This weekend I ran a 5K in memory of an Airman killed in the line of duty. I was his Commander. He was only 21 years old and had recently joined the military. Mine was his first unit since entering active duty.
I recall his arrival at my unit back in 2010. I knew about Zac before he even arrived. He was born into a military family and for his first assignment, was already asking all the right questions: who was his sponsor? What was he going to be doing in the unit?
When I met him, as I did for every newcomer to the organization, I asked questions to get to know him. I was surprised at his music preferences (see my post on Music). I connected with him and when I stopped by his flight one afternoon, during one of his breaks, Zac challenged his Commander to a game of ping-pong. He took the beating well…twice 🙂 Guess my bio didn’t include the fact that I’d been playing since I was 5. Lol.
His tragic death at the hands of a gunman was a huge blow to the unit and community. My 2-year command was winding down as my focus was on ensuring my replacement had a well functioning unit to take over from. Little did I know how much his death would impact the entire community. More so, the impact it would have on me personally. I grew up fast!
Zac’s death brought the unit that much more closer. More so, it brought the community together—Americans and Germans alike. Every year since Zac’s death, a 5K is held in his memory. The event has grown tremendously—over 900 participants this weekend! It’s even spawned a similar event in O’Fallon, Illinois where his family resides.
Zac reminded me of a lesson I’ve made it a point to share with current and future leaders; get to know your people. Know their stories. Nothing is worse than speaking at a memorial about an individual under your leadership that you didn’t really know. Worse yet, handing a folded flag to his parents at the funeral and not being able to say how much he or she was truly missed. I’m glad I got to know Zac. I’ve made a lifelong connection with his parents, younger brother, and family.
Zac: Thank you for the lives you’ve touched…in life and in death. We will meet again…and if there’s a ping-pong table in heaven, game on!