The three-star janitor

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Bearden
  • 49th Logistics Readiness Squadron, commander

The Pentagon is the world's largest low-rise office building, covering some 6,000,000 square feet of ground and providing office space for more than 28,000 Department of Defense personnel. Given its size and number of inhabitants, you can imagine the enormity of the task of keeping such a place clean. In fact, it takes 3,000 non-DoD personnel in maintenance and janitorial roles just to keep the space livable for the other 28,000. 


As is often true, these quiet professionals tend to be somewhat invisible, blending into the ubiquitous buzz that keeps that massive building operating from day to day. I would like to call your attention to one occasion, however, where the sanitation worker stood out.


Leaving my office and heading down the corridor, I rounded the corner of the nearest men's room, where an overflowing trashcan confronted me. Notably, around the middle of the day, overflowing trashcans are not uncommon in Pentagon restrooms. The cleaning crews rotate through the areas on a regular schedule, so in the mornings and evenings everything is in order, but by lunchtime, the trash generated by hundreds or thousands of hand washings can quickly overtake the capacity of the can.


Squatting on the ground beside the trashcan, cleaning up wet, crumpled towels was the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support. An Air Force general, resplendent in an immaculate set of long-sleeve blues, with three stars on each shoulder, was hunched over the floor picking up other people's waste! Needless to say, it was an unexpected, uncommon sight, and one that made an unusually lasting impression on me.


To this day, I cannot walk past paper towels on a bathroom floor without asking myself why, if a lieutenant general can take the time to clean up after others, a lieutenant colonel cannot. So, that leaves us with a challenge. What problems have you walked by lately? What impression will you leave on someone else by tackling a problem that might otherwise be "below you?" It is one thing to tell those who work for us or with us they should not walk past a problem. It is another thing altogether to model this behavior for them.  Holloman is a great place already, but I guarantee you it will be an even better place if each of us took the time to fix the problems we encountered each day. How can you be a three-star janitor?