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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Extended Q&A with Lt. Gen. Anthony Rock

Mobile Stem Care

It’s not every day we that get to talk to a former F-15 fighter pilot and since Lt. Gen. Anthony Rock spent nearly 90 minutes on a Skype interview with us, Sombrilla wanted to include more than what we could print in a short story. So here’s something extra from our talk that jumped from politics to leadership to his short-lived time on reality television. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your childhood in San Antonio.
We moved to San Antonio in 1965, and we moved into a little housing division called Camelot. I can remember when Roosevelt High School was built from the ground up. We used to watch deer play on Guinevere Drive. We started there, and in the early 1970s moved to Hollywood Park when Loop 1604 was way out in the country and my dad wanted to move out farther. I went initially to St. Thomas Moore, and when we moved out to Hollywood Park, I went to Eisenhower and Churchill. My dad really wanted to get out away from people, so he moved out to [Highway] 281 about 10 miles south of Blanco. After high school I lived in an economy apartment, a studio apartment. It was out on Interstate 10, and there was nothing out there; you really had to want to go to UTSA.

Have you been back to the campus? Did you think back in the early days that it would grow to this size?
I was asked by the ROTC detachment to come back and preside in the commissioning ceremony at UTSA of the Air Force ROTC unit. It’s amazing how much it’s grown up. It’s very impressive. When I was there we had four fraternities or three sororities, or maybe it was inverted. I was actually Tau Kappa Epsilon. The years I was there took it from charter to chapter. We actually were the TKEs who got it to a chapter status. I still remember the chapter ceremony when we activated the chapter. I know the Greek system is fairly strong now. I was there when we chose the roadrunner as a mascot, and so I saw both physical construction and institutional development of the organization and the identity of the school start to emerge. Hard to believe that was 30 years ago.

How have you all coped with the amount of change and moves that come with being in the military for such a long time?
Well, it’s a lot easier for me because I’m up close and personal with it. I left the U.S. and immediately plugged into a unit. That unit hugged me and said, “Glad you are here; this is our mission.” Working in Pakistan is unique in that it is a “semipermissive” environment. It’s not that we take our security for granted in any way. We never become complacent. But I think the people back home probably worry more about us than we worry about ourselves.

A couple of things: We’re very well-trained, very well-equipped and we’re very well-prepared for deployments like this. We’re a small part of an overall embassy team that’s well-equipped, well-prepared and well-trained, and we understand when we sign up to support and defend the Constitution that it comes with expeditionary operations. So that’s part of it.

With that said, it’s hard on the families. I always say this, we call our families “dependents” -- that’s their military title. Kim [Rock’s wife] is a military dependent. I will tell you that I’m much more dependent on her than she is on me. Kim and I have had 18 permanent change-of-station assignments. So 18 times in 32 years, we’ve packed up every single stick of furniture we own and moved it along with three kids. For the family, it’s very difficult -- not just when we’re deployed, that’s a big part of it. On the other side, we got two years overseas and got to see things that Americans pay thousands of dollars to go on vacation to see. So there’s great opportunity that comes with the great stress, the great sacrifice and the great demand.

What advice would you give to returning veterans who may be having difficulty adjusting?
Several things: Take pride in your accomplishments. You’ve made a difference. A smaller portion of our population has served. So veterans need to know they made a huge contribution. They served in some really, really tough places. They need to take advantage of those tough times, those very, very important and challenging environments they’ve served in -- both psychologically challenging and physically demanding -- and take advantage of that in their follow-up work experience. The things that made you effective, the leadership things you learned along the way are probably going to be the same things that make you effective whether it’s working in employment environment or working for church -- building teams, serving teams, both leadership and following -- those skills are going to translate.

And the last thing I would say is, if you are struggling, you are not alone. There are so many opportunities, so many people willing to help; whether that’s through Veterans Affairs, church, psychological counseling, there are some people who are really struggling. They’re really hurting from their combat experiences. The worst thing they could do is to try to take care of it all on their own. I would just remind everybody that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Don’t feel like you’ve got to man-up and do it all on your own.

