Thursday, April 30, 2015

After 25 Years, Pararescueman Still Feels A Calling To Serve

by Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton
176th Wing Public Affairs

4/30/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- To look at him, you wouldn't know he was a decorated combat veteran or that he had just retired after serving 25 years of his military career in the rescue community.

At a cursory observation, he could be anybody.

Senior Master Sgt. Doug Widener, a pararescueman, or PJ, who retired from the 212th Rescue Squadron April 1, sat at a coffee-shop table eating his lunch, dressed in everyday clothes on a warm, spring afternoon and recounted the years that led him from New Orleans to the Alaska Air National Guard, with whom he deployed four times to Afghanistan, and finally to a new endeavor - a second career with the Anchorage Fire Department.

A humble start
Selfless service was in his blood. His family had a history of service to the country, and after graduating from high school in 1990, he worked briefly as a civilian before he decided to answer the calling in his heart.

"I got out of high school and worked downtown there for about a year and then decided that I wanted to look for something more," Widener said. "I knew service was something I wanted to do, just in what capacity, I wasn't sure."

Joking about the movie "Top Gun" and its influence in the late 1980s, Widener said he wanted to be a fighter pilot. After an unsuccessful attempt to get into a service academy, he tried to figure out how he could become a pilot. This was when he spoke with a recruiter.

"The recruiter said, 'Oh, you want to be a pilot? Well we can start you off in the enlisted force and then if you want to transition, you can get your degree,' and that's how it all started," Widener said.

"I started off humbly as an aircraft mechanic, and ironically enough, I started off working on helicopters."

The Lord has a way of guiding you to the right place, he explained.

"After going through avionics training, my first assignment was with the 66th Rescue Squadron out of Las Vegas," he said.

There, he worked on HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.

"That was when Pave Hawks were brand new," Widener said. "They had that new-plane smell and very low hours and very few maintenance issues at all. That was just after the first Gulf War, give or take, and they didn't have half the wear and tear on them that they do now."

It was this initial assignment that exposed Widener to the rescue community, where he soon found his true calling.

That others may live
"I was pretty dead set that I was going to be a mechanic and then go to the academy and become a pilot," he said, reminiscing. "But then flash forward, and there I am in Las Vegas, working as a mechanic, getting exposed to the rescue mission and the rescue environment. What I saw with this group of guys, the PJs, I was very attracted to the way they took care of each other, the way they related to each other, their mentality and their attitude on life. It looked like a really admirable way to serve your country. I started looking into that, and then after one deployment to Kuwait, I applied to cross train in 1993 to become a PJ."

At the time, he was 23 years old. He would emerge from the training pipeline two and a half years later - a PJ.

"It started with the selection course down in Texas," he elaborated, "then on to dive school, airborne school, survival school up in Washington, water survival down in Florida, freefall parachuting - which is now in Yuma, but then it was at Fort Bragg - but the majority of [the PJ training] was at Kirtland Air Force Base."

The training pipeline for the pararescue community is said to be one of the toughest in the military, with a reported washout rate of more than 75 percent.

Mindset was everything.
"No matter how bad it gets, you're not going to tap out and quit, you're not going to let your discomfort level get the best of you," he said. "One of things that is really remarkable ... I've found is the majority of people that I've had the pleasure to work with, they're extraordinary in their desire to do extraordinary things. They're not necessarily the most extraordinary athletes or thinkers, we're just normal people, but we have this immense desire to be successful.

"Not everybody in this career field looks like Captain America. We come in all shapes and sizes. We all bring something to the table; the common thread is everybody has the extraordinary desire to help people, to sacrifice and pay whatever price is necessary," he said.

After graduating from the pipeline, his first assignment as a PJ was with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron out of Hurlburt Field, Florida. It was while he was there he first heard about the 212th Rescue Squadron in Alaska.

"We did a deployment for the Bosnian conflict," Widener said.

