Trust Your Wingman

Let’s paint a picture. I’ll supply the imagery in words; you, the imagination.

Weather: a moderate 75 degrees, sunny skies, spotted with small clouds providing sporadic relief from the rays, a 20 percent chance of precipitation that never develops but brings out the wildlife, and warm, calm, crystal clear, glassy water.

Now take all of that and store it away as what was envisioned by our 10-person group taking part in Team Rubicon’s Leadership Development excursion – sea kayaking the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.


Here was the reality – highs in the mid 50’s and water equally frigid, overcast skies, spotted rain showers, winds 20-30 knots, and not even a hint of sun to be seen.

There I was, upside down in that cold water, performing a wet exit after a couple four-foot waves left me inverted and thinking to myself (among other expletives), “What the hell is a guy that didn’t learn to swim until age 15, has major trust issues, and hates the water doing on this kind of trip!?”

This was day three of the six-day excursion provided in full by Voyageur Outward Bound School. I hadn’t fully grasped the impact of this short course. Any TR member who’s deployed on an operation, attended a social event, or helped with a local service project will agree when I say I took home more than I imagined.

I expected to meet some new faces from this cross country group, learn a bit about developing leadership skills, and take home some new ideas to help improve TR Indiana. All of these things happened. My realization of what I wasn’t anticipating dawned on me while paddling through the famous sandstone sea caves in a tandem kayak.

Anyone who’s ever paddled a small, two-person watercraft can tell you it takes three main skills: teamwork, patience, and trust.

The first two I’ve never had a problem with, but trust has troubled me most of my adult life. Ironically enough, my fellow TR member manning our tandem kayak recognized my issue and helped me realize trust is an essential skill all influential leaders possess. With a little bit of practice, we nearly looked like seasoned kayakers by the end of the day! I knew Team Rubicon helps bridge the gap not only with the victims of natural disasters, but also with its veteran volunteers. To experience TR members helping one another firsthand, however, was truly awesome.


One final unexpected take-home from this amazing trip requires a little background. I am a USAF active duty veteran and current USAF (R) member. The historic definition of a “wingman” makes reference to a flying formation where the lead aircraft always flies with an accompanying aircraft off its right wing and behind the lead. The second aircraft is referred to as the “wingman” and this pilot’s primary responsibility is to protect the lead by watching his back. This term is now part of a promise; a pledge; a commitment.

On that last day, some departed by bus to Minneapolis, MN and some by plane out of Duluth. Some arrived home in New Mexico, others in Colorado, and a couple in Indiana. One thing was as crystal clear as the waters of Lake Superior – we all may give each other good-humored crap across service, but it doesn’t matter if you served in the Marines, Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, or Army. The terms “battle buddy,” “shipmate,” and “wingman” have the same concept. I gained more than leadership skills and new ideas to improve TR, I gained ten new wingmen that’ve got my six and I can trust.

Lake Superior Kayaking

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