The genius of American team-building

Despite terrible tragedy, the genius of American team-building was proudly displayed last week. We mourn the loss of the “Columbia Seven” and search for answers. Meanwhile, we marvel at how those seven wonderful people maximized their human potential to advance our science, thus improving all our lives. We respect not only their tremendous individual talents and accomplishments, but more importantly, how each one contributed to the success of an important team effort.

Their accomplishment reminds us that, in all walks of life, the collective power of “we” far transcends the unique capabilities of “I.” Their accomplishment also reminds us of the fundamental reason for the fabulous success of the experiment we reverently call “America” the ability to attract and integrate the contributions of the best and the brightest, regardless of their skin color, ethnic heritage or country of origin.

Thankfully, the genius of American team-building plays itself out every single day in communities and neighborhoods across America. We can all be important contributors to the American team. Hopefully, the “Columbia Seven” will continue to remind us of the power and significance of the contributions of all Americans. And strengthen our resolve to improve the education and training opportunities of all Americans.

We all have powerful stories to tell of how our fellow Americans banded together to serve purposes higher that their own personal interests. I would like to share one such experience that I will never forget.

During the predawn hours of Dec. 20, 1989, I parachuted into Panama as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s contribution to Operation Just Cause. Airborne operations are by nature chaotic, especially in the first few minutes on the ground. That morning the chaos was intensified by our jumping from the relatively low “combat” altitude of 500 feet, the darkness and our landing in the thick jungle surrounding an unfamiliar airfield. I landed directly in a tree, thanked God that I was uninjured, and started walking toward the airfield. I soon joined two, three, four and eventually nine other 82nd Airborne paratroopers in a single file as we slowly worked our way through the dense underbrush. I personally knew only one of the other nine soldiers, a fellow mid-grade captain.

Suddenly, shots rang out to our right front and we immediately hit the ground. After what seemed an eternity, but was only a couple of seconds, the gunfire stopped. I slowly crawled to the center of what was becoming a hasty perimeter. Ten American soldiers, thrown together by battlefield happenstance, had quickly formed a team to respond to a hostile threat. I huddled with the other captain in the middle of the perimeter and softly said, “We have to get up and get moving again.” Nearby voices in the dark immediately responded: “Yeah, I’ve got to set up the battalion helicopter landing zone.” “I’ve got to be my company commander’s radio-telephone operator.” “I have to run the radios in our Brigade Tactical Operations Center.”

Those brave American soldiers responded not to my words, but to their own sense of duty and determination to contribute to the success and survival of the team effort. We picked ourselves up, moved out, and accomplished all our missions. Unfortunately, four members of our Brigade sacrificed their lives to ensure the success of our American team.

Today, the “Columbia Seven” remind us of the tremendous power of unique individuals working together as a team and the American genius for team-building. Ask a local veteran of American team-building to relate their experiences. The “veteran” could be one who has learned on the battlefield, in the corporate boardroom or as a volunteer in civic or religious organizations. Be sure to pull up a comfortable chair first.

Will this great nation of immigrants and explorers continue to create teams of diverse and talented people who push the envelope to learn and achieve more? Forever!

This column was a Coplen family team effort, benefiting immensely from the editorial comments of my wife Lorelei. Contact the Coplen family at [email protected]

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