Courage to lead
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 16, 2010 1:46 PM
Former 336th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen shakes hands with members of the 4th Fighter Wing after receiving his Bronze Star.
The threat was credible: A suicide bomber was likely walking among the Afghan nationals and U.S. service members working on Bagram Airfield -- targeting assets on the flight line.
Then-336th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Neil Allen was one of the men charged with getting that information to the young men and women who, months earlier, began tours there to produce and provide air power in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
So he asked that those F-15E Strike Eagle aviators and maintainers on duty gather before him, watching as some showed nerves when he passed on the message.
But then he told them just how good they were at what they did -- that nobody was going to break the "World Famous Rocketeers," that each of them would endure until they touched back down at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
And by the time he reached the end of his remarks, many of those who wore concern moments earlier straightened their backs, beaming with the same confidence their commander had been projecting.
That moment was not included in the citation read recently for Allen during a ceremony at which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
But his leadership of the 336th -- both in times of peril and during the unit's record-setting air power campaign -- was.
"It does wear you out. There was never much idle time back in the B-hut trying to figure out how to get to sleep. When the day was over, you slept," he said. "But as exhausting as that battle rhythm or ops tempo was, every one of us, you got by almost on adrenaline. ... It was never a burden at all. It's such a humbling honor to be that guy that is in command."
It has been nearly a year since Allen led his unit to war.
But in the months they have been home, he said there hasn't been much time to reflect on all that happened in the skies over Afghanistan.
"Time has flown by, and quite honestly, not many of us spent much time when we got back thinking much about what we did over there. There is so much work to be done once you land back here. ... It's time to start thinking about the next deployment," Allen said. "So it's very special for the wing to take a little time now and then ... and just kind of reflect on things and say, 'Wow. That was a great time. We did a good job. Now we're home.'"
And that is how the seasoned officer saw that Bronze Star ceremony, as a celebration of the accomplishments of a team rather than one man.
"That medal, even though (it was) pinned ... on me, that medal was more for what our squadron did," he said. "And not only in that fighter squadron but more on that maintenance line. There was always something going on, 24 hours a day."
Like Aug. 20, a particularly hectic day, as the 336th produced nearly twice the number of combat sorties they typically do to provide overwatch for the country's presidential election.
"There was so much going on all around ... that they needed air power everywhere they could get it," he said. "Our job was to support the ground troops, who, in turn, were trying to ensure as safe and as democratic an election as you can have in a place like Afghanistan in 2009.
"All of the hype of that sortie, it was amazing. Things were just moving so fast."
During their four-month deployment, 336th maintainers successfully launched more than 2,000 combat sorties, enabling their aviator counterparts to log more than 8,500 flying hours -- both Air Force records.
And it was their professionalism, focus and execution that earned Allen the Bronze Star.
At least that is how he sees it.
"I think most commanders you talk to feel just humbled and honored to be there. You prepare for those times and those moments for a lifetime," he said. "But they were the ones doing it. So I think what I would say ... the overall attitude to serve was what impressed me the most about the Rockets while we were there.
"It was a record-setting number of sorties and hours that squadron flew. ... And they did it with a smile on their face and they did it even through some pretty crazy adversity."
So don't expect Allen to boast about his latest accomplishment.
The award, after all, really belongs to the men and women who trusted him enough to follow their fellow aviator into battle.
"As a leader, everything that you do ... you draw on those life experiences and I guess the wisdom that comes with them to hopefully do the right thing," Allen said. "The key is to truly be fearless of making an error. So long as your people know your heart is in the right place and that you're not asking them to do anything you wouldn't do yourself ... man, they will follow you to the ends of the Earth -- and then they will do it again later. This time, those guys followed me, and, man, they were just awesome."