"A couple of guys from Alaska came down to augment the team. I was asking questions about what Alaska was like, and they started telling me about the unit and the mission. The Alaskan team has a certain mystique among the rescue community. There's an understanding about the guys on the team up here; it's a very pure form of being a PJ here, because you get exposed to all the different disciplines."

Widener explained that with the size, terrain and varying weather conditions of Alaska, the civil alert commitment of the Alaska Air Guard's rescue community requires them to often put to use the many specialized skillsets they train for, including mountaineering, parachuting, and land and water survival.

"That operational reality of being asked to do your job and needing to rely on your training on any given day is very unique and very special among the rescue community," he said. "That's what drew me up here, that mystique. Some people have called it PJ heaven up here."
After just two and a half years in Florida, he and his wife packed up their truck, drove across the country to Washington, and began their move to Okinawa, Japan, where he was assigned to the 33rd Rescue Squadron.

When he was nearing the end of his contract in Japan, Widener decided that he wanted to explore the option of switching to the Air National Guard in Alaska. After hearing about some job openings in the 212th RQS, he conferred with his wife about the possibility of the move.

Neither of them had ever been to Alaska at that point.

"My wife was pretty surprised about the idea, but she was really supportive of it," he said. "So, after four years in Japan, I separated from the Air Force and enlisted in the Air National Guard. That was in 2001."

Widener was barely into his new house on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We had just moved here, no furniture in the house, things still in boxes and then BANG!" he said while making a loud clap with his hands, "the whole world changed."

One step at a time
Throughout the next 14 years, Widener's operation tempo never slowed down. He would go on to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan four times - 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

But even between deployments, the mission continued.

"Up here, even in our day-to-day, when you're in between deployments, it's as if you're always deployed with our mission," he said.
Widener recounted the deployments and the Alaska rescue missions with one consistent element - everything to him was an opportunity.
His eyes scanned the light through the coffee shop window as he replayed the memories of his career.

"I was part of an expedition team on Denali in 2005," he reminisced. "We spent two and a half weeks and had an amazing rescue above 17,000 feet. The next year, I had the opportunity to go back on Denali as part of a four-person climbing patrol. We got to walk in from Wonder Lake; it was just an exceptional experience.

"I remember getting out of the Suburban at Wonder Lake, getting to the ranger station and thinking 'Wow, how do you start that journey?' You just take that one step at a time."

In 2012, Widener was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for his actions while deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.

In the span of five days, he conducted more than 20 missions that ultimately saved 19 lives while under enemy fire.

He then mulled over a rescue mission from 2011 on Mount Hayes.

"These guys were stuck at 11,000 feet," he recalled. "The weather is coming in on them, their tent is gone and they're in a snow cave. It really brought to light again that it's always the teamwork factor in how these missions are executed. Even though I had the opportunity to be the guy on the end of rope, went out and got these guys and brought them back to the helicopter, the pilots did this hover/forward flight because the winds were coming off the nose above 40-50 knots," he said.

"We're on this ridgeline, and Brian Kile just perched the helicopter on this knife-edge ridge. John Romspert's got me on this belay, and I run out on this ridge, and there's thousands of feet on either side, and I snatched these two guys up and brought them back inside."

He then recalled one of his career highlights as being the senior enlisted PJ during his last deployment to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012.
"From start to finish, I just couldn't have been prouder of the way everybody performed, the mentality, the professionalism and operational success that everybody had," he said. "Over a four-month period, it was something like 305 saves and 280 missions. It was a very busy, high-intensity, fast-paced time in the Helmund province. That whole deployment was one of the highlights of my career."

From the mountains of Afghanistan, to the mountains of Alaska, the meaning of his life was measured in his work - work that he felt was his purpose in life, guided always by his faith in the Lord.

"In my experience, God gave me these abilities," he said somberly. "I've had immense peace with knowing that I'm doing what he designed me to do. How do you deal with the more unpleasant or ugly side of what we get to see; how do you carry that weight and not let the horrible things that you endure and not let it permeate in your life? It's my trust in the Lord.

