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    USAF at 75: ANG Commanders of the Pacific reflect on their path to leadership and shared mission challenges

    U.S. Air Force 75th Anniversary Graphic

    Photo By Charo Gutierrez | U.S. Air Force 75th Anniversary Graphic. For 75 years, American Airmen have excelled...... read more read more



    Story by John Hughel 

    Oregon National Guard Public Affairs Office

    SALEM, Ore. – With an old family photograph of a man he never met, Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh Jr. can trace the footprints of his military career back to his grandfather, William Gent Welsh. His impression of a determined B-25 pilot flying combat missions in China during World War II set in motion the restless curiosity of the younger Welsh. Soon after completing high school, the Vale, Oregon teenager enlisted in the Air Force, launching his own military journey in 1988.

    “I wanted to at least do what my grandfather did,” said Welsh, describing a fondness for this legendary member of his family. “I looked at pictures of him in uniform from WW II – wearing ‘Captain’s Bars’ and thought that if I could become an officer someday and make it at least to that rank, that would be pretty neat…his military service was an early motivator for me.”

    After an enlistment stint on active duty as a security forces airman, Welsh found his way to the Washington Air National Guard in 1991, then received his commission in 1994 just before graduating from Eastern Washington University. In the 1990s, the Air National Guard granted four-year degree waivers to those enlisted members who were close to graduation. He completed his bachelor’s degree in English a year later.

    He has held various command leadership roles in the Evergreen State’s ANG. Today he is the Commander of the Washington ANG and part of unique fraternity of Air National Guard Commanders – each leading their states bordering the Pacific Ocean, and collectively beginning their careers as enlisted members of the Air Force.

    As the U.S. Air Force turns 75 years old on September 18, 2022, Welsh is joined by Brig. Gen. Tracy D. Smith who leads the Alaska ANG, Brig. Gen. Steven J. “Bucky” Butow who commands the California ANG, Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Harris, II guiding the Hawaii ANG, and Brig. Gen. Donna M. Prigmore leading the Oregon ANG. From ‘Chevrons to Stars,’ each have shaped a diverse pathway to leading their respective states air component militia, all the while, keeping an attentive eye on imminent challenges just over the horizon.

    A foundation of commitment

    When he began his career as an enlisted member supporting a Pararescue Team with the 129th Rescue Wing in Sunnyvale, California, Brig. Gen. Steven Butow quickly realized that a fervent commitment to teamwork was crucial to mission success.

    “Teamwork is more than being responsive when someone asks for help,” Butow said. “In the ANG, teamwork also infers knowing what is going on and anticipating that your help is needed to keep the mission going.”

    With only 10 full-time ‘PJ’s,’ in the unit when Butow began his career, he said that civilian rescue missions required all members to be ‘multi-capable.’ “The lesson was instilled with me early in my career and has never been more relevant than it is for me today.”

    Following is his father’s footsteps in the Air Force, Butow said he benefited from “home schooling” in a many ways.

    “My dad was a chief…when I became an NCO, I truly understood the importance that I played in the accomplishment of the mission. It is often said that the enlisted corps drives the Air Force. My personal experiences as an airman proved this to be true.”

    After receiving his commission in 1989 from the Academy of Military Sciences at Knoxville, Tennessee, he was recognized at a distinguished graduate, and then completed pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. He has now logged over 3,300 flight hours ranging from the T-37 and T-38 models, to the C-130 Hercules, HC-130P (rescue/combat search and rescue version), and MC-130P Combat Shadow.

    Now commanding five ANG Wings in California, Butow is responsible for over 4,900 military and civilian personnel serving at 10 locations within California, primarily integrating and synchronizing joint forces to protect and defend the state’s population of over 40 million. California has the second biggest state National Guard force in the country, and its global economy is the fifth largest in the world.

    These challenges have been immense during the COVID-19 pandemic as service members responded to domestic operations, ranging from establishing tests site to administering vaccines. Keeping the economy viable while safeguarding the community in areas of computer-generated infrastructure has been a vital task as well.