What do you think are the keys to being a good leader?
Find the right folks, give them the vision, then give them some resources and empower them and trust them. The other thing that they need to know is that you genuinely care about them, not just as an employee but as a person; you care about their family. Another one of the clichés that I use is “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So you can be the smartest guy or gal in the room, but if you’re cold and the people think that all you care about is the mission and not about the people who make the mission, they’re not going to be the ones going to the mat for you.

Optimism, energy and initiative are three things that I try to instill as a culture in every team I work with. At the end of the day a leader needs to understand that he is accountable for just about everything. He directly controls very little while being accountable for everything, and that’s OK; that’s a risky thing, but it comes with the big office.

Describe your current assignment to me in your own words. Given Pakistan’s internal and external challenges coupled with the tensions and challenges in the wider region, what do you want to accomplish?
When I got ready to leave Texas on this deployment, a lot of my friends and family said, “Why do we care about Pakistan? Why do we need to be engaged there? Why do we spend billions of dollars in Pakistan? They hate us; wouldn’t they hate us for free?” And the answer is, Maybe, maybe not. But we live in a post–9/11world now. Across the Afghan and Pakistan border in what’s called, in Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, there is militancy that goes across... There is terrorism -- specifically al-Qaeda support -- that goes across those borders. We know that a good part of the planning for al-Qaeda was done from Afghanistan in the lead-up to the attacks in 2001.

We live in a world where terrorism has to be confronted, and the core al-Qaeda elements have to be destroyed. We can’t allow it to reconstitute. We live in a world where Pakistan is now a nuclear nation. They have nuclear weapons. There are 180 million people in this country. We would like those nuclear weapons to remain secure. They live next door to India, which also has nuclear weapons, and has over a billion people. So you have two nations with nuclear weapons living next to each other that have a history of three wars over their 67 years of independence. And now they have nuclear weapons. We care about not having another war between Pakistan and India. And of course we continue to worry about the geographic intersection of nuclear weapons and continuing militancy and extremism; we care deeply about the security of those weapons. There are a whole lot of reasons to be here.

Was your call sign as a pilot “Heater”? And if so, how did you get that?
Yes, my call sign is Heater. There are two rules for call signs: Number 1, you can’t like the one you are given. And number 2, you can’t pick your own. I earned the call sign Heater when I applied poor checklist discipline when I jumped to a spare aircraft and was trying to get launched in a hurry to go meet adversaries who were already airborne. I had aborted the first aircraft, I had to jump to a spare, and I didn’t run the checklist as well as I should have in the cockpit before I started engines. I left a switch in the wrong position, and I melted a windshield. It was a very expensive, $25,000 switch error because they had to replace the windscreen.

But it was a teaching point. And it’s something that, as an instructor, I always ’fessed up to and talked to my young lieutenants later when I was an instructor in the F-15 about the importance of checklist discipline. So I made a very expensive mistake that cost the taxpayers a good bit of money. I made sure that it didn’t just happen and then be forgotten. I tried to turn it into something positive by making it a checklist-discipline teaching point later on.

But it sounds really cool ’cause a heater is what we call the AIM-9, which is a heat-seeking missile. So it sounds like “Man, that guy must be King Kong with an AIM-9,” but no, it was “That guy was a buffoon with a checklist and melted a windshield because he was in a hurry.”

Were you in the series AFP: American Fighter Pilot or just “portrayed”?
Everyone in there was actually in that squadron, all of the instructors and all of the students. It was filmed over about a yearlong period. There was a producer and director by the name of Jesse Negron. Jesse and his wife, Melissa, effectively became part of our squadron. Initially the squadron was kind of standoffish. But Jesse lived with us for about a year in that squadron. He followed a class that went through from first academics all the way through graduation from F-15 training, and actually he followed several of them to their operational units to round out the rest of that series.

The series lasted only two episodes before it got canceled. It did make it as a box set. So if anyone is interested, it is out there. It’s probably on the bargain rack at the DVD recycle store. But that was our -- not my -- but our 15 minutes of fame.

Anything you would like to add?
No, just... Well, I would say that just to let the UTSA readers know that the school is great. It gave me a great opportunity, a great start. They’re going to bloom and blossom and do great things and produce great leaders. I know this will have some limited readership because it will be primarily folks who care deeply about UTSA, but hopefully they’ll tell two or three folks back home that the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, civilians who are serving in all kinds of seemingly exotic places around the world, we do so with the desire and commitment to make sure they live free from fear.

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