Why is integrity first?

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- "Integrity is the fundamental premise of military service in a free society. Without integrity, the moral pillars of our military strength, public trust and self-respect are lost." -- Gen. Charles A. Gabriel

Military core values are a set of virtues that each service espouses to and demands of all in their ranks. More than 20 years ago, the U.S. Air Force modified its core values to the ones we know and live by today. Prior to that, integrity was listed as one of six values we would adhere to. Have you ever wondered why integrity comes first?

Integrity encompasses several personal attributes. Most Airmen believe integrity and honesty are one and the same. Air Force Instruction 1-1 defines integrity as: "The willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the 'moral compass' - the inner voice; the voice of self-control..." Meanwhile, the "Little Blue Book" tells us immediately this value embodies other moral traits like courage, honesty, responsibility and self-respect.

Consider for a moment the skin of an airplane. When a new aircraft arrives from the factory freshly painted and ready to fly, the skin is perfectly fitted and the seams are in perfect alignment; every part is covered and held together by the skin. This is analogous to an Airman's integrity. His or her integrity holds everything in place and is the fundamental premise of that Airman's military service. When the aircraft's skin is compromised, such as by a bird strike, by a vehicle collision or it begins to crack, either a patch must be placed over the blemish or the whole section removed and replaced. Nevertheless, that portion of the aircraft will never be as strong as it was before its integrity was damaged.

Once you have compromised your personal integrity, you will never be the same. Repairs in the form of mentoring, counseling or training will help, but you may never be as strong as you were before.

Putting personal integrity into practice is not always as easy as one might think. Maintaining personal integrity may even come at a cost. It starts through little duties when we are cadets and basic trainees. Superiors watch how we react to simple tasks and how we respond when questioned rhetorically about those tasks improperly performed. It continues early in our Air Force career when we inevitably screw up a task and have the opportunity to lie when asked by our instructors, "What are you thinking?" or "Where are you going?" How we respond to these questions can either build or damage our integrity.

As an Airman's rank and experience increases, so does his or her responsibilities and leadership opportunities. Throughout your military career, your integrity is observed by both your superiors and subordinates. If your integrity is damaged you may never be as strong of a leader as you were before or ever could be in the future.

Maintaining one's integrity is not always popular, but military leadership is not a popularity contest. Leadership is multi-faceted. It is about maintaining a standard, executing a mission and taking care of Airmen and resources. Like the skin of an aircraft, all of these facets are held together by integrity first.