    “In my experience the Air National Guard, through its domestic response foundation, operates impeccably in environments where independent teams come together to operate jointly and work to solve a problem,” Butow said.

    Preparing and responding to natural disasters in the Western Pacific region are also imperative for the residents and commerce. This includes earthquake preparedness, responding to wildfires, flash flooding and mud slides when called upon by governors.

    “We work regularly with the Washington Air National Guard on Cyber efforts, share fire response lessons learned, training, and even occasionally contribute personnel and equipment to fire response efforts in both Washington and Oregon; and our special tactics and pararescue units train together too,” Butow said.

    One critical “no-fail mission” that the California and Oregon ANG share is their Air Sovereignty Alert Mission as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

    Both states operate F-15 C/D Eagles that can intercept aircraft that are of potential threats to the United States, and are assigned to the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, California, and the 142nd Wing in Portland, Oregon. Working in concert with the Western Air Defense Sector, a Washington ANG unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, all three units operate 24/7 missions and report to AFNORTH 1st Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.

    WADS role involves the use of radar and communications systems to monitor air traffic from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River east, and from the Canada–US border south to the Mexico–US border. WADS will scrambles fighter jets for acute threats and directs them to targets of interest as a response to an air sovereignty event.

    Competence as a key to mission success

    With two F-15 Eagle units in Oregon, their assignments could not be more varied, both in mission scope and location. The Aerospace Control Alert mission is sustained by the 142nd Wing in Portland, while the only F-15 schoolhouse for the U.S. Air Force, under the Air Education and Training Command, is operated by the 173rd Fighter Wing in Klamath Falls, just 15 miles north of the California border.

    Having served as the vice commander at both wings before assuming command of the Oregon ANG in August 2018, Brig. Gen. Donna Prigmore has deliberately made an effort to unify the these two F-15 Eagle wings within the state.

    “I was surprised they didn’t talk much or shared lessons learned very often,” she said, having noticed after taking command. “With the help of the State Command Chief, we have really seen a stronger bond of collaboration and communication over the past several years—and it continues to evolve.”

    In describing the highly diversified schoolhouse mission at the 173rd FW, Prigmore fervently emphasized the unit’s repetitive and well publicized slogan.

    “The ‘Land of no slack’…there is a reason for this motto. When young men and women learn to fly fighter aircraft…there is an inherit risk in that pursuit—this is a profession we can’t afford to make any mistakes.”

    Other key units of the Oregon ANG are the 116th Air Control Squadron, 125th Special Tactics Squadron and the 270th Air Traffic Control Squadron. Looking toward the future, the new F-15/EX are due to arrive in Portland by late 2023. This should be a boost to the mission and morale as the aging fleet of C and D models is now over 50 years old.

    “I really see a bright future for the Oregon Air Guard,” she said. “We’re in a great position to boost our mission readiness and grow our organization.”

    Prigmore began her own military career when she first enlisted as an electronic technician in the Air Force, and after her four years on active duty were complete, she joined the Arizona Air National Guard. In 1990, she received her officer commission, graduating at the top of her class from the Academy of Military Science.

    Subsequent assignments took her to Oklahoma and later to the Alaska ANG’s 176th Wing as the services flight commander, then as the chief of public affairs. When she joined the Oregon ANG in 2002, she served as the state’s public affairs officer at the Oregon National Guard-Joint Force Headquarters. With her promotion to brigadier general, she became the first female general officer in the Oregon Air National Guard.

    “I’ve always loved and appreciated the synergy and unity that the enlisted force brings to accomplish any mission the Air National Guard gives us,” she said, looking back fondly over her career. “I am super proud to have literally been a member of that force at one point in time.”

    Nowhere was this sense of pride for her Airmen more evident than during the height of the Omicron variant surge in early 2022. The Oregon National Guard activated over 3,000 soldiers and airmen supporting 50 hospitals in the state on back-to-back activation periods.