And knowing him, I don't have any fear. It's not living your life with reckless abandon; it's a knowing that because you have purpose, you live your life with an open hand, instead of living dominated by fear and what could happen, and instead, trying to live each day to the fullest."
Despite his faith, however, the human body is a finite vessel.

Considering all of the things he's done throughout his career, he explained, he feels fortunate that he is still in one piece.

"That I'm sitting here now after all of this, still healthy, still functional, it's an amazing blessing," he said smiling. "After all the parachute jumps, scuba dives, helicopter hours, it's what I'm most thankful for. I've had great people taking care of me and made sure that I've gotten to go home to my family when the job is done."

Since moving to Alaska, Widener and his wife brought two daughters into the world, he said.

Despite the dangers of his line of work, he never felt that he should stop pursuing his commitment to service.

"The questions I've often been asked," he explained, "is, 'How can you do what you do and be a father? Aren't you scared of something happening to you, and now that you have kids, shouldn't you tone it down a bit?' My response to that has always been, no. Period.

"My daughters would want me to live my life to the fullest. In order for me to be a great husband and father, I have to live to my fullest potential. For me to back away from that out of fear or out of reservations, that's not fulfilling the potential of my life."

But after 25 years, Widener felt it was time to retire from life in the military.

Although this chapter is ending, he recently began pursuing another career with the Anchorage Fire Department.

Still, as anybody who has spent more than half their life devoted to a single cause would, he feels he's going to miss the community he leaves behind.

"I've had an amazing career and had some unbelievable opportunities that I've been able to take advantage of," he said. "I'm extremely thankful for every moment, even the tough ones, because even the difficult times over the past couple of decades helped forge me into the man I am today. It all contributes to your strength. It's about the organization, the people, the experiences that I've been able to have and the people I've been able to have those experiences with. It's not just the PJs.

"It's everybody involved, from the aircraft maintenance technicians, pilots, fuels technicians, the supply technicians and the people in medical," he said.

"We may be the ones that touch the person at the very end of the mission, but it takes all of those people to make it happen."

Times and faces may change, but the standards don't

by Airman 1st Class Kyle Johnson
JBER Public Affairs

4/30/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- According to the Air Force Basic Military Training website, approximately 35,000 new enlisted Airmen come into the Air Force each year.

They replace those who are retiring or separating, taking with them their skills and experience and leaving a void.

The task of filling that void of professionalism rests on the shoulders of the men and women who serve at the Professional Military Education Center.

"The end goal is mission effectiveness," said Tech. Sgt. Wesley Walker, conventional maintenance production supervisor at the 354th Maintenance Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base.

"The PME teaches us to be more proficient leaders," said Tech. Sgt. Steven Walker, noncommissioned officer in charge of the network control center at 354th Communications Squadron, also at Eielson. "Whether it's through communication or managerial knowledge, it helps us perform at a higher level."

Steven originally wanted to earn his living working on his family's ranch, but around the time he graduated from high school, that fell through and he enlisted in the Air Force.
His cousin Wesley went to work in the soda ash mines in their hometown of Lyman, Wyoming.

"In Lyman, if you didn't work in the mines, your father probably did," Wesley said.

After his summer contract at the mines expired, Wesley had the opportunity to watch Steve graduate Basic Military Training.

"It showed me the camaraderie of the military, and the professionalism was awe-inspiring," Wesley said. "That was something I wanted to be a part of."

The same professionalism which inspired Wesley in 2003 is now being groomed in him and his cousin Steven, 12 years later as they both attend the Noncommissioned Officer Academy at the same time, in the same location.

However, long before being accepted into NCOA, Steve and Wesley had to complete the first step of the PME ladder, Airman Leadership School.

"ALS is the individual's first experience with the professional military education environment," said Tech. Sgt. Jared Wilgus, an instructor at the PME Center on JBER.

It is mandatory for a senior airman or staff sergeant to go through ALS before acting in a supervisory role with subordinate Airmen, said Senior Master Sgt. Joshua Buck, the director of education at the PMEC on JBER.

