Tag Archives: military

An Invocation of Connection

Invocation: the act or process of petitioning for help or support; specificallyoften capitalized a prayer of entreaty (as at the beginning of a service of worship)
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

After a quick introduction, almost every military ceremony officially begins with the National Anthem (plus the anthem of the host nation when stationed overseas), followed immediately by an invocation or prayer, usually offered by a chaplain.

“Let us pray.”

Though we gather, often in the same uniforms, adhering to the same standards, sworn to the same commitment of service to the same nation, these three well-intentioned words can sometimes create a divide when we should be united in celebration.

The religious will bow their heads in reverence, and no doubt a good many people with no particular faith will go along with what they deem a harmless gesture. However, more and more, there are a group of servicemembers who hold no faith or spiritual belief and find themselves staring ahead, waiting for the actual content of the ceremony to begin. They stand in silence, ignoring what feels like a strong nudge of “official” religion… perhaps making furtive eye contact with and recognizing like-minded individuals.

Look at this amazing, lifelike image of an invocation in progress which I totally didn’t make in five minutes in MS Paint!








When the purpose of a ceremony is to honor an individual, such as retirement from military service, that person has a huge say in how their event will take place… including whether or not to begin with an invocation. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a few ceremonies begin without one. Some people feel no need for a religious gesture, and that’s understandable. After all…

What would a non-believer “pray” for? 

Religion or no, we have a shared humanity–a connection of experience and interdependence. By definition, no one gathers by themselves. Honoring and celebrating achievements is best done by others, not oneself.

With all the bustle and distraction of modern life, an invocation doesn’t have to be a call to worship or a prayer for help from the Divine. Instead, it can be a means of reminding all present of the meaning behind the moment, the sense of community within our diversity, the shared purpose represented by the proceedings.

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of delivering an invocation for the retirement of a dear colleague and friend. As a believer, prayer seems pretty normal… but I haven’t offered a non-religious invocation before, nor do I recall ever hearing one given.

Figuring out what to say without suggesting that everyone bow their heads or close their eyes took a few moments, but when I thought of my friend and his impact on our unit, the words flowed freely.

I later discovered that there are in fact some secular invocations online. (That middle link even has some invocations given by a David Williamson. That’s not me! How unexpected!)

Even so, I offer a modified version here that can be easily adapted to a retirement ceremony:

(UNIT or ORGANIZATION) family and friends, let us pause for reflection.

On this momentous occasion, in this beautiful location, we gather to honor the service, dedication, and bond of friendship we share with (RANK NAME).

We take this moment to reflect with gratitude on our time spent with (NAME)  – for a constant smile that softened the frustrations of difficult days, for a wise voice that offered rational perspective to challenging issues we faced, for a bright light of joy in spite of the myriad stresses and struggles to which aircrew life is prone. (1)

We take this time to honor (NAME’S) sacrifices and steadfast devotion, and we celebrate the impact of his career on so many present and distant in our community. We draw inspiration from his example spurring us toward better action and deeper passion for excellence in our own service, in all the varied capacities to which we are called.

We rejoice at the blessing of companionship we’ve enjoyed, and cheer as (RANK NAME) now crosses this finish line. It turns out that things will, in fact, ease up. (2) 

As he moves forward to a much more relaxed pace – probably set to a Jimmy Buffett tune (3) – we express our shared hope that he and (NAME OF SPOUSE / PARTNER)  will enjoy the rewards and satisfaction so deserved for all their effort to advance the cause of the Air Force, and his contributions to the grand endeavor of manned reconnaissance. (4)

Family and friends, thank you for sharing this moment.

Naturally, you’ll have to change pronouns and such. (Seriously though… people forget this all the time in drafts for awards and citations.)

1 – Be specific about a few qualities for which the individual is known and appreciated. We’re a flying unit with dynamic needs and a demanding schedule, so my friend’s great personality helped ease that stress.

2 – Make the speech personal to the organization as well. Our unit has an old joke from the Vietnam War era, where someone in charge promised that “Things will ease up.” Now we’re working harder than ever.

3 – My friend is a huge Jimmy Buffett fan, and I totally see his retirement plan as a lounge chair on a beach with a margarita in hand. This invocation is about connection;  personal touches and laughs will help.

4 – Capture the broad overview of what the individual has done. It should feel like breaking the tape at the Boston Marathon.

Chicken Soup: Military Families

As a first post for my new website – davidmwilliamson.net – I’m proud to announce I am a contributing author for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families, coming out May 9th, 2017.

I'm in this one!
I’m in this one!

It’s exciting to be able to share a story of how others have blessed my family. I haven’t seen the finished product but I believe the title of my piece will remain as submitted: “Thank You for Your Service.”

You can find the book available on Amazon here.

In the meantime, I’ll work on sprucing up the new page and making it feel a little more like my Internet home.

Thanks for your readership and the various ways you’ve encouraged me to keep pursuing this dream.


The More Things Change

On the day SecDef announced the new U.S. mission in Afghanistan, I hit my 20-year time-in-service mark.

The long-running Operation ENDURING FREEDOM is finished.

We didn’t hear about the change until the 31st, and then only through commercial news media. Everything official assumed we’d be called something else. My deployed crew and I were in the middle of planning the first sortie of the new year, so we went with Chuck Hagel as a pretty good source of guidance.

