Above, airmen work in the cockpit of a C-5 Galaxy at the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, W.Va. Shepherd Field is one of several bases across the country participating in the community-basing program. Right, an airman examines an F-16 from Vermont Air National Guard, Burlington, Vt. (Mike Morones / Staff)
Airmen used to the bustle of activities at major bases are increasingly finding themselves at remote locations, where base amenities may be lacking, forcing them to live out of hotel rooms and drive miles for health care visits.
But a new initiative, community basing, aims to change that.
The move comes in the midst of a force overhaul in which thousands of active-duty, Guard and Reserve airmen are being intermixed at bases large and small as part of Total Force Integration, introduced in 2007 to unite the three components.
The majority of the 121 installations where this mixing is taking place offer at least the basic services — housing, gyms, shops. But some, such as Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H.; Birmingham Air National Guard Base, Ala.; and March Air Reserve Base, Calif., are so small that airmen must go off base for housing and traditional services.
That's where community basing comes in, to make sure services are available, either on base or in the community, for active-duty airmen assigned to remote locations.
"It's a matter of working with the private sector to provide the capabilities that the active duty is accustomed to getting on base," Lt. Gen. Harry "Bud" Wyatt, former director of the Air National Guard, told Air Force Times.
One of the main challenges has been improving the quality of life at the bare-bones bases. At Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vt., the first active-duty airmen assigned there lived at extended-stay motels.
Commanders at Burlington and other bases negotiated for vouchers to local gyms and child care services for active-duty airmen in the community. Other challenges included finding the nearest commissary and health care providers.
An airman who said he had been assigned to a remote Reserve base for two years posted in the Air Force Times forum the experience overall has been a good one but cited the lack of services.
"The worst part of it is being active-duty at a Reserve base with no active duty base amenities, such as base housing, [child development center], medical, dental, shoppette, gas station, to name a few," wrote an airman whose user name is SomeAFdude.
That's where community basing is expected to help, said Col. Eric Jorgensen, the division chief for total force enterprise management at Air Force headquarters.
Guard and Reserve bases are smaller, and the personnel are generally older than at bases with a large active-duty contingent, Jorgensen said.
"They are normally less equipped to deliver services to full-timers," he said. "They aren't designed to do that because the majority of Guard and Reserve personnel wouldn't need the same services, which means that some of those services … would have to come from the community."
For health care, some bases are close enough to larger active-duty facilities with military medical care facilities to visit; otherwise, airmen use Tricare's medical access program with local medical care facilities for coverage.
The challenges of setting up active-duty crews in communities without the traditional active-duty support can be overcome, said Col. Roger Nye, commander of the 167th Airlift Wing at Martinsburg Air National Guard Base, W.Va.
Martinsburg, the home of 11 C-5A Galaxys, began taking in active-duty crews as geographically separated units in 2005. Commanders help with housing and other amenities for their 30 active-duty airmen.
The lack of some amenities can force airmen to travel long distances to access resources that would normally be available on base. For example, active airmen assigned to Martinsburg travel 50 minutes to Fort Detrick, Md., to use a commissary.
"It's kind of a challenge," Nye said.
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Schillawski, regional isochronal inspection dock shift supervisor with the 439th Maintenance Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., came to the base after assignments at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., and Robins Air Force Base, Ga. He was exposed to the reserve component at Robins, but Westover was a big change. While Westover has a gym, there's no commissary.
"People have different viewpoints, as things in the local area are a little more expensive not having the commissary. You get used to it and make an adjustment," Schillawski said.
Many of the older airmen assigned to active associations and geographically separated units are able to live in the community and rent or own a home near the base, but that isn't an option for everyone.
First-term airmen will be a unique challenge to active associations on remote bases, because unlike the dormitory life on base, those assigned to live in a community can begin to feel separated from the big Air Force, Jorgensen said.
In these situations, supervisors are paying close attention to the motels where first-term airmen stay, and the Air Force is planning First-Term Airman Centers to help the airmen get adjusted. First-Term Airman Centers on active bases are generally two-week programs to introduce airmen to Air Force leadership, standards and discipline to help them adjust from basic military training and tech school to life on base.
