Balancing accelerated change with resilient Airmen

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Salomon Alvarez III, 86th Materiel Maintenance Squadron commander
  • 86th Materiel Maintenance Squadron

For years, “do more with less” was the refrain heard throughout every career field in the U.S. Air Force. As missions expanded and global security requirements remained high, we have continually asked our people to push themselves further.

In August 2020, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. unveiled his vision for the Air Force’s future efforts through the Accelerate Change or Lose paper, incorporating the refrain from past years with a new emphasis on dynamic environments.

“Our Air Force must accelerate change to control and exploit the air domain to the standard the Nation expects and requires from us,” he wrote. “If we don’t change – if we fail to adapt – we risk losing the certainty with which we have defended our national interests for decades…We must move with a purpose – we must Accelerate Change or Lose (ACOL).”

Airmen of the 86th Materiel Maintenance Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, have risen to the challenge every day, as they support short-notice contingency taskers across Europe and Africa. Our squadron stores and maintains U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s war reserve materiel, which includes more than 3,000 on-hand unit type codes (UTCs) such as billeting supplies, water purification systems, vehicles and fuels support equipment, valued at $1.9 billion.

The squadron has seen a sixfold mission increase in the annual movement of UTCs since 2017, as the onset of the Deployable Air Base System (DABS) mission has drastically increased our number of authorizations and on-hand assets. Additionally, 86 MMS personnel have assumed key roles in the military construction planning for new WRM storage sites across nine European countries. Since the advent of the DABS mission and the onset of its associated efforts, the size of our squadron has not increased. Our 39-person squadron is comprised of 17 Air Force Specialty Codes, but as our mission has increased, the AFSC badges we wear matter less and less. If our team members need help, we help. If one AFSC is tasked for support, we all lend a hand. While we feel the strain of being a small team with a big mission, we are also functioning as a team that is unconventionally meeting the spirit of multi-capable Airmen.

As General Brown wrote, “our Airmen must be multi-capable and adaptable team builders, as well as innovative and courageous problem solvers, and demonstrate value in the diversity of thought, ingenuity, and initiative.”

The Airmen of the 86 MMS don the multi-capable hat to solve problems we’ve never faced before and to find creative solutions with limited manning and resources. The flip side of that is what every leader, no matter the rank, owes their Airmen. How do we balance personal resiliency and avoid burnout with a mission that runs 24/7, regardless of scheduled leave, regular duty hours, and amid COVID-19? How do leaders at all levels take care of their people while also focusing on our mission-directed acceleration?

This has involved resetting entire squadron priorities on a monthly and occasionally, a weekly basis. More importantly, it has only been possible because our Airmen have found an internal peace knowing that the tasks of today may very well not be the tasks of tomorrow, and that we must accept feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable. Most importantly, we must recognize when our teammates need to slow down!

Those moments can be hard to detect and support, but as leaders it can be as simple as deciding that we are okay with pushing a suspense or issuing a waiver. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it may also require enabling Airmen to travel home to see family and accepting the loss of productivity as they quarantine on either end. It has looked like being flexible with our Airmen with children, to ensure they feel supported as we go in and out of various lockdowns. It’s a work in progress, but as we accelerate change to become ever more agile and dynamic, we must be equally focused on supporting our hard-charging and dedicated Airmen who make the mission happen, day in and day out!