New MacDill commander proud of personnel, Tampa
Col. Scott DeThomas knew he faced a big job when he took over command of MacDill Air Force Base last summer. But beyond keeping the 13,000-employee operation humming, the Rhode Island native and Air Force Academy graduate almost immediately had to deal with the fallout from the Gen. David Petraeus scandal and questions about the access given to the base to socialite Jill Kelley and others. DeThomas also confronted the likelihood of major cuts to the military in Washington. DeThomas served as commander of the 387th Air Expeditionary Group, Southwest Asia, before being assigned as commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, overseeing KC135s refueling tankers and C-37s, twin-engine jets that transport high-ranking government and Department of Defense officials around the world. As wing commander he is in charge of the base, which is the headquarters for U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, and also hosts 36 other operations. The base has an annual economic impact of close to $3 billion — close to $5 billion when military retirees are included.DeThomas, the married father of two, visited with The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board recently to discuss base issues.
Q: It appears that regardless of what Congress does, the military will be cut. How will that affect readiness?
A: Early indications, as far as readiness goes, we are looking at 200,000 flying hours across the Air Force that will need to be cut. If you apply that equally among the weapons systems, it comes out to about 18 to 20 percent reduction in flying hours for the wing. So realistically that will be one-fifth of the pilot and boom operator corps that we have out at MacDill who will end up being noncurrent or nonmission ready unless we go to extremes and find an absolute minimum way to keep them all qualified.
Typically in these situations you will do your best to keep the lower guys qualified, the folks who need it most, and back off maybe on your most experienced folks.
We’re talking through those options as we speak.
Q: Will this compromise the wing’s ability to do its job?
A: We have a mission that we must be able to adhere to so we are going to make sure we maintain our commitment to our war-fighting commanders and ensure that we can meet the absolute minimum requirement to meet those needs. … [But] where you might have gotten three to five training sorties a quarter, we might have to take it down to one or two, and the result is that while you are minimally qualified to fly the airplane you might not be as proficient as you would like to be. … We like to get our folks to get as many takeoffs and landings as possible.
Q: There is talk of 22 furlough days for civilian workers at Air Force bases?
A: The 22 furlough days, that is in essence about a 10 percent pay cut for those individuals who will be affected by that. In my wing that is about 1,000 at the base and writ large it’s about 3,000 people who will have 10 percent less in their paycheck.
It’s going to be painful, and these are great Americans that I like to consider airmen. I am a big proponent that if you work for the Air Force and you have Air Force on your ID card, you are an airman.
These are administrative assistants, medical technicians. These are doctors, logisticians. These are fuel maintenance folks, civil engineers, every job we have.
Q: What will the economic impact be?
A: The average economic impact per employee is $7,900, is what they estimate. The state of Florida has an estimated 12,000 civilians (working on bases), so almost $95 million will be lost ….
Q: Will security be compromised?
A: Security folks are in a category of employees that should not be affected. There is a caveat to the furloughs for those positions that we would consider emergency services, security — there is a protection clause for those lifesaving basics.
Q: Do you envision changes in MacDill’s mission?
A: We should see a transition to where less people are deployed. If the redeployment of the people out of Afghanistan goes as schedule, we should see a decreasing impact on the number of folks from MacDill. … We have already seen that trend in a couple of our overstressed career fields. The one that stands out most is our security forces.
The trend is a healthy trend based on where they were a couple of years ago. The numbers have decreased probably about 30 percent with a continuing trend to something more stable over the next year. I think we will see that, hopefully across the base.
Q: Do you see the Air Force remaining involved in the Middle East?
A: It is something that I would remind folks, and this is the airman in me speaking, that the Air Force has been in that part of the world since the late 1980s. When we bring the ground forces from Afghanistan, there is a high likelihood that the Air Force will continue to be in that part of the world, so the dependence and reliance on the Air Force will continue to exist.
Who was the first airplane to land in Saudi when Hussein was rattling his sword? …
There will be a training mission; there will a continuing responsibility to maintain presence there mostly in an advisory role.
Q: Have you changed the base access policy under the Friends of MacDill program?
A: The program was fairly new, started in 2010 by my predecessor. We had actually started to look at it before the (Petreaus) story broke. One of the first things when I got here, I wanted to understand more about it. OK, what are the 800 Friends of MacDill doing on base? I was trying to gauge what the activity level was.
What we found in our review, about 300 were inactive. They signed up but never came out to the base. So we started the process that maybe that 800 is not the right number, so we have already taken steps to remove that 300 from the list.
Q: Did you make any other changes?
A: Additionally, we realized we have mechanisms in place for our things like our Honorary Commanders program, but we did not put the same scrutiny on the Friends of MacDill … the main piece being kind of a sound check of that individual.
Everybody gets the same scan of their license and their police record. That’s a given for anyone who comes on base.
But … there are restrictions on who can be Honorary Commanders. Things that would be conflict of interests, whether it be business dealings, political, those things that would be seen as not in the interest of the military.
So we took that same concept and said, you know what, we probably should apply the same standards to the Friends of MacDill. After our team … reviewed the 500 folks, and they found only a handful, like less than 10 — all good people, just folks we may not (want) to have free access to the base. They can still get on base, just not have free access.
Q: What was the takeaway from that review?
A: The flaw that was found in the process was that three big pieces of the puzzles (Central Command, Special Operations Command and the wing) out there were allowing access to the base and maybe we didn’t all know what each other were doing. So we now have a quality check so that we all know what we are doing. … We have a tighter program.
Q: What are your priorities as wing commander?
A: Airmen and their families, taking care of the mission and taking care of the community. We can have all the budget crises in the world, but our airmen are going to do the right thing and find solutions to tough problems. That’s what makes us the best Air Force in the world — the incredible intelligence and innovation that exists in our airmen. We will find ways to keep people proficient and safe, despite the fact we may be flying 20 percent less flying hours.
So we have to grow that capital. We have to make sure our airmen and their families are well cared for and encourage their development so that we can find solutions to tough problems.
The flying mission, the KC135, great airplane. C37, great airplane. Two very important missions. They definitely help keep us focused on what it is we do. And the final piece of that centering thing is the community.
Q: And how have you found this community?
A: On April 8, it will be 31 years I have been attached to the military in some way, shape or form, and I have never been in a more military town in my life. I mean it is fantastic the amount of support we get from our local community pretty much everywhere.
Our folks live in great neighborhoods. They have great schools. I continue to be amazed at how well you take care of us. And it is important. It leads to mission effectiveness.
Q: How so?
A: I don’t think people get that. I don’t think you realize that my mission effectiveness is a direct result of the community we live in. I can give you all the training and all the tools in the world, but if you’re not happy and if your family is not safe and secure, your ability to do your job will be affected.
Well, guess what, we do our jobs extremely well at MacDill. We saw that in our inspection in November, with an overall excellence, second biggest inspection in Air Force history. It was incredible.
Q: You mentioned a special interest of yours is resiliency, helping men and women deal with the stress of military life and deployment.
A: We’re working on a resiliency center on base. It is a small project starting at the grassroots level, trying to bring the four pillars of resiliency (social, emotional, spiritual and physical) to a central location to help our airman through the next couple of years with the transition.
Folks are going to be struggling. We have seen signs …. How do you transition from a wartime airman to being home more? There are issues that come with that.
You know, 75 to 80 percent of our Air Force only know war. … Now we are going to transition them to hopefully being back home to garrisons and finding some stability in their lives. We have got to teach them how to do that. We have got to get them the tools to do that.
But … what a great place to transition to — Tampa. That’s good for you and me.
Joe Guidry is the opinion editor of The Tampa Tribune.