A Commander Who Lives On

Lieutenant General Richard T. Swope, Retired Oct. 1, 1998.   Died Jan. 8, 2011.

Lieutenant General Richard T. Swope, Retired Oct. 1, 1998. Died Jan. 8, 2011.

Washington, D.C. -- I like to steal -- other people's wisdom. But I have the best of intentions; I only do so to help myself through problems and to spread that wisdom to others. Besides, I usually mention the source, and one of the people I've cited most often was General Richard T. Swope (Bio). He was great at distilling a complex issue into a few meaningful and memorable words. He retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant General in the late nineties and I got to know, respect, and like him when I was the SJA at Ramstein AB, Germany and he was the one-star commander of the 86th Fighter Wing.

So I was deeply moved when I learned earlier this month that he had died of natural causes. A week later I experienced a poignant moment when, as usual, I quoted him, this time during my presentation at the AFJAGS GATEWAY course. Let me tell you just a few of the things he taught me about how a superb commander viewed leadership and discipline.

One of the stories I relay most often had to do with a sexual assault case I briefed him on. A woman from one unit accused a male from another of assaulting her in his dorm room. They were the only two witnesses; he said she consented; she said she didn't; and the evidence was inconclusive. I advised General Swope that I believed the case warranted resolution by court-martial but that any outcome was possible. He said he wasn't looking for a particular result but he did want me to move the case quickly.

To paraphrase, he said: "John, I know you have a lot of cases pending, but you need to give this one a high priority. Cases like this can disrupt a whole wing. People keep talking about it, they pick sides, and worst of all, the accuser is stressed about testifying, the accused is worried about spending time in jail, and they and their families and friends are all anxious about the effects of this on the rest of all their lives. Delay doesn't help anybody or anything. The best thing you can do for this command is to get to a fair result as quickly as you can." He cared deeply about individuals, and also instinctively understood that the military justice system is an essential tool for commanders to positively influence people, morale, and good order and discipline.

In a later court-martial case, people were already talking about the case and had already picked sides when I briefed General Swope on my recommended disposition. (He was right about the buzz that some cases can generate.) A first sergeant had asked a very junior Airman to serve drinks at an off-base, off-duty social event. The Airman would be paid but was asked to wear a completely inappropriate outfit. The Airman agreed, worked at the party, and accepted the money. A number of people on base were arguing that the Airman's acceptance was mitigating to the extent that this case shouldn't be dealt with by court-martial. I had heard about these discussions and told him what people were saying. His bottom line: "A court-marital offense was committed when he asked the Airman to wear the outfit; the answer didn't matter." General Swope thought deeply about every case but then could explain his reasoning in a crisp few words that everyone understood clearly.

My last example is my favorite, and while it again has to do with military justice, it's really about developing people. When I briefed General Swope on cases I started bringing my new chief of military justice along so he could get an idea of what was involved -- let's call him Carl. He was a captain with a lot of promise but had limited justice experience and had never worked for a general before. At one point I was in with General Swope alone and told him I thought it was time for Carl to have the experience of a solo mission. The general said he was sure it would be a positive encounter and winked at me.

The day of the briefing came and when Carl came back I asked him how it went. He was wide-eyed! He related that he updated the general on the case and a proposed course of action. He said General Swope paused for a long while and said: "This is really tricky; I'm going back and forth on it. Carl, tell me what you think I ought to do and why." Carl continued: "I explained as best I could, as soon as I was finished he snapped his fingers, pointed at me and said 'Perfect, go with it!'" Carl was a much more confident chief of military justice after that moment, and I had another reason to admire General Swope's leadership.

We all depart the stage someday and the great ones are those who did things and said things that live on beyond their years. General Swope was one of those people and I am proud to play a small role in keeping a piece of him alive in the Air Force. If you gathered something useful from any of these stories, you can do the same.