It is not uncommon for Airmen to be assigned subordinates as early as the first day back from ALS, said Tech. Sgt. Callie Lewis, an instructor at the JBER PMEC who had six Airmen to supervise her first day back.

"ALS gives you a bunch of things to do and you have to manage your time to deal with it," Steven said. "In ALS, somebody's handing you a bunch of stuff, but here, [at NCOA] you have to figure it out yourself."

The different classes offered by the PME are built like a pyramid, Buck said. They build on one another, imparting new skills and responsibilities, polishing the skills the previous class taught along the way.

"ALS is big on time management," Wesley said. "Once you get to NCOA, it may touch on that a little bit as a refresher, but we are supposed to have those kinds of skills already."

Steven and Wesley are both currently stationed at Eielson Air Force Base after serving together at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

Since Eielson does not have it's own NCOA, they attend their residency at JBER.

"There are 10 NCOAs across the Air Force. Many have an ALS and an NCOA, but they operate separately," Lewis said. "Here, all our instructors are dual-qualified."

A dual-qualified instructor can teach both NCOA and ALS, often at the same time - a unique opportunity the PME instructors here make sure to take advantage of.

"The instructor gets to see the Airman's perspective," Lewis said. "Then, we can take that perspective into the NCO classroom."

By listening to Airman feedback, NCOs are becoming increasingly aware there is no single  correct way to deal with every Airman.

An NCO's toolkit needs to be as diverse as his subordinates, Wesley said.

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, then that's the only tool you're going to use," Wesley explained. "PME gives me two types of screwdrivers and a wrench. Why use a hammer when a wrench would work better?"

The PMEC provides these tools and teaches students how to use them successfully, Buck said.

"We teach them to think more strategically," Buck said. "To think about the bigger picture."

Part of that bigger picture is the joint mentality.

The PME teaches service members how to work with sister services to accomplish the joint mission, Buck said.

ALS begins exposing Airmen to this with two hours of class on joint operations, and each step in the system offers increasingly more exposure, Lewis said.

As a joint base, JBER offers a unique opportunity for Airmen to be exposed to the joint environment earlier in their career than normal, Buck said.

The PMEC capitalizes on this by allowing Soldiers to come to ALS, and the Army offers the same courtesy, enrolling Airmen in the Army's Warrior Leader Course.

This free exchange provides a better understanding to enlisted members of how sister services work, Buck said.

"Not every joint base does this, it's a locally driven program," Buck said. "It's not just about the Air Force, it's about the Department of Defense."
Buck emphasized the lessons they are teaching service members at the PMEC are not military lessons, but life lessons.

As senior service members take these life lessons and move on to work outside the military, or toward retirement, new Airmen come in, bringing with them new experiences, new skills, and a new flavor of Air Force.

"Your Airmen have different skillsets and experience than you do," Steven said. "PME fills that void to make sure everyone has the same toolset to work from.

"What you do after that is up to you."

POL Airmen get first-hand look at jet fuel from cradle to grave

by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

4/30/2015 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Like fresh squeezed orange juice, jet fuel flows for four hours through 11 miles of pipeline from a refinery in North Pole, Alaska, to the base's "fuel farm" -- a sprawling collection of above ground tanks encompassing 25 million gallons of bulk storage.

The local oil refinery supplies the base directly with JP-8 through the pipeline, which saves the Air Force money by moving the valuable liquid through a distribution system inherently more efficient than by rail or truck.

Airmen from the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron's petroleum, oils and liquids flight witnessed firsthand, April 21, how the fuel they handle for the 354th Fighter Wing is distributed from cradle to grave during a tour of the refinery after hosting a similar event for refinery employees on a tour of base refueling facilities.

"Without POL there isn't an airplane that will fly off this instillation; without fuel, there would be no POL," said Master Sgt. Marcus Ortman, the 354th LRS fuels section chief. "The biggest advantage to having a direct pipeline to Eielson is the quick resupply. This fact is no more apparent than when we're issuing a lot of jet fuel during our RED FLAG-Alaska exercises."

