What's your 'stache mean?

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Joshua Gray
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Every March, Airmen around the Air Force start growing mustaches for what's known as "Mustache March." It has become a way for us as Airmen to reach back and recognize one of the greatest fighter pilots and leaders we've seen in our modern force, Col. Robin Olds. Ask around your units why we participate in Mustache March and you'll hear a lot of things like "because Colonel Olds grew a mustache in protest and to celebrate his maverick ways."

But is that really why we celebrate him? Or to put it another way, is that why we SHOULD celebrate and honor him?

First, let's look at a little historical perspective about Col. Olds and his crowning achievement, Operation Bolo.

When Robin Olds took over as the commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand during the Vietnam War, morale among his pilots was at an all-time low. The aerial war in Southeast Asia was a very difficult one to fight for American F-4 pilots because political considerations meant we fought under very restrictive tactical and strategic rules of engagement.

Tasked with protecting bomb-laden F-105 fighters, Olds' pilots were not allowed to pursue enemy fighter aircraft over certain areas, and strike packages flowed into target areas along very predictable routes and at very predictable times. This meant the enemy could dictate when and where they would attack and quickly escape into a safe zone.

Once in Thailand, Olds examined the rules of engagement and devised a brilliant general strategy: replace the easily engaged F-105s with flights of F-4's, flying the same predictable routes and using the same radio calls as the strikers. Once he devised the general outline, he handed over tactical planning of the mission to the people most impacted by the rules: his junior captains and lieutenants. This "wolf in sheep's clothing" mission became known as Operation Bolo, named for an Eastern farming tool that could be easily used as a weapon.

When the day came, the mission was a resounding success. So much so that the impact on the enemy's strategy led to the grounding of all MiG fighters for several months while they tried to cope with the new tactical reality of the air war.

Now, you'll notice up to this point Col. Olds hasn't done anything rebellious. Novels detailing the air war over Vietnam, such as Flight of the Intruder, would have you believe that the response to the oppressive rules were to say "screw it, let's go do the mission regardless," and if you've ever quoted anything from Top Gun it is safe to say you buy into the "rebel pilot" mentality of breaking the rules as long as the ends justified the means.

But that wasn't who Col. Olds was, and that's where sometimes Mustache March misses the point. Olds didn't "wave a finger" at his leadership and break the rules, nor did he lead a rogue mission to do what he thought was best. He tried to use the rules specifically to his advantage, all the while giving the people who most were impacted by the rules a stake in planning the mission.

And, it's worth noting, Col. Olds didn't show up in Thailand to assume command of the 8th TFW with an out-of-regs mustache. He didn't take off for Operation Bolo with one either. It wasn't until he landed and made his statement that "the rules didn't have to be a hindrance" that he grew one. All to show people that, yes, you too don't have to let the rules be a burden.
And that's the lesson we should take with us. As Mustache March draws to a close and we get ready to go back to clean upper lips, we should ask ourselves a few simple questions in light of the Air Force we live and work in today. We have some significant challenges looking us in the face. Are you going to throw your hands up in the air and say "The rules won't let me do something!" when faced with adversity, or are you going to do as Olds did and find a way regardless? Do you trust in the ability of your people, no matter how junior, to take a strategic vision and turn it into tactical success?

And finally, look yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself the single most important question:

What does this mustache mean to me? Did I earn this?