Be a good emissaries to the public we defend

  • Published
  • By Capt. Robert Copley
  • Commander, Detachment 3, 20th Space Control Squadron

I work on top of a volcano in Maui, Hawaii. To clarify, it is a dormant volcano but its always fun to tell people where my office is. On a good day, it takes me a little under two hours to make the ascent from sea level to the summit at 10,023 feet. During the 47-mile drive, I have to negotiate 36 hairpin turns, bicyclists, skateboarders, hundreds of tourists, and the occasional cow. It was on this commute that I unexpectedly helped reinforce our Nation’s trust and change the way at least one individual viewed the Air Force.


Unlike Oahu, the island of Maui does not have a typical military presence. There are no military bases and only a handful of active-duty personnel assigned to either the Coast Guard Station or the Maui Space Surveillance Complex. As a result, uniformed personnel often get stares from locals and tourists alike. Maui is also home to many individuals who fell in love with the picturesque environment, the laid-back lifestyle of the island, and decided to make it their permanent home.


On a bright and sunny morning, I was about 30 minutes and 2,500 feet into the ascent. As I rounded one of the turns, a man was standing in the middle of the road frantically trying to wave down cars as they passed by. Not sensing any threat, I pulled over and got out of the vehicle. I saw his face change from gratitude to disdain as soon as he recognized the uniform. I introduced myself and asked what the trouble was. The gentleman told me to call him “Stem” and his car had broken down. We walked to his van and he introduced me to his two buddies, their dog “Banjo,” and the large cache of surfboards crammed into the back of the van. All three were probably in their late 20s, dreadlocked, tanned, and had a habit of finishing every sentence with the word “man”.


“The car won’t stay on, man,” Stem explained. “My cell phone died and I need to call my buddy to come pick us up, man.” “No problem, use my cell phone. I’ll stick around until your buddy gets here,” I replied. Stem came back a few minutes later and said that his friend would be there in half an hour. We all leaned up against his van in awkward silence while we waited.


All of a sudden Stem blurted out, “So do you guys, like control the weather up there?” He was referring to the Maui Space Surveillance Complex which, with its large telescopes, is a prominent feature on the summit of Mt. Haleakala.


“Ummmm… No. I actually help monitor the thousands of man-made objects orbiting the Earth. We use telescopes to track the movement of all the satellites and debris so we don’t get a collision.” Stem said, “I thought space was big and stuff just kinda floated away.” I replied, “You’re right, space is big but it’s getting more and more crowded every day. Also, things just don’t float away and usually end up in some type of orbit. We help keep track of all the things that are out there so we know where everything is. In a way, we help safeguard things like GPS and Satellite TV from debris accidentally hitting it.”


We spent the rest of time talking about how orbits are formed and the history of the space program. When Stem’s ride finally made it them, he looked at me, smiled, and said, “I never met a military man before. You’re all right, man.” Stem, his two friends, the dog, and the surfboards transferred to the other car and they were on their way.


Looking back it was a funny story but it could have gone very differently. Through a little patience, some open dialogue, and mutual respect, I was able to provide Stem some awareness on what we do in Air Force Space Command and change his overall perception of the military. We are always on duty to be good emissaries to the public we defend. Hopefully the next time someone starts asking if we control the weather on Maui, Stem can step in and provide a little insight.


True story.