    At the Oregon Health Science University hospital in Portland over 1,950 full-time staff members tested positive for Covid from late December of 2021 to early January of 2022, leaving the service members assigned to the hospital quickly filling important jobs.

    “When I visited some of the hospitals like OHSU, where our members were working, the (civilian) staff often had tears in their eyes, telling me how they don’t know how they would have made it without our members’ support,” Prigmore said.

    For the past dozen years, Oregon, California and Washington had been preparing for a potentially catastrophic Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, only to find that instead of an earthquake, it was the coronavirus that launched citizen soldiers and airmen into a major domestic operational response. In total, the Oregon National Guard administered over 337,000 vaccines to the public.

    “We’re lucky to have uniquely qualified specialists in our state like the special tactics airmen who can do everything from mountain rescue to underwater rescue,” Prigmore said. “This includes our CERFP team (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Enhanced Response Fore Package), which just a few months ago were evaluated and received the highest ranking on being able to process causalities in a high threat type of environment. All of these assets bring a tremendous value to the state, and we employ these skills with our SPP partner (Bangladesh and Vietnam) countries.”

    Character shaped by perseverance

    When the events of 9/11 altered the nation and posture of the entire U.S. military, Brig. Gen. Tracy Smith (then a captain) was in another transition point in her career. She had just left active duty having served with the 354th Mission Support Squadron at Eielson AFB, Alaska, and just started a new position in the Air Force Reserve as a personnel officer with the 939th Mission Support Squadron at the Portland Air Reserve Base, Oregon. Already her career had been far reaching, having initially enlisted in the Air Force in 1986 as a medical service specialist. She later attended the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, and received her commission upon graduation in 1994. Through persistence, she was always ready for the next challenge.

    “As an enlisted member serving in the medical field I always had a desire to learn and to be the best I could personally be at my job,” said Smith, reflecting on her 36 years of service. “As an officer and commander I have tried to continue to provide opportunities for continuous learning both personally and professionally for my airmen.”

    With a distinct resume, Smith would later join the Air National Guard in 2004. She has held both staff and command positions at the squadron, group, wing, state, and national headquarters level. She attributes much of her success to education and experience.

    “The essentials, traits, education or other factors that it takes to be an effective leader at any level can be learned and acquired in your career,” she said. “In my experience as a prior enlisted medic and as an officer, the enlisted member’s support of the officers and their contribution to the mission are immeasurable.”

    The Alaska ANG is comprised with both the 168th and 176th Wings, along with the 213th Space Warning Squadron, with a lineage dating back to 1952 before Alaska become the 49th State in January 1959.

    The 168th operates the KC-135R Stratotanker out of Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, and predominantly refuels active duty operational aircraft. With a more diverse mission set, the 176th Wing conducts global airlift, tactical airlift and air-sea rescue utilizing the C-17 Globemaster III from JB Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. The ‘rescue triad’ consist of three rescue squadrons (210th, 211th and 212th) utilizing HH-60G Pave Hawks and HC-130J Combat King aircraft.

    When she was promoted in April of 2021 to command the Alaska Air National Guard, Smith acknowledged these wide-ranging task and responsibilities.

    “When you really sit and think about all of the diverse mission sets and all of the multitudes of support and maintenance personnel that are true arctic-experts operating in the most severe conditions, it is just incredible,” she said.

    This is a critical aspect for readiness, morale and being conditioned for the bracing winter conditions.

    “The active duty members that get stationed here have to learn to operate in the arctic while the members of the Alaska Air National Guard live and breathe wintry operations as long term community members.”

    Emphasizing this point for remote preparedness, Smith recently attended the Gobi Wolf 2022 Exercise in Bayankhongor, Mongolia, and expanded on the need for multinational civil relationships with other states and nations under the State Partnership Program. The field training exercise included hazmat response, search and rescue and mass medical care.

    “Our nations continue to become stronger as we exercise our ability to prepare for, to respond to and mitigate the effects of a domestic crisis or disaster,” said Smith. “This regional approach to strengthen and refine our goal of a government model for emergency operations is key to security, stability and recovery.”

