Great days ahead!

Great days ahead!

April 27, 2014

Flying over the Hindu Kush Mountains leaving Afghanistan brought me back to my childhood imagining the mighty Himalayas.  The mountains seemed smaller than I envisioned.  Command of forces in combat is always a privilege but to have it be my last leadership position was especially meaningful, this is how every leader in the profession of arms wishes to pass the torch–at the peak of their awareness and responsibility.    A capstone experience and a perfect position from which to complete our service to the Air Force and Nation. I was leaving part of my life here in Afghanistan helping to build a nation more resilient against terrorism and extremism, the very threats our nation will face in the century ahead. Believe. It all started at age eight when my Mom showed us the yellowed and worn newspaper clipping of her brother’s passing.  My uncle Ganeshan was a young Indian Air Force officer and aviator when he was killed crash landing an aircraft in southern India.  His accident and heroic conduct were captured by the villagers and his co-pilot, whom he had ordered to bail-out.  Realizing his aircraft would crash into the village of Chengalpet below if he ejected, he decided to stay with the aircraft rather than bailout as his training compelled.  By holding the controls of the crippled aircraft in a certain way he realized he could cause it to veer towards a nearby cashew grove—vice into the village.  His death was all but certain with that decision.  He crashed into the grove, avoiding the village and loss of life.  With a gash across his head and bleeding profusely, he asked about his co-pilot and if any livestock or citizens were harmed.  He died, the article said, with a soft smile, knowing no one had been injured.  Flt Lt V. Ganeshan became my hero.  The picture of my Grandfather with the President of India receiving the posthumous award for valor sealed his fate.  I knew I wanted to be like him.  I did not know how that desire and determination would unfold. 35 years later to the day of his sacrifice, flying from the same base my uncle had departed from, I roared over that village in southern India in an Indian Air Force jet as the first American Air Force pilot to fly with the Indian Air Force. Only in America was that dream possible. The Profession of Arms. Like most first generation Americans I grew up in a household in the faith and traditions of my ancestors in the middle of an American century in a quintessential American town.  I did not know when my Mom told me I should go to the Air Force Academy in 1983 that it would be a 26 year adventure that would return me to land of my forefathers and carry me to service as the first Indian American General Officer in American history.  The first in my class selected for promotion to General Officer rank, amazing experiences at the highest levels of government with the Secretary of Defense and in the White House,   and the first American pilot to fly with the Indian Air Force at the beginning of our Defense relationship. Having grown up with the mythology of the great eastern faiths I felt a sense of connection and destiny. Along the way, I’ve carried American generosity to every corner of the globe—from Azad Kashmir in Pakistan (imagine their surprise of an Indian American Colonel helping organize the American response) to the far reaches of the Pacific.  From the Great Pyramids to Greenland, my world was an expression of American values.  There was no jet I could not fly, no mission I could not accomplish. I saw Somalia and the lawlessness of broken nations, and in the midst of it, miraculous kindness and love.  The kind of barbaric fighting that can only arise in the absence of morality—and yet I was able to envision peace and forgiveness. I worked for the Secretary of Defense as he managed the resources of a Department at War.  Quietly tugging on the strings like a master puppeteer.  I dealt first hand with the inter agency and saw clearly how culture and process could drive outcomes in the absence of leadership.  How the institutions of government have their own desires that must be tamed or controlled in order to achieve unity of effort in crisis. In the White House as a White House Fellow, I endeavored to connect the federal funding for disadvantaged children to the programs that reached them.  I saw firsthand how intellectual accomplishment and passion is not enough—real leadership is required. Values are in tension. Great men and women are required in the public arena—to adjudicate, compromise and lead. It has been an amazing journey. Even as I transition into business, I am still inspired by the notion of service.  Our nation should remain a place that others dream about, as my parents did. I often think about that day over Chengalpet — my uncle’s real gift had nothing to do with flying or heroism.  It has always been about the power of inspiration, courage, faith and determination. With them, anything is possible. Great days ahead.