Traveling to units around the world changes perspective

  • Published
  • By Col. Jennifer Moore
  • 21st Operations Group Commander
Prior to taking command of the 21st Operations Group last summer, I had only visited one base in the 21st Space Wing - Peterson AFB. I was stationed at Peterson AFB for two years and knew of the many other sites within the group and the wing, but I had no real knowledge or appreciation of the jobs they did, the roles they played in accomplishing the mission, or the challenges they faced in remote locations amid many different cultures and environments.

There's no doubt my perspective has drastically changed. As I sit here on a plane heading home from my latest site visit, I hope to change your perspective as well.

When the Air Force established our ground-based space systems, it put very few of them in easy to reach locations. Most require some combination of planes, trains and automobiles for access.

Last fall, I made my first trip to Socorro, N.M. to one of our three ground-based electro optical deep space surveillance sites (GEODSS), Detachment 1. Most people would not think of New Mexico as a unique, challenging or remote environment, but I can tell you there are areas out there that would change your mind.

At Det. 1, as at all of our GEODSS sites, a single Air Force officer runs the show. Capt. Tony Raphael leads a cadre of contractors in executing a mission that is as much art as it is science. He and his team track satellites using three telescopes located in the desert close to the site of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

The detachment is more than 45 minutes from the closest tiny New Mexico town, far from the light pollution of civilization where stars shine bright in the pitch black skies. Raphael loves the mission and strives to improve not only the unit's operations, but also the working conditions and space knowledge of the contracting team and the appearance of the site. He's proud of what he does and he knows he represents more than just a handful of people; he represents an entire wing.

Just before Christmas, I went to one of the strangest places I've ever been - Thule Air Base, Greenland. I saw very little of Thule, at least by the light of day. When I arrived, Greenland was in the dark season when the sun doesn't rise above the Greenlandic horizon. At that time of year, everyone settles in for a long winter's night that lasts through February.

The conditions at Thule are harsh, with temperatures below zero and a perpetual coat of ice and snow as far as the eye can see during the winter months. Col. Bill Uhlmeyer explained to me that we couldn't see the Northern Lights from Thule AB because the base is too far north! Despite this, people rarely complain.

The men and women of the 821st Air Base Group operate the Department of Defense's most northern deep water port and Air Force Space Command's only naval vessel - a tug boat. They also provide superior support to Lt. Col. Chris Putman and his unit at the 12th Space Warning Squadron.

The 12th SWS is ever vigilant in their non-stop mission of operating the unique upgraded early warning radar that tracks missiles in flight over the pole, triggers the missile defense network, and contributes satellite observations to the Air Force's satellite catalogue.

Regardless of their location and mission, they continue to celebrate the holidays by sharing Christmas gifts with local native villages, which were probably stunned by their generosity and selfless service. Not only do they give of themselves for a community of people they don't know, they keep the mission going through long, cold and stormy days and nights, away from anything familiar and separated from friends and family.

I will not forget their sacrifice, and I hope you don't either.

In February, I visited the men and women of the 10th SWS stationed in Cavalier, N.D., where the closest Wal-Mart is more than 30 miles away ... in Canada! There are no local pizza joints or shopping malls and the cost of living is surprisingly high.

Fortunately, the operators and government civilians there have one another for encouragement. Lt. Col. Dewey Frederick and her leadership team do everything they can to take care of the unit members and their families, from arranging for delivery of groceries from the Grand Forks, N.D. commissary more than two hours away, to taking part in the local chamber of commerce to represent the needs of the 10 SWS team.

They do their jobs with great energy and they do them well, so well in fact, that two members from the tiny unit were recognized as Grand Forks AFB annual award winners. There's no question they are tremendous representatives of the 21st SW.

Now I'm coming back home from visiting units in England and Spain. At Royal Air Force Fylingdales in England, a single space operator, Lt. Col. Brad Sumter, serves as the 21st SW's liaison officer to the RAF, executing the site's missile warning, missile defense, and space surveillance missions. Brad and his family are immersed in the culture that surrounds them and they revel in the opportunity to experience life in a different country.

It is far from easy, with U.S. Air Force services more than two hours away, and this strange habit the British have of driving on the wrong side of the road. Regardless, Brad executes his mission with skill and professionalism. He has clearly made an impact on every RAF member on site and is well respected by all. He's helping the RAF find its way in establishing space superiority as one of their core competencies. He has even rubbed shoulders with the Princess Royal. What an amazing privilege to represent the 21st SW and our mission in such a way.

While visiting Spain, I met with a tiny band of operators and maintainers working with no budget and limited resources to keep an aging telescope in the space surveillance game. Maj. Jake Pairsh and his team are all volunteers for the mission in Spain.

Unlike England, the locals rarely speak English and many in the unit live with their families on the local economy. They send their kids to school more than 60 miles away and drive hours for health care. But they do it all because they know they have a responsibility to execute the mission at hand and there's no doubt they are up to the challenge.

Napoleon is quoted as saying, "Every French soldier carriers a marshal's baton in his knapsack," implying that at any time, the lowest ranking individual in his army might be called upon to rally and lead the force. That statement is particularly true of our folks flung to the four corners of the earth, representing our wing and our missions to foreign militaries and civilian leaders.

I'm afraid we take them for granted because, after all, they're only doing their jobs. However, in reality, they are doing so much more. They are making a difference in the lives of one another and in the lives of those around them and most importantly, they are executing the mission of the 21st SW with pride, professionalism and enthusiasm.

A portion of our wing's vision and mission statements say we are leaders, globally postured to dominate the high ground for America and its allies. The men and women of our geographically separated units live out that charter every single day.

It'll be nice to be home again, but I look forward to the chance to hit the road again soon to visit a new location and see more of our team at work around the world. My perspective on the breadth of our mission has certainly changed as a result of my travels. I hope I've been able to change yours too.