    Courage to grow and foster change

    Since the end of WW II, safeguarding the national defense of the United States has been built on regional and international partnerships. At the conclusion of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. European Command established a Joint Contact Team Program in the Baltic Region utilizing reserve component soldiers and airmen. U.S. states became paired with former Soviet Bloc nations, creating the State Partnership Program, and helped vault U.S. security by facilitating cooperation and building international civil-military affairs with people-to-people associations. To date, 54 U.S. states and territories are now working with 93 international partner nations. Nowhere has this more recently notable and significant than the partnership between the Ukraine and the state of California. Echoing this point, Butow knows first-hand the impact of the SPP, as California ANG pilots have helped train their Ukrainian counterparts since the early 1990s.

    “The rise of Russia and China as strategic competitors and evolving military threats has brought the Pacific States together with the aim of strengthening our ability to contribute to an enduring deterrence and, if necessary, defense of the nation from aggression,” he said, describing these current and active threats.

    “This ‘firewall’ doesn’t start along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. The U.S. Territory of Guam and the Pacific ANG states (Alaska and Hawaii) are leading this pivot proactively – something that has always been the hallmark of the Air National Guard,” said Butow.

    The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor has shown the historical vulnerability of the Hawaiian Islands. To help build these regional security corporations, Hawaii is partnered with Indonesia and the Philippians in a dual association with Guam.

    “Here in Hawaii, with our proximity to China, we have unique challenges,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph Harris, commander of the Hawaii ANG, detailing the distinctive position the state embraces. “In our theater here with INDOPACOM, were already a unique (154th) wing with three MDS’s (Mission-Design Series) with fighters, tankers and cargo haulers. Those combined together do things that other guard units and states cannot take on.”

    Another import partnership the Hawaii ANG has is with the Pacific Air Forces, at Hickam AFB. They often attend each other’s commander conferences and training events.

    “Being co-located with a major command is a luxury that most other guard units don’t get,” said Harris, acknowledging the distinct affiliation. “It really comes down to relationships that we have built with people in other units and commands. We’re constantly talking with PACAF on how to better partner, and they’ll ask of us things they might not ask other guard units.”

    “Optimizing your contribution to the context of your military environment is the same for every guard commander but radically different in every state.”

    Harris is a firm believer in networking, building alliances and keeping the doors of communication always open. In many ways, these traits helped him advance quickly in his career over the past eight years. When transferring to the Hawaii ANG, he joined the 154th Wing as the unit’s deputy maintenance group commander. That decision would elevate him quickly to group commander, then two years later serving as the director of plans and programs (A5/8). By April 2020, he was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command of the Hawaii ANG.

    “I found out about the opening with the Hawaii Air Guard through (then 154th Operations Group Commander Colonel) Maj. Gen. Duke Pirak, who I had served with in the 142nd (Fighter Wing) Maintenance Group,” Harris said.

    Having served 29 years in the Oregon ANG, he took a career leap, much like he did after his first 13 years in the military when he received his commission in 1988. Upon graduation from the Academy of Military Science, he was selected for the Commander’s Military Achievement Award, having accumulated the highest academic average.

    “I knew I was going to lose some credibility starting over as a second lieutenant, but it was temporary and I knew I would gain other opportunities in the long run by commissioning.”

    In many ways, Harris’s unconventional career path has given him an insight and appreciation for his airmen at every level, especially working through the initial lock downs during the pandemic.

    “So much of Hawaii’s economy is based on tourism and that really hit some of our traditional members hard. Early on I just asked that everyone be good Wingmen – look for ways to be there for each other,” said Harris.

    This also led to some creative out-of-the-box planning for delivering the vaccine to vulnerable citizens living on the less populated outer islands in the state.

