Leading by example

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Leonard "Red" Elder was 22 when he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. He served as a flight engineer and gunner for the B-26 Marauder, flying a total of 65 missions over Western Europe during the second World War.

Bomber gunners had the highest mortality rate in the European theater, even higher than front-line infantry. Red's position was a waist gunner. He crouched in a small bubble protruding from the side of the aircraft and was extremely vulnerable to freezing temperatures and enemy fire.

In August 1944, his aircraft was hit by flack during a mission over Germany. The crew managed to complete the bombing run and land the aircraft, however Red suffered significant injuries.

At the age of 25, he returned home to western Pennsylvania completely disabled.
Red spent the rest of his life in increasing pain. There was no position--sitting, standing, or lying down--that lessened it. When he walked, his bones rubbed against each other. His son still recalls the grinding noise they made.

Red spent much of his life in and out of VA hospitals for treatment; often staying there with the other veterans, many of whom had been there since WWI. His frequent stays at the VA made it very difficult for him to earn a living and support his family.

When Red returned from the war, like many airmen coming home, he was eager to start a family. He managed to work regularly at the local glass plant. He also found some ingenious ways to make ends meet.

When a fungal blight infected the chestnut tree population in the area, neighbors paid Red and his brother to cut the trees down. Red milled the trees into lumber which he then used to build a home for his young family. In essence, people paid him to build his own home. His son grew up in that house and his wife lived there for the remainder of her life.

Like most young men from western Philadelphia, Red knew hunting, fishing, carpentry, and physical labor. He was in his element with blue-collar work. His war-time injuries made every day a test of his resilience.

As his pain worsened, there were fewer and fewer things he was able to do. The time came when he could no longer stand at the machines at the glass plant. His boss, who admired Red's determination, offered him a job in accounting, contingent upon him passing a book-keeping class. Though this type of work was foreign to Red and he had never pictured himself at a desk, he seized the opportunity and he excelled.

He passed the course, and within only two years he was running the entire accounting department. Red's life was filled with many such moments. It would have been interesting to see what he could have accomplished had he not passed away suddenly in 1975 due to complications from his treatment and injuries.

Red's son, my dad, was inspired by his father's daily example of courage, drive, and sacrifice. He went on to join the Air Force in 1968 and served 30 years. Following their example, I joined in 1999. Though I never really knew him, the way Red lived permeates my values and shapes my perspective of strength and resilience. As a kid, I was always introduced around their hometown as "Red Elder's Grandson". Though I didn't know why at the time, I noticed that old men would tear up telling me about him. Red didn't talk about his experiences during the war, so most people didn't know the details of his service, including his own family. People did know how he chose to live his life after the war, and for this, he was admired and deeply respected. Despite the difficulties of living with a disability, Red's beliefs were never compromised. By nature, he was a self-starter; he believed in hard work and perseverance. Here was a man that suffered constantly, without complaint. He had a family depending on him and when things got hard he fought on. I am proud to have his example to reflect upon. While there have been hard times in my own life; I know I haven't been tested the way others have.

The obstacles that people like Red have faced and overcome will continue to humble me. We should always strive to push forward, even when we think we have nothing left to give. It is what will make us stronger and better Airmen. Resilience is in every Gunfighter, and we should remember to embrace adversity as a challenge and an opportunity for future successes, just as Red did.