Command chief leaves powerful impression on deployed service members

SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq- Chief Master Sgt. Gerald Delebreau, command chief based out of the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., serves Thanksgiving dinner to the service members here. Chief Delebreau is serving a one-year deployment in Iraq as the Command Chief Master Sergeant for the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing and the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission - Air, Baghdad, Iraq. Delebreau is responsible for the welfare and moral of approximately 1,500 rescue reservist's at the 920th RQW, the only reserve combat search and rescue wing. (courtesy photo)

SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq- Chief Master Sgt. Gerald Delebreau, command chief based out of the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., serves Thanksgiving dinner to the service members here. Chief Delebreau is serving a one-year deployment in Iraq as the Command Chief Master Sergeant for the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing and the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission - Air, Baghdad, Iraq. Delebreau is responsible for the welfare and moral of approximately 1,500 rescue reservist's at the 920th RQW, the only reserve combat search and rescue wing. (courtesy photo)

SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq -- On a hot late-summer Friday evening on an air base near Baghdad, Iraq, things are mostly quiet as many of the one thousand Soldier, Sailor, Airmen and civilians who populate the base are enjoying a brief reprieve from the exhausting heat. Most people are off duty and participating in a few of the morale events offered, like bingo, card tournaments, billiards or video games. Some are unwinding in their rooms by sleeping, watching television, surfing the Internet or catching up with far-away loved ones over Skype. Others are spending their downtime burning off stress at the gym, playing a pick-up basketball game on the open-air court or joining in a volleyball game in the sand.

I am on my way to the roof of a building overlooking a busy runway that has became the ritual gathering spot for myself and a few friends for what we call Friday movie night. It is a time when we gather to smoke a few good cigars and watch a movie projected from a computer onto a wall with a hanging white sheet used as a barely adequate substitute for a movie screen. From this point of view above the base, you can sit in the warm evening breeze just after dark and hear and see the hustle and bustle of all the Friday events, and watch the constant movement of aircraft on the runway.

On this Friday night not everyone is enjoying the down time. Many people are still on duty diligently tending to the ceaseless needs of the mission. The medics, security forces and firemen are always vigilant, along with many other personnel who support the around the clock operations of a military base in Iraq. As I passed through the building on my way to the stairwell that will take me to the roof for movie night, some of these service members were on duty. As I passed them we exchanged greetings as we did each week, but that night there was an unusual face among them. I took a second look and there, still in his uniform and casually chatting with a group of junior enlisted Airmen, was Command Chief Master Sergeant Gerald Delebreau.

The moment was so remarkable because it was among the rare times in over twenty years of military service that I have ever seen a leader at his level making himself available on a Friday evening, or at any time for that matter, to a group of junior Airmen. That brief moment spoke volumes to me about Chief Delebreau's character and his leadership style. The example he set in that unpretentious act of leadership will stay with me throughout my career and became my enduring image of Chief Delebreau. That moment cemented my choice of who to interview for my leadership study.

Chief Master Sergeant Delebreau is the current Command Chief Master Sergeant for the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing and the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission - Air, Baghdad, Iraq. He serves over one thousand Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors assigned to eight locations across Iraq. Chief Delebreau describes his responsibilities as "being the eyes and ears for the commander (Major General Rock) and gauging the morale and welfare of all the military members assigned to the Wing." Chief Delebreau also serves as the principle senior enlisted advisor to the Iraqi Air Force Commanding General and Chief Master Sergeant of the Iraqi Air Force on the professional growth and development of the Iraqi enlisted corps.
When you first meet Chief Delebreau, you notice right away he embodies the image of a hardened senior military leader. His square jaw, serious demeanor and large physical appearance can be intimidating at first, but you soon realize there is more to him than his no-nonsense approach to the mission. Through his down-to-earth style, you realize he actually cares as much about the people who perform the mission as he does about the mission.

To have a deeper understanding of what drove Chief Delebreau to become the extraordinary leader he is today, you have to know a little about the seemingly impossible challenges he overcame as a young man. He grew up in his grandparent's household of nineteen, where his mother was the oldest of sixteen siblings in a small town near Green Bay, Wisconsin. His mother's seventh grade education and his large family were among the reasons he spent most of his early life in poverty. He endured five stepfathers, often witnessing abuse in his home. He attended twelve schools within a fifty-mile radius before he graduated. He lived under difficult conditions, but sports were his outlet. He excelled as an athlete lettering in football, basketball and wrestling, and won seven awards his senior year in high school. Chief Delebreau joined the Air Force in 1983.

"Joining the Air Force was a pivotal moment in my life," said the Chief. "I joined because I had not been allowed many choices in my life and I was looking for a way out of poverty." He was looking for education and travel, but like many of us who joined looking for those same things, he did not expect to make the Air Force a career. However, he soon realized that, "in the Air Force, one hundred percent effort would result in success." His enormously successful military career is evidence of his effort. He holds two associate degrees, a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and a Master of Arts in public administration. Chief Delebreau has been assigned to seven Air Force bases across the United States and has been on many deployments around the world, including his current year-long assignment to Sather Air Base, Iraq.

As I was interviewing the Chief, I thought back to the first night I saw him interacting with the Airmen. I asked him why he thought it was important to spend his precious few off duty hours going around the base and mentoring young service members, listening to them and sharing his experiences. Without hesitation Chief Delebreau said, "It is important that they know leadership cares about them and cares that they are away from home." He then added that spending time with the Airmen "gives instant ground-truth feedback to the leadership" and "opens communication." His response was a universal message for anyone in a leadership or management position. Get out from behind your desk and get to know your employees. Let them know you care about them as people. If you really want the ground truth about what is going on in your organization, get out and communicate with the people who are actually doing the work.

"Leaders have to have goals. Set small goals first and build on success. Use the success to stimulate and motivate your staff towards larger goals. Approach larger goals in small steps. As the old saying goes, "you eat an elephant one bite at a time." About the responsibility of leadership, Chief Delebreau said, "Never forget where you came from. Learn what it is like to do without the silver spoon. Take care of your people and pay your success forward by helping others achieve success and rewarding them when possible." Echoing his thoughts on visiting with those who are out doing the job, he added, "Just getting out and checking on people sends a message."

Part of the responsibility of leadership is to develop future leaders. Chief Delebreau believes that to develop leaders you must be willing to "put in the time. One-on-one mentoring and giving honest feedback are also keys to developing leaders. Lead from the front and challenge your personnel to be their best."

All the exceptional leaders have something special that you can't quite put your finger on. I believe Chief Delebreau's effectiveness is due to the way he leads by example. Because he pushes himself so hard and always does his best, he's inspiring. You don't want to let him down or disappoint him, so you always do your best for him. Those are signs of great leadership.

As I got to know Chief Delebreau over the months I served with him, I clearly understood why he chose to spend his time getting out around the base and making himself available to the men and women who were getting the mission done. Instead of distancing himself from the reality of deployed life as many of us like to do, he chose to embrace it and make it better for those he served with. No one could ever measure how encouraging it must have been to young deployed service members to have a leader at Chief Delebreau's level take the time to sit and listen to their complaints and needs while being genuinely interested in what they had to say. Sadly, someday Chief Master Sergeant Delebreau will retire from military service, but his impact and legacy will live on for years to come through those of us who served with him will continue to follow the example he set for us as we continue to develop ourselves as leaders.

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Editor's note: Chief Delebreau is deployed from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., where he serves as the command chief for Rescue Wing Airmen.