The primary mission of the wing is to support RED FLAG-Alaska, and LRS will supply as much as five million gallons of fuel each exercise. In addition to regular training sorties throughout the year, the base also hosts the Alaska Air National Guard's 168th Air Refueling Wing, which flies the KC-135 Stratotanker. The Stratotanker delivers the JP-8 to other aircraft, air-to-air, through its 24/7 mission from interior Alaska.

"With that amount of fuel going out on missions, the pipeline allows us to provide fuel in the most effective manner possible," Ortman said. "Cost efficiency and streamlined logistics is a win for the mission and helps us be the best at what we do. Because of that, it was important for us to show the refinery employees our work as well as gain our own, first-hand knowledge of the crude oil to fuel production process."

For the plant operators at the refinery, who have worked the plant for years and seen and heard jets blast past the refinery, it was the first time they witnessed base operations from inside the gates.

"Everyone found it highly beneficial to see the end point of our fuel production," said Nicole Stewart, the refinery marketing and communications manager. "It also put our part in maintaining our nation's security into perspective."

Stewart also noted the importance for both teams to see the impact the pipeline has on preventing environmental problems.

"We have a well-managed truck rack, but there is an inherent risk involved with loading and unloading fuel into trucks," she said. "The direct pipeline is absolutely the safest method of transporting fuel very efficiently on a scheduled basis to Eielson."

By the end of a year, almost 20 million gallons of fuel will transfer hands and roll into the mission requirements to keep large force employment training aloft.

"Last year was a record year for fuels in regards to RED FLAG," Ortman said. "We'll issue millions of gallons of fuel during one exercise, which when done efficiently, establishes a great working relationship with each participating unit regardless of branch of service or country of origin. That's the end result of this process, fueling the fight... that's the mission."

45th CES member receives GEICO Military Service Award

by 1st Lt. Alicia Wallace
45th Space Wing Public Affairs

4/30/2015 - PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- For 27 years, the Government Employees Insurance Company has recognized enlisted service members of the Armed Forces for improving their local military and civilian communities by addressing important safety and health issues.

Master Sgt. Keval A. Smith, 45th Civil Engineer Squadron, NCO in charge of unit safety and vehicle control, received the 2014 Government Employees Insurance Company Military Service Award for the Air Force at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., April 27 for his work in traffic safety and accident prevention.

"Receiving this award is a true honor for me. I have always believed in keeping people safe and that goes beyond members of the base," said Smith. "This award isn't just my own effort; I have everyone in my squadron to thank as well as those in vehicle safety who have done so much work to protect our Airmen."

Smith expertly led the 45th Space Wing's largest safety program and vehicle fleet as he coordinated 310 inspections, managed 155 vehicles valued at $5.4 million and preserved $3.2 billion in infrastructure. As the 45th Space Wing Motorcycle Safety representative, he played a vital role in conducting 45 inspections and training 90 riders on safe cycle operations.

He was instrumental in piloting a motorcycle mentor ride program during his off-duty time, leading more than 40 riders on safe group riding, which resulted in a 15 percent decrease in cycle mishaps. He was also a key member of the 45th Wing Airmen Against Drunk Driving program.

"Military members have been part of GEICO's history since the company was founded, and we are proud to give special recognition to these servicemen and servicewomen who have selflessly worked to improve their communities through the 2014 GEICO Military Service Awards," said GEICO chairman Tony Nicely.

Breedlove Warns Congress of Russian Aggression

By Terri Moon Cronk
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, April 30, 2015 – A new and challenging security environment with significant, lasting implications for U.S. national security interests has plagued Europe in the last year, with Russian aggression the top concern, the commander of U.S. European Command said on Capitol Hill today.

Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who also serves as NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Eucom’s responsibilities as part of the president’s fiscal year 2016 defense budget request.

Calling Russia a revanchist nation that blatantly challenges rules and principles that have been the European security bedrock for decades, the nation is a global, enduring concern, the general warned.

