ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Staying connected during this time of mandated physical distancing can be extremely difficult. But Reserve Citizen Airmen from every part of the country are getting creative to keep open the lines of communication and stay in touch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s no secret that Air Force Reserve Command’s senior leaders thoroughly enjoy visiting Reserve units and meeting face-to-face with the Reserve Citizen Airmen who get the mission done every day. Since “face-to-face” is not an option these days, Lt. Gen. Richard Scobee, Air Force Reserve Command commander and chief of the Air Force Reserve, and Chief Master Sgt. Timothy White, AFRC’s command chief master sergeant and Scobee’s senior enlisted advisor, have turned to alternative ways of communicating with Reservists and their family members.
With most of the country staying at home, Scobee, White and their spouses, have embraced Facebook Live as a way of sharing important information with all members of the Reserve team. In addition, the senior leaders have increasingly turned to video teleconferencing and traditional videos to reach out to specific Reservists.
For example, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing the cancellation of AFRC’s Airmen of the Year banquet, this year’s winners were notified of their victory in an innovative way.
Using a cloud-based video conferencing platform, Scobee, White and Chief Master Sgt. Travon Dennis, AFR command first sergeant, surprised the winners with face-to-face teleconferences on April 2.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t have our annual AOY banquet this year, but the boss and I still wanted to reach out to these outstanding Airmen and let them know personally how proud we are of them and how appreciative we are of the outstanding job they are doing,” White said. “We know they will represent us well as they compete at the Air Force level.”
Here are just a few examples of how other members of the Reserve team are getting creative to stay in contact during these trying times.
Organizations Turn to Virtual Unit Training Assemblies
Faced with travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, a number of Reserve wings and groups have turned to virtual unit training assemblies over the past couple of months. For example, the Pacific Warriors assigned to the 624th Regional Support Group in both Hawaii and Guam utilized innovative solutions to increase social connections while keeping Airmen and families safe during their April UTA.
Instead of physically reporting to workplaces, Airmen throughout the group participated in virtual meetings, computer-based training, daily check-ins and other training from their own homes.
“Our top priority is keeping our Airmen and their families safe,” said Col. Athanasia Shinas, the 624th RSG commander. “While we need to be physically distant, we don’t want to be socially distant. Now more than ever we need to stay socially connected as a team and as a family.”
For many Reserve Citizen Airmen, the Air Force Reserve is not only about the mission, but it is also about camaraderie and taking care of each other during times of crisis.
“When we first realized there was a potential that we would not be doing our April UTA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of concern for our Airmen and the personal struggles they were facing,” said Maj. J. DeMeo, the 624th Aeromedical Staging Squadron staff dentist, and key member of the virtual UTA development team for the ASTS. “Being able to connect with people is a really important way to help them manage stress, and to make sure they have the support they need to help their families at this time.”
For Lt. Col. Lisa Huntoon, the 624th Medical Operations Flight commander, the ability to connect with her flight was extremely meaningful.
“As a flight commander, having the ability to see my Airmen and ask them how they’re doing, and to listen to their personal stories almost had me in tears,” said Huntoon. “One of my Airmen had to cancel her wedding and listening to her story was heartbreaking. I could see that my flight members needed this connection, but what was even more amazing was the level of resiliency they have displayed as we continued to connect as a team.”
The 960th Cyberspace Wing’s 51st Network Operations Squadron, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, also held its first-ever virtual UTA in April.
As a guardian of the Air Force information network, the 51st NOS mission is to develop and empower Reserve Citizen Airmen to assure global operations through cyberspace.
When social distancing guidelines were introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19, 51st NOS leadership quickly implemented contingency plans structured to acclimate their Airmen to a new cyber paradigm, resulting in the unit’s first virtual UTA April 4-5.
“When I joined the Cyber Wolves in November, I never could have imagined we would be where we are today, but I am optimistic and excited about this opportunity,” Lt. Col. Mike Stucki, 51st NOS commander, said. “This does not change our mission of being operationally-focused Citizen Airmen delivering cyber capabilities globally. If anything, these events only intensify the need even more so. We are going to take this opportunity to get ahead in our ability to assist remotely and showcase what we have to offer to our active-duty teammates.”
Chief Master Sgt. James White, 51st NOS superintendent and architect of the virtual UTA model, said he foresees expanded collaborations of this sort in the future.
“Most of our members already operate in a remote capacity with their civilian employers, so coordinating virtually only made sense,” White said. “In addition, our squadron is comprised of top subject matter experts in the cyber community. Having this virtual platform for growth and sharing has not only increased our cyber capabilities, it has provided an excellent opportunity to personally engage with members on a one-on-one basis, create individualized training and address the needs of every member like never before. Our unit operates with far greater cohesiveness and sharing than it ever has.”
