Medal of Honor Recipient Recounts Lessons for Air Force Cadets

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February 27, 2023
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After a rocket-propelled grenade attack hit Britt Slabinski’s helicopter in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2002, the weight of the decisions in the hours that followed transformed him into a true warfighting professional.

Before the night “bullets the size of your finger” were passing through his aircraft and his teammate fell out, he hadn’t been 100% committed, said Slabinski, a retired senior chief special warfare operator with the Navy SEALs.

Feeling alone, unable to send communications out over the radio, the then-senior chief weighed all his options, a shred of information that his Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts was alive and knowledge that his team didn’t have the right equipment. He could have waited for Army Rangers, likely to arrive in three hours, but that would likely have turned the rescue into a recovery, he said.

While weighing all the logistics, including fuel, a Boy Scout motto “On my honor I will do my best” echoed through his head, aiding his decision to rescue Roberts, Slabinski recalled. Those teachings can be tools, which can serve you later, he advised Air Force cadets Friday during the National Character and Leadership Symposium.

The future officers will face similar tough decisions and responsibilities to care for their teams, he advised.

“You have a covenant to those above you and below you and to your left and right,” said Slabinski. The retired SEAL led the rescue on his first of 15 deployments. He retired in 2014, and in 2018, he received the Medal of Honor for leading his team in combat to rescue Roberts who, unfortunately, was shot and killed by al-Qaida forces.

Slabinski was struck with a moment of humanity considering the likelihood of his death ahead of the rescue mission, but entertaining those thoughts is not a luxury the future officers will have during conflict.

He advised those thoughts may rob leaders from valuable intellectual bandwidth.

Future conflicts Air Force Academy graduates could face, potentially against other world powers, such as China and Russia, however, could be very different than the War on Terror.

“It is going to be a challenge for all of us to learn those new rules quickly,” he said.

After combat, he advised it is important to ask for help with dark thoughts. In his case, his wife, whom he called Dr. Awesome, dragged him out of a dark place.

“Sometimes, you can’t do it alone, and you will have struggles,” he said.

A more complete narrative of the rescue attempt can be found in NBC’s “Rescue on Roberts Ridge.”


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