“Russian aggression is clearly visible in its illegal occupation of Crimea and its continued operations in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “In Ukraine, Russia has supplied their proxies with heavy weapons, training and mentoring, command and control, artillery, fire support, tactical and operational-level air defenses,” Breedlove noted, adding that the situation on the ground also is volatile and fragile.

Potential Russian Offensive

Russian forces repositioned during a recent lull in fighting, Breedlove noted. “Many [Russian] actions are consistent with preparations for another offensive,” he added.

Russia is aggressive in all elements of national power -- diplomatic, informational, economic, and its military, the general said.

“It would not make sense to unnecessarily take any of our own tools off the table,” he said about the U.S. possibility of supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine.

Russia’s aggression also is destabilizing neighboring states and the region, and its illegal actions are pushing instability closer to NATO’s boundaries, Breedlove told the senators.

“We cannot be fully certain what Russia will do next, and we cannot fully grasp [Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s] intent,” Breedlove he said. “What we can do is learn from his actions, and what we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent.”

The United States must strengthen its deterrence to manage Putin’s opportunist confidence, the general said, “because [Putin] responds to strength and seeks opportunities in weakness.”

Violent Extremism in Europe

Europe faces a challenging surge of violent extremism, and its nations are “rightly worried” about foreign fighters returning home to Europe from the fight in Syria and Iraq with new skills and with bad intent, he noted.

Foreign fighters show a large pattern of insecurity in southern Europe, the commander said. And transit routes are shared with violent extremists, organized criminal networks and migrant populations fleeing difficult conditions in Libya, he added.

“The spread of instability into Europe and the transnational terrorism … could have a direct bearing on the national security of the U.S. homeland,” Breedlove said.

Eucom works with European nations bilaterally and supported NATO initiatives to confront and counter the new, more complex security environment, Breedlove told the panel, in addition to working with other U.S. combatant commands and international organizations.

“U.S. efforts in Europe remain essential. Our leadership is perhaps more important now than at any time in recent history,” he said, adding a “key and sustained” U.S. military role is critical.

Eucom also draws heavily from a new Defense Department program, the Defensive Innovation Initiative, which uses cutting-edge approaches to tough challenges such as anti-access area denial, Breedlove said.

Continued Assets from Congress Needed

With the strong threat posed by Russia and the growing challenge in southern Europe, Breedlove said, Eucom needs help from Congress in three areas.

The first, he said, is a persistent U.S. forward presence in Europe, which he called the bedrock of the United States’ ability to assure allies, deter adversaries and be postured to act timely if deterrence fails.

Second, he said, is for Congress to provide for sufficient intelligence support, after Russia’s operations in Ukraine the past year underscored critical gaps in intelligence collection and analysis.

“Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russian involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited,” Breedlove emphasized.

Earlier warning also will assist with counterterrorism and operations in the European theater against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, he said. “A small investment in this capability could lead to a large return and our understanding of the complex challenges we face,” he added.

Co0ngress also must provide sufficient future resourcing with European Reassurance Initiative funding support in fiscal year 2016. ERI support in fiscal 2015 showed the U.S. commitment to its allies, helped to shape the European theater and allowed Eucom to build and sustain partner capacity, Breedlove said.

“Key components of ERI in fiscal ’16 include maintaining air superiority presence, participating in NATO exercises, supporting rotational presence of an armored brigade combat team, prepositioning equipment [and] funding the Global Response Force exercises, in addition to other needs,” he added.

Budgetary Constraints Risky

Previous constraints put Eucom in a position of assuming greater risk, the general said, citing longer deployments, less-robust preparations, and a “less sure” ability to deter and defeat an enemy than existed a decade ago.

“As [Defense Secretary Ash Carter] testified recently, further reductions would damage our national security and have a direct and lasting impact on our ability to protect and defend the nation in and from the European theater,” Breedlove said. “[And] the security challenges in and around Europe are growing sharper and more complicated.”