His hands fumbled for the release on his seatbelt harness. Tugging at the catch set him free and he began to slowly pull himself out of his seat and to his feet. Dazed and somewhat confused, he reached out his hands toward the voices racing toward him. They were concerned voices, but excited. The phrase “fastest man on earth” reached his ears. He strained to see the men who now surrounded him, their hands supporting him and patting his back, but he could not see them. He was blind.
It was December 10, 1954, and Colonel John Paul Stapp had just reached a top speed of 632 miles an hour, faster than a .45-caliber bullet, strapped to a rocket powered sled. He’d accelerated from zero to max velocity in 5 seconds. But his ride wasn’t meant to see how fast man could travel, or fast he could accelerate. This was a test to see how fast a man could decelerate, and live to talk about it.
At 632 miles per hour, Stapp hit the brakes and came to a dead stop 1.4 seconds later. His body absorbed forces 40 times that of gravity. His eyeballs shot forward in his skull, leaving him with two black eyes and blindness that fortunately only lasted a few hours. But Stapp had expected something like this to happen. It was, after all, his 29th trip on the sled.
Col. Stapp was a doctor with the United States Air Force, and an example (granted, an extreme one) of the sacrifices many take in order to support their coworkers. Stapp and his team conducted extensive research into the results of deceleration on the human body. Their work resulted in design changes to military aircraft and safety harnesses that have allowed pilots to literally walk away from catastrophic plane crashes. His findings have also influenced the automobile industry, leading to safer occupant restraint systems around the globe.
Service always involves some degree of sacrifice. That’s because service is more than just a job. It’s an attitude. Your job description might require that you perform certain actions in order to satisfy a customer’s needs, but the manner in which you approach your work determines whether it’s remains a job, or gets elevated to the position of service. As we celebrate Internal Service Month, I think it’s only fitting that we explore the sacrificial characteristic of service.
Colonel Stapp’s approach to his job illustrates three key aspects of sacrificial service.
1. He expected to sacrifice for those he served. Stapp knew his body would undergo an incredible amount of stress in pursuit of his research. He even anticipated that he might emerge from the speed sled having lost his sight. In the days leading up to the run, he practiced dressing and undressing himself in the dark so that he wouldn’t be totally helpless afterward. But Stapp knew that his sacrifice could save the life of the pilots he served. Service is suffering so others don’t have to.
2. He accepted that his sacrifice would be ongoing. One of the reasons Stapp knew to expect blindness was because he had experienced it before. His record-setting run wasn’t his first; it was his 29th. Previous rides down the track had left him with a laundry list of injuries. He’d suffered concussions, broken ribs, hernias, hemorrhages, and shattered bones. But Stapp wasn’t in this for the quick victory. He knew that service was the only way to ensure the desired outcome. Service is an attitude, not an act.
3. He volunteered for the sacrifice. Studying rapid deceleration was Stapp’s job. He’d been assigned to lead this particular branch of research. But he didn’t approach his work as something he’d been forced to do. After more than 30 test runs using dummies, Stapp determined that only live human testing could provide the data needed to protect live human pilots. The word went out for volunteers, and several showed up. But Stapp wouldn’t ask others to do what he unwilling to experience himself, so he was the first and most frequent test subject. After his record-breaking run, Stapp’s superiors had to forcibly ground him out of concerns for his long-term health. Service is a calling, not a job.
Do you know someone who has willingly gone out of their way to help you out? Which coworkers have given of themselves again and again so that your job could be made a little easier, or a little safer? Who approaches their work as a calling, rather than an occupation? Don’t you think that sacrifice is worth acknowledging?