ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
It’s a sludgy, after-lunch Monday afternoon inside a classroom full of young Airmen. Instead of dozing off in the corner from a food coma, each troop is sitting at the edge of their seat listening attentively as a man sporting a Denver Broncos polo, a leather jacket and a handlebar mustache reminisces on his memories of war.
Inside the Airman Leadership School at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., future noncommissioned officers and leaders of the Air Force learn of the sacrifices a group of veterans made.
Robert Schilling, a former Airman and gunner on the AC-47 “Spooky,” told stories of his experiences as an enlisted troop deployed to Vietnam and shared some wisdom about leadership.
“Leadership is hard to define,” Schilling said. “A lot of people say that some people are born leaders, and others say some are trained leaders.”
One example he uses to describe leadership is former crewmate Airman 1st Class John Levitow – a Medal of Honor recipient. After being hit by mortar fire over Vietnam, Levitow saved his crew by throwing himself on a flare which would have ignited the ammunition in the aircraft. After gaining control of the canister, Levitow ran to the back of the plane and threw the flare out right before it ignited.
“I can speak on behalf of John and what he did for us,” Schilling said. “Hopefully it will sink in with these new kids.”
Schilling works at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum and is a member of the Black Hills Veterans Writers Group, a nonprofit organization that keeps stories of war alive. The group of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans meet on the second Saturday of each month inside the museum to tell their story and listen to others’.
ALS and the BHVWG have been working together to help instruct the next generation of leaders in the youngest branch of the military. A speaker from the Writers Group comes to speak to each class of graduates, reaching more than 300 students a year.
“They come in to speak to the classes and provide a different aspect of leadership,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Davis, the ALS commandant. “Here at ALS, we really want to make sure heritage is emphasized because it’s very important. Every generation needs to know how they fit in and heritage puts that into perspective.”
Davis has been working as the commandant at ALS for a year, and says the speakers from the Writers Group contribute immensely to the development of these new Air Force leaders.
“The students really enjoy hearing a different perspective,” Davis said. “They’re not being told how to lead; they’re hearing stories of good leadership and there is a big difference.”
One thing that Schilling and Davis agree on – good leadership is the key for success.
“Leadership is a matter of importance,” Schilling said. “If you don’t have it, you better find someone who does.”