Virtual Promotions, Re-enlistments and Other Ceremonies Abound
COVID-19 could not put a stop to the countless promotion, change-of-command, re-enlistment and other ceremonies that have taken place throughout Air Force Reserve Command over the past couple of months.
Although the coronavirus did manage to eliminate most large gatherings, it didn’t keep people from celebrating monumental events virtually with friends and families tuning in from around the world.
For example, Brig. Gen. William Murphy, mobilization assistant to the director of operations and communication at Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, officially pinned on his first star April 4 during a ceremony attended by dozens of friends and family members using remote conferencing services.
“When discussing this promotion with my family, especially my wife, on whether we would delay or maybe even skip the ceremony altogether, I think my wife, Natalya, summed it up best for me - ‘even in times such as these, we need to be able to celebrate those once-in-a-lifetime events, marriages, baptisms, graduations and in this case a promotion ceremony,’” Murphy said during the ceremony. “So here we are celebrating what may be the first all-virtual ceremony where each participant and attendee (with the exception of three of my family members) are all at different locations.”
Making the ceremony work required additional up-front coordination as the presiding official, narrator and chaplain all connected remotely from their homes, as well as real time interactions from multiple individuals/locations as they switched video feeds, and moderated questions and comments from attendees.
The general said that the ceremony was “surreal,” because the audience could see him, but he couldn’t see them. Family and friends participated from as far away as Hawaii, Uzbekistan and Germany and from all over the continental United States.
In another example of a socially-distanced celebration, Col. Brian Beachkofski, an individual mobilization augmentee, assumed command of Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Detachment 12 during a virtual ceremony April 15. Detachment 12’s mission is to create and rapidly deliver software and applications for U.S. warfighters. With the principals at three different locations, Lt. Gen. Robert McMurry, center commander, virtually passed the Detachment 12 guideon to Beachkofski from the outgoing commander, Col. Enrique Oti.
Staff Sgt. Paige Yenke, a public affairs officer assigned to the 926th Wing, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, practiced safe social distancing and took to the great outdoors for her re-enlistment ceremony in late March.
With everyone a safe distance apart, Lt. Col. Richard Yenke, Paige’s father, conducted the reenlistment as Paige’s roommate, Staff Sgt. Keth Charisse Dalere, and Paige’s son attended as witnesses. They used a flag hanging form a neighbor’s house.
“I will cherish that moment in time that occurred during such a chaotic turn of events in our country,” she said. “Now that it’s done, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Currently, we are all having to adapt and creatively overcome the obstacles being presented to us during this challenging time. But I’m thankful for the support and help from my wing and family in getting my reenlistment done in an unprecedented time and for allowing me to continue my career as a member of the Air Force Reserve. I will not forget my journey to becoming a career Airman.”
Col. Bernard Willis, an IMA assigned to the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, had a “COVID-19-complient” private pinning-on ceremony outdoors at the security forces memorial statue at the National Museum of the Air Force with his family and a few close friends April 1.
Over nearly 29 years of commissioned service with the active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, Willis has flown F-16s and MQ-1 Predators, served as an acquisition program manager for the F-15, and been a security forces squadron commander, among other assignments.
“I have had so many other amazing opportunities in the Reserve these last few years as the Crisis Action Team/battlestaff director for the AFLCMC commander, interim commander of the 88th Security Forces Squadron last summer during a break between active-duty commanders, and now leading the effort for the Air Force pilot project from the Weapons and Tactics Analysis Center for installation command and control. I am currently serving as the operations chief supporting the 88th ABW Incident Command Center for the COVID-19 response and loving every minute of it,” Willis said.
419th Fighter Wing Hosts F-35 Virtual Field Trip
With closures at schools across the nation due to COVID-19, the 419th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, invited students to use their computers or cellphones to “visit” for a virtual field trip in early April to see the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-35 Lightning II.
Col. Brian Silkey, the wing’s vice commander and longtime fighter pilot, recorded a video for the wing’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
“We wanted to do a little something for America’s students during this difficult and uncertain time,” Silkey said. “We thought it would be fun to use the technology we have at our fingertips to bring the F-35 to them. Ultimately, we want them to know we’re all in this together, and we hope that some are inspired to follow their dreams to serve in the U.S. military.”
During the virtual field trip, Silkey provided an overview of the aircraft’s capabilities to his online audience to include details on its stealth technology and how it gives pilots a significant advantage on the battlefield. He also showed off his g-suit and futuristic helmet.
Members of the 419th and their active duty counterparts in the 388th FW are currently the only combat-capable F-35 units in the Air Force.
Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the wings are sustaining mission-essential flying operations with limited manning to maintain readiness. Several hundred personnel from the wings are deployed to the Middle East.
The video was very successful with more than 150,00 people reached via FaceBook and more than 80,000 views between Facebook and YouTube. #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient ■
(Editor's note: Tech. Sgt. Amber Kurka, Capt. Alan Friedlander, Carla Pampe and Staff Sgt. Paige Yenke contributed to this story.)