When we landed, at the end of the day, leadership was still confused about what named operation we supported… because their leadership was still confused. Multiple names floated around. No one had even heard of FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

It’s frustrating… partly because it makes us all look like bumbling idiots trying to figure out the change, and mostly because the humor of my joke was lost:

Really, we're the good guys. We have America Lasers.
We’re the good guys. We have America Lasers.

Sorry, it’s a hastily-done drawing on whiteboard. If you want a good picture, check imgur. I have missions to fly and stuff.

Comic book fans will recognize this as an old-school Sentinel, a giant death robot programmed to find and eliminate mutants like the X-Men. (If you saw the newest X-Men film, modern “cool-looking” Sentinels feature heavily.)

US News & World Report had a headline about the name change, called War in Afghanistan Ends, Except Not At All.


But given that our tasking and guidance remained exactly the same, it’s hard not to feel a sense of “So What?”

An individual on my crew put together this helpful chart that reinforces the point:

(And there's years of missions flown all around these two countries... but that would get cumbersome if included.)
(And there’s years of missions flown all around these two countries… but that would get cumbersome if included.)

Sorry, whiteboard again. We had other things to do (or so I’ll maintain).

When I went through Professional Military Education, we had lengthy lessons on Change Management. The idea is, change is hard and scary, which causes people to resist it. So there’s a good way to implement change, and some bad ways to avoid.

If you can make a change known well in advance, you can get your experts on board to figure out how the plan will work. Questions are answered before they’re asked in the heat of the moment; problems are solved before they’re encountered on the flight line. Ideally everyone contributes, and the plan becomes both better and well-known. Then, when leadership says, “Execute the plan,” everyone carries out the change with enthusiasm and support that comes from ownership.

I’ve seen this process go poorly over the last 20 years.

I’ve seen leaders declare sweeping changes without considering what obstacles stand in the way. I’ve seen people ignore regulations governing how we do business, in order to shift to the “new” plan–when no one knows what it is.

Whole squadrons arrived at work wondering “What exactly is it that I’m supposed to do today?”

I sat in a conference room with the leaders of every office in the squadron at a meeting that opened with, “Since the re-organization took effect last week, we’re going to sit down now and figure out how we all fit in to accomplishing the basic mission of this unit.”

That’s a question that maybe could have been answered well in advance.

I left that meeting with a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities on my shoulders and on my peers. Better yet, I felt equipped to communicate that vision to my subordinates, who had the same questions I did.

I also stepped out of the room and immediately spoke in private with the officers in charge of operations. “Sir, if feedback flows both down and up, then can we make sure the message goes up the chain that what we’ve just done is the exact opposite of everything we teach about how to implement change in an organization?”

To their credit, both officers I spoke with agreed completely and admitted they’d felt the same frustrations. I overheard a conversation with higher-ups where one of the officers I’d spoken to conveyed my feedback and challenged the superior’s mistaken view that creating chaos and thrash in the unit was beneficial, since it would make everyone give 110% to figure out and implement the change.

When I look at this news and how this change has come about, it leads me to believe one of three things:

1) This name change is purely cosmetic. Since it seems nothing fundamental or practical is different from my last OEF sortie to my first “whatever we decide to call this” sortie, I find this very likely.

2) Too few in power care that we do things well–we just need to do things. We teach a right way to implement change that produces ideal effects. But we are often directed to execute the opposite–doing whatever someone higher up the chain desires, at once, regardless of whether its fit existing rules or structures. And asking questions to make sure we’re legal or compliant with standing regs is viewed as a frustration and hindrance. I’m not sure whether that all applies in this situation, but it smacks of the same “rush to change” I’ve seen elsewhere.

3) What I’d hoped was an isolated “one bad apple here or there” case of poor management seems to be a hydra of similar leaders. Ignorance of what’s going on–throughout a squadron, a community, a region, a theater of operations, and so on–that’s going to happen from time to time. But willful ignorance, once an issue is called out, is unacceptable. It’s also called negligence. Or apathy. Or complacency. But definitely not leadership. Again, I’m not sure this directly relates to our changing-but-not-really operations in Afghanistan. But it matches up with past experience.

True leaders realize what they lack, own up to the fault, and then make corrections and adjustments. It’s refreshing to see that happen. Those people stand out from among the drones and yes-men committed only to their own promotion.

We need more Sentinels of that sort, not the robots.

Happy New Year.

Thanks for Your Service

Bangor, Maine is a popular stop on the itinerary for various trips I’ve taken around the world.

The best aspect of the trip (to me) is that every time I’ve come through, I’ve been warmly greeted by a small assembly of retired military members, veterans and just plain folk with a firm handshake, a smile, and a “Thanks for your service.”

But tonight we showed up after 11 PM, figuring the airport would be closed.


Applause and cheers echoed down the hall as my companions and I made our way to the waiting area. Probably a dozen plus men and women stood at the door to catch us as we came in.

After 11 PM.

I’m old enough, even I want to be in bed after 11 PM.

I answered each of them with “Thank you for your service.” Because some of them served–probably at times with harder challenges and more demands placed on them than rest on me. And all of them took the time to come out and show some gratitude to men and women currently serving the nation.

That means something, and it’s worthy of thanks.

There are still grateful people in America, and it's appreciated.
There are still grateful people in America, and it’s appreciated.

The picture is blurry, sorry.

My eyes were a little blurry too.