise visit to see Afghan president Hamid Karzai. After Air Force One landed at Bagram Air Base, the weather between Bagram and the capital city of Kabul turned bad and the president got stranded. That evening I got another powerful lesson in the value of doing your duty.
“Sir. The pilots say the mission is a no-go. There is only about one-hundred-foot visibility between here and Kabul and they’re not going to risk flying POTUS in this weather.”
“Roger,” I answered. “Can’t say I blame them.”
“Yes sir. But what are they going to do with POTUS now? He’s stuck in Bagram for the next six
“Well, that’s the Division Commander’s responsibility. I’m sure the general will find something to keep the president busy.”
I checked the operations schedule and our next mission wasn’t going outside the wire for another two hours.
“I’m going to the gym for an hour,” I said. “Let me know if anything changes.”
“Roger, sir. I’ll track you down.”
I left the JOC, shifted into my PT gear, and jogged over to the large sprung shelter that served as our athletic facility. No sooner had I jumped on the treadmill than a young noncommissioned officer came bolting into the gym.
“Sir. We just received a call from the Division. They would like you to come over to the airfield and brief President Obama on our Afghan campaign plan.”
“Yes sir. They have it scheduled in twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes!” I said, looking at my watch. “All right. Grab Major Smith and tell him to print five copies of the campaign brief. I’ll go change and meet you in the JOC in five minutes. Have the security guys ready to move.”
Dashing out of the gym, I headed back to my room, changed, and ran up to the JOC. I checked my watch. We still had fifteen minutes to get to the airfield. Plenty of time, I thought. What could possibly go wrong driving five hundred yards to the airfield?
As the three-car convoy pulled up to my headquarters building, Pete Marlowe, my acting command sergeant major, jumped into the back left seat of the second car while I took my usual position behind the shotgun. I checked my watch again. Still ten minutes until showtime.
“Let’s go, boys,” Marlowe said, knowing I was anxious to get moving.
The driver floored the gas and we headed out from the camp. As expected, there was no traffic on the main street. In the distance, the lights of the airfield gave off an eerie yellow glow that illuminated the low-hanging clouds. A few hundred yards down the road, the lead car abruptly turned left into the back entrance of the airfield. Eight minutes till showtime. We were cutting it close.
There, standing at the gate, was a young female airman. As the convoy approached, she put out her hand, directing us to stop. Dressed in her battle fatigues, with an ill-fitting Kevlar helmet, oversized body armor, and carrying an M4 assault rifle, she seemed an unlikely candidate to be guarding the gate.
As the first vehicle came to a stop, my security officer, an Army sergeant, hopped out of the car and approached the young airman. I checked my watch again. Six minutes until I was supposed to brief the president of the United States.
Watching from the backseat, I could see the imposing figure of the sergeant leaning into the young airman. As he towered over the petite woman, he pointed his arm toward the airfield and I could hear him yelling above the sound of the vehicles. Now he was tapping his watch. Now he was yelling again. Now his arms were waving, and he was yelling, and he was tapping his watch. The woman refused to move. We still had time, I thought. I could almost see the hangar from where we were.
Seconds later the sergeant came back to my vehicle and Marlowe rolled down the window.
“Sir, she won’t let us through,” he said, gritting his teeth in anger. “She says she doesn’t have authorization. I told her that she needs to get authorization ASAP! I told her that you have to brief the POTUS, now!”
Marlowe turned to me. “I got this, boss. Let me go talk with her.”
I looked at my watch. Maybe we could still make it.
Marlowe got out of the car and slowly approached the young airman. I could hear his voice. It was calm and measured. He was explaining that I was a three-star admiral and that the president of the United States, the commander in chief, had asked for a briefing. So, could you please let us through, and we will explain to your boss that you did the right thing?
Nothing. She wouldn’t move.
Before long I could hear yelling again. Hands pointing. Arms waving. Watches being tapped. I got out of the car.
Marlowe approached me. “Sir, she refuses to move. She said it’s her responsibility to guard this gate and she has been told not to let anyone past. No one.”
“Thanks. Let me see what I can do.”
As I got closer to the young airman, I could see the fear in her eyes. My three stars were prominently displayed on the front of my shirt and on my hat.
“Good evening, Airman Jackson,” I said, seeing the nametag on her uniform. “How are you?”
“Fine, sir,” she said, coming to attention. “Airman Jackson, I think my guys have told
you, but I am supposed to be briefing the president, right this moment. And right now, we’re running late.”
“Yes sir. They told me.” She was shaking a bit, but tried to calm herself.
“Look, Airman. You can see that I’m not a terrorist. I’m not Taliban. I’m an American naval officer who really needs to get on the flight line and over to see the president.”
“Yes sir. I understand.” Suddenly she stood up a little straighter and looked me in the eye. “Sir. I know you have your job to do, but I have my job to do as well. I have the responsibility to guard this gate. And my orders are clear. No one is to enter without permission. And sir,” she said, her voice quivering, “you don’t have permission.”
I checked my watch. We were now late. The president would be wondering where I was.
“Can you get permission?” I asked calmly.
“Sir, I’m working on it, but until my sergeant tells me that you’re cleared, I can’t let you through.” “Very well, Airman. I understand. Just let us
know when we can continue.”
I looked the young lady in the eye. Nothing was going to move her.
We waited a few more minutes as I wondered what I would say to the president. Finally, the young woman approached the lead car, informed them that she had received approval, and waved us through. As my car passed, she came to attention and saluted. Over the next hour I briefed the president and his team on the special operations missions that we were conducting across Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. The president never asked why I was late, and I never offered an explanation.
After the briefing, I returned to the waiting convoy and we headed back to my headquarters. As we passed the back gate, I asked the driver to pull over. Getting out of the car, I approached the young airman, who was still on duty. She came to attention.
“Airman Jackson,” I said, raising my voice. “I just want you to know that I was ten minutes late to brief the president of the United States. Ten minutes!”
She didn’t say a word.
“I was late because you refused to let me through. You wouldn’t let me through when my sergeant asked. You wouldn’t let me through when my command sergeant major asked. And you wouldn’t even let me through when I asked, and I’m a damn three-star admiral!”
“Yes sir,” she said quietly, looking down at her shoes.
Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out my Command Challenge Coin, given only to those soldiers who do exceptional work.
I smiled and placed the coin in the airman’s right hand.
“You did exactly what you were supposed to do. You can come work for me anytime.”
She looked down at the coin, looked at me, down at the coin, and then she smiled.
“I was just doing my duty, sir.” “Exactly right.”
General Order Number One is the foundation of the United States military. What it says is important, but what it means is the key to a life well lived and a healthy society. It says, “I will take charge of my post and all government property in view.” It means that you are responsible for your actions and the actions that affect the things around you. The airman was responsible for her gate. She was not blindly following orders. She understood that the safety of the president might be at risk if she failed to obey those orders. Somewhere on the flight line a sergeant was responsible for several airmen. Somewhere else a captain was responsible for several sergeants; a colonel was responsible for several captains; and a general was responsible for several colonels. All those people performing their duties allowed for the safe visit of the president of the United States. General Order Number One is about your duty, your responsibility to the men and women who work with you, for you, and for whom you work.
Excerpted from the book: THE HERO CODE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM LIVES WELL LIVED by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired). Copyright © 2021 by William H. McRaven. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.