A week before assuming command of the 6th Air Mobility Wing two years ago, Col. Scott DeThomas got a taste of what he was in for as the officer in charge of MacDill Air Force Base, a 5,700-acre facility with more than $2 billion in assets and more than 14,000 military and civilian employees.
“I was getting my wing commander’s orientation and there was a knock on the door and they pulled the boss out,” says DeThomas, “and he came back and cleared the room and said, ‘everyone leave except you colonel.’ And then he proceeded to tell me what had happened.”
A week later, DeThomas, 49, arrived to take over from his good friend, Col. Lenny Richoux. Over the course of the next two years, DeThomas would be in command during a pivotal time for the base and the military as a whole. He experienced triumphs like the resumption of AirFest and the successful completion of one of the flying branch’s toughest inspections. There were lows, like four base personnel committing suicide and one being killed in an industrial accident. He successfully navigated a tough period when budget pressures hit home and distracting sideshows, like the fallout of the David Petraeus scandal and a homeless woman who kept sneaking on base.
Sitting in his conference room last week, DeThomas, who turns over command Friday to Col. Daniel H. Tulley, reflected on his time at MacDill in an exclusive interview with The Tribune.
QUESTION: Tell us your best moment, your worst moment and your biggest surprise.
ANSWER: The best moment was probably the compilation of things that have gone well for the wing. The repeated outstanding service the young men and women around the base continuously demonstrated on a time continuum of where we started two years ago. The response to (Hurricane) Isaac, the support for (the Republican National Convention), followed by mastering the Air Force’s biggest inspection to surviving sequestration to the grand finale this spring with the air show.
The worst moment? Obviously we’ve had a series of mishaps and unfortunate events. You lose anyone from your team it is obviously emotional and traumatic. Early in 2013 we had a couple of months there when we were in a cycle where between losing somebody on the job to natural causes, just to events in people’s lives, that was probably the worst period in general.
The biggest surprise? How fast the time goes by. I never imagined being able to work at this pace and to be able to keep it up. I envied my predecessor a little bit. I looked at his calendar one day and I said there’s no way I can do that. And here it is two years later and I’m not sure I did enough. The pace of life, that was probably the biggest surprise. And how welcoming the community was.
Q: How have you coped with suicide and what advice can you offer?
A: The fact is, every one of these losses, whether it was natural causes to suicides to accidents, they all affect us the same way. That’s a family member that you lose and it becomes an emotional event. It become an event for which the leadership of the base has to kind of rally to ensure that we take care of each other. We take care of the team. We take care of the family. So it is a big event. Some lessons learned? Obviously the military is continuing to try to find solutions to the problem of suicide. I think the biggest takeaway for me is that there’s a lot going on in the force and by that I mean our airmen have been subjected to a great deal of stress in and out of the warzones. Those cumulative effects on the psyche of our individuals cannot be taken for granted. So I think big picture, we have to continue to ensure that we set the conditions for those individuals to get help. We ensure that we provide help at every avenue that we can. And we bring down some of those barriers that often preclude people from revealing that maybe there are some issues that are going on behind the scenes that are worthy of conversation. Those are probably my biggest takeaways.
A: It’s a great mission. To get into the airplane and learn the mission set. To get out there and understand the life of our operators, our maintainers and all the support that goes into that beautiful, old airplane. It was a fantastic learning experience. It’s a tough mission, it really is and I say that on a lot of different levels, but they do a great job. They consistently deliver gas all around the world. It’s always on time. It’s always there when the combat forces need it. And that’s on the backs of the maintainer and the support teams and the great operators that make it happen every day, So deep, deep respect for the 135 community, It’s the difference between being the best and maybe being the second best in the world.
Q: Shortly after you took command, the base was thrust into the spotlight as the David Petraeus scandal hit home with the revelation that his affair came to light after a Tampa woman named Jill Kelley told the FBI she was being threatened by Petraeus’s paramour Paula Broadwell. Kelley had close connections to military leaders at MacDill and was part of the Friends of MacDill program that allowed wider base access to some community members. What was it like to deal with all that?
A: Obviously when you take command, some of the things you go through are different programs. Before any of that occurred, we were already in dialogue and discussion about what the future of the (Friends of MacDill) program was and what my level of comfort was as far as opening up the base to the public.
(The fallout from the Petraeus scandal) wasn’t part of the wing. I don’t have control over who has access to folks in the (combatant commands). While we’re on the periphery, there were many who jumped on the ‘hey, this is a result of the Friends of MacDill.’ The reality is that it wasn’t really. That was just a coincidence. It wasn’t causal. The (combatant commands) have full access to allow people on base.
Q: Is it still alive?
A: The community relations program is still alive. It’s in a much smaller scope. I think we are down half of where it was when I got here, and we added some checks and balances to make sure we’re following the established procedures. We kind of created a program which mirrors a lot of our honorary commander program. It just adds a layer of scrutiny.
Q: What was it like to deal with Suzanne Jensen, who prosecutors say snuck onto the base four times?
A: The big thing is to make sure you have the facts and obviously it is human nature to maybe want to jump to conclusion and like, oh my god, not again. The reality is that the individual in question found ways to get on base, and there’s lots of ways to get on base, we understand that and she was good at it. She obviously found herself on base several times. We only really validated two times, the actual access. We are fairly certain that the ID cards that were found on her probably got her access at least some of the other one or two times. You have to remember, Howard, 6.6 million people come through that gate a year and I don’t think there’s a company in the world that would ever discount the fact if you have one individual out of 6.6 million that found ways to swim over, climb over, that’s a testament to the security forces. The good thing is we knew early on in the case of Miss Jensen that she was never a threat . So very different circumstance and procedures the first time you find somebody who is not belonging on base. You analyze. You assess. Part of the reason why she kept coming back was we took such good care of her the first time we caught her. We pulled her out of the water, we gave her a cell, we gave her hot food, we gave her warm clothes and she probably found some comfort in the fact that our defenders, the security forces, treated her so well So those are things that may or may not be said in the line of fire in the crisis that was created with what was going on, but the reality is our defenders do a great job like we validated with the Sen. (Bill) Nelson visit.
Q: How difficult was it to deal with the economic realities and what is your advice to your replacement?
A: Sequestration in March of 2013 hit us hard, but there were really some good things that came out of that. I honestly think that community support may or may not have influenced the fact that we went from 22 days of furlough down to six. The programs the community stood up to help ensure the financial situation for those affected, the folks that lost jobs, had a place to land softly. The (Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce) and all the different elements throughout the community stood up and really went above and beyond to make sure that folks didn’t get into financial difficulty during what was a tough problem. The reality of it re-enforced what we knew was coming and the need to continue to find new ways of doing business, continue to be better stewards of resources. ... The reality that it’s not over. We were very fortunate in 2014. 2015 may or may not paint a different picture and then we still have laws that say sequestration is in effect and eventually someone is going to have to pay a bill so I think for the advice to Col. Tulley is be prepared and be ready for that next round/wave of something that is going to happen probably in the next two years.
Q: So you are staying on in Tampa after you leave and retire. Why?
A: It’s just a great family location. Lots to do. A great city. Really a big city in a little box, something that Marta and I and my family really enjoy.