    “The Covid-19 vaccine was hard to get to the many members of public because risk and age issues limited the available supply. We took a C-17 and turned it into a mobile vaccination hospital,” he said, designing a creative solution for a Hawaiian problem. “After we landed, people could would walk up one ramp, they would get the shot, and then they would exit out the other door of the airplane.”

    Harris said this is what makes serving in the Hawaii ANG so worthwhile because the guard is a trusted local entity.

    “You get to serve in your community and there is so much flexibility and opportunities for helping your country.”

    With the rapid pace of change in technology, Harris emphasized what the future 5th generation aircraft and 6th generation unmanned platforms will need to address and how best to protect the state and nation. “How we adopt new skills and look for advancements are urgent concerns for the Air Force…they will affect every state looking to developing new missions too.”

    Stability built through partnerships and compassion

    With the National Security Strategy challenges over the past several years, recognizing these new threats is imperative to safeguarding U.S. national interests against global risks.

    This reshaping of global standards is being driven by cybersecurity and building international capacity to disrupt and investigate cyber threats.

    These are constant concerns that Welsh addresses while leading the Washington ANG. His background in combat communications, geospatial intelligence, and cyber operations helps prepare the state while heading into the next stage of 21st century.

    “The 194th Wing (at Camp Murray, Washington) is the wing of the future. We have a special warfare piece, a cyber-piece, and an intel piece, which makes them a capabilities-based wing, not a platform-based wing,” Welsh said.

    As important as these technology concerns are for long-term security, Welsh has invested a large portion of the past decade working with the Washington National Guard’s SPP nations of Thailand and Malaysia.

    “We benefited significantly with having these established relationships before the pandemic,” he said, explaining the importance of sustained affiliations. “If you think about someone on active duty who was just starting a new job when the shutdowns happened – you really don’t have a reference point. We (in the Guard) kept these virtual meetings going and it benefited us when we re-opened the in-person interactions. The guard was the glue that really held it together with our Pacific partners.”

    This long term approach is another advantage the National Guard has over their active duty counterparts. By thinking long-term and placing a focus on high context relationships, Welsh said that the guard cannot afford to ‘burn bridges,’ for long term success.

    “That’s why I think the Guard’s SPP works so well in the Pacific because we’re programed to build enduring practices and not be transactional – it all comes back to relationships.”

    Having just completed another trip across the Pacific in early September, Welsh and other members of the Washington and Oregon ANG visited Thailand and Malaysia. They subsequently held meetings with the PACAF Chief of Staff and exercise planners to sync SPP efforts.

    Welsh described some of these successes on his Facebook page, detailing the trip’s value.

    “While in Malaysia, the team was able to meet with senior members of the Royal Malaysian Air Force to discuss the things our SPP program will be able to do in the coming years. We’ve got some great opportunities in Air Refueling (with the WA ANG’s 141st ARW), Air Domain Awareness, medical and cyber.”

    For Welsh, the trip was yet one more potent reminder about his grandfather’s service in the Pacific nearly 80 years ago.

    “He actually flew bombing missions (with the 11th Bombardment Group) into Thailand and into Bangkok,” he recalled. “Every time I am on the Chao Phraya River, I wonder which one of these docks might have been his target in WW II. It’s really an interesting dynamic."

    These unique circumstances, with a sense of providence, creates a distinct bond for these five commanders leading their states in the Pacific region.

    This revelation was something that Harris thoughtfully recounted during a moment of reflection, evoking the value of an enduring sense of purpose and community service.

    “For me to be able to get to drive home from work and talk to my neighbors, as I park my car … from the schools where I have my kids… to see that gratitude and feel that gratefulness through the life of my family is so unique to the National Guard. You don’t get that very often in the active duty because you’re transient and moving every two or three years. You never get to build those deep ties into the community like we do in the Guard. How can you compete with that?”

    David Bedard, Edward Eagerton and Victoria Granado of the Alaska National Guard contributed to this report.



    Date Taken: 09.16.2022
    Date Posted: 09.16.2022 15:50
    Story ID: 429502
    Location: SALEM, OR, US 

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