Air Force colonel says 4-H livestock taught leadership and life lessons

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By Lura Roti

SDSU Extension

Traversing the globe on deployments for the U.S. Air Force, Ericka (Meligan) Flanigan’s thoughts often reflect on moments spent in the Stanley County 4-H Achievement Days showring.

“Showmanship taught me to give my best — even when I was tired. Showmanship was always the last event of the day, so I would have already shown 20-head of sheep and then, I had to do my best. That mentality has gotten me through several deployments,” explains the vice wing commander of the 70th Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing.

With 6,000 service men and women answering to her, lives depend upon Flanigan’s ability to be at her best and confidently make tough decisions — whether she is stationed in a combat zone or in her office at Fort George Meade, Md.

“I think about 4-H judging almost every day — honestly, whether making million-dollar decisions or mission critical choices. I need to think about what makes one decision better than the next,” Flanigan says. “Whether it was livestock, horticulture or arts and crafts, 4-H judging contests gave me the ability to look at options and make a good decision.”

Oral reasons have also come in handy, she adds. “I need to be able to back up my decisions.”

Flanigan became a member of the Country Coyotes 4-H Club when she was just 8 years old. Even before she was old enough to join, her mom and dad, Ray and Iris, served as the club’s leaders. They were both 4-H alumni and eager share the benefits of involvement in the project-based organization with Stanley County youth. It didn’t take long for Flanigan to become involved in every aspect of 4-H — showing horses, sheep, cattle, giving illustrated talks, serving as a club officer and competing in 4-H rodeo.

“I did everything,” she recalls. “I still have all my ribbons and buckles.”

She says that the journey to those awards taught her valuable lessons and developed her into the leader she is today. “In 4-H, no matter what project you do, you have to drive yourself. I loved showing, but every year, I began at zero, with a wild heifer and I had to work to train her to lead. It was not easy, but my end goal was to be in that show ring and absolutely be able to show her. 4-H taught me the value of meaningful labor,” says Flanigan, who draws several other parallels between her Air Force career and 4-H.

She lists leadership, competition and recognition for good work as some of the similarities that converted a college elective into a 23-year career.

“ROTC was a hybrid of things I had done in 4-H,” says the speech communications graduate of South Dakota State University. “Being involved in ROTC really gave my college life a lot of meaning.”

Following graduation, Flanigan’s first Air Force assignment was teaching ROTC classes and developing programing on the campus of SDSU. From there, Lieutenant Flanigan entered the intelligence career field.

Today, Colonel Flanigan credits hard work, dedication and the selfless service of her parents and many other 4-H volunteer mentors with providing her with the strong foundation necessary to climb military ranks.

“Every rank takes a lot of work — there is a lot of blood and sweat behind every rank. 4-H made me tough. It also fostered teamwork,” Flanigan says. “In 4-H there were so many times when I had more than one animal in the same class and I would need another 4-H member to help me show. They would help me because they knew that I would help them when they needed it. It’s the same way here (in the Air Force.)”

South Dakota 4-H alumnus, Ericka Flanigan is the U.S. Air Force vice wing commander of the 70th Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing. Courtesy photo
South Dakota 4-H alumnus, Ericka Flanigan is the U.S. Air Force vice wing commander of the 70th Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing. Flanigan credits 4-H with teaching her valuable lessons and developing her into the leader she is today. Pictured here in 1990 at the South Dakota State Fair as a member of the winning, Stanley County 4-H Beef Quiz Bowl Team. Other members of the team include (left to right): Brian Jennings, Charlie Prince and Barry Jennings. Courtesy photo