"We don't just throw them out there on their own," Jorgensen said. "Unlike guardsmen, who have local community support, regular Air Force airmen come in from other places without regular Air Force infrastructure and can feel isolated and on their own."
TFI and community basing
Community basing is one of many aspects of Total Force Integration unveiled in 2007 by then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.
The move gave Air Mobility Command access to Guard and Reserve aircraft — 60 percent of the Air Force fleet — for operational and training flights. Guard and Reserve units began "associations," where they were collocated with active units. Soon after, fighter units were included, and active-duty airmen were sent to "active associations" to work at Guard and Reserve bases.
Since then, the number of associations has grown to 121, with most involving Guard and Reserve airmen assigned to active bases. The reverse is the case at 36 bases, where at least 50 active-duty airmen are permanently assigned, with more expected in the next few years.
Although the Air Force has recently begun assigning active associations to Guard and Reserve bases, putting active-duty airmen at such remote bases has been around for some time, as part of geographically separated units. They work alongside Guard and Reserve units but report administratively back to other bases.
"It's a little bit different, just the fact that active-duty bases can seem a little tighter-knit; here it is more work-oriented, and the work gets along fine," said Staff Sgt. Roger Iversen, a crew chief with the 439th Maintenance Squadron at Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass.
It's a change of culture, airmen involved say. But the payoff comes from working alongside more experienced Guard and Reserve airmen, and the chance to stay current on the other components' planes.
"We get seasoning for our youngsters by pairing up with very experienced and very stable airmen in Guard and Reserve units while at the same time injecting a little bit of youth into an older Air Force," Jorgensen said.
Nye said Martinsburg regularly has four of its aging C-5s out on missions, and the active-duty airmen have been able to ramp up base operations. They also have been able to learn from guardsmen who have been working on the same base for more than 20 years.
"The mindset of ‘Hey, this is a good thing, and we're all going to help each other,' is really the key to all of this," Nye said. "We can find ways around all the little problems. We throw these folks right in with the rest of our maintainers."
For active members, the change in culture could also affect career advancement. Active-duty airmen working as maintainers will traditionally be at a lower rank than Guard counterparts, and will therefore have less of an opportunity to lead. These active airmen need a chance to lead to progress in their careers, have more leadership opportunities and eventually be able to be promoted, Lt. Col. Joe Santos wrote in a February 2012 report for the Army War College.
"The [Total Force Initiative] work environment and culture needs to be one of mutual support and understanding that differences exist but that they are strengths and not weaknesses; the host wing can ill afford to have an adversarial relationship between the [active duty] and its members," wrote Santos, who was the commander of the active 906th Air Refueling Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., and is now the deputy division chief for the West Division at U.S. Transportation Command.
One of the good things about TFI assignments is that they are treated like any other assignment in the Air Force, Santos said. "It's not an all-volunteer assignment."
Airmen who may get the assignment should know what to expect, but in many ways, it isn't different from any other assignment, said Iversen, who came to Westover from assignments to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.
"It's going to be a transition," he said. "You have to go at it with an open mind. Just like going to any other base, there's new personnel, an adjustment to the environment and a new work temp, and then whatever the work is. As far as interacting with others, it's the same, as long as you show the same level of respect."
The benefits for the airman can be "tremendous," Santos said.
"It really provides an opportunity in a really stable environment to work with very experienced Guard and Reserve members who have been working on aircraft for years — some, quite honestly, for decades," he said.
The Air Force Personnel Center is tracking the promotion rates for airmen involved in these units, but it is still too early to determine positives and negatives, Santos said.
"But the intent should be status quo," he said. "It should just be another assignment."
The first bases to see the effects of community basing will be Pease, Birmingham and March, where 446 active-duty airmen are assigned to KC-135 Stratotankers.
"As we develop the policies and each time review and update the standards, we are paying close attention to make sure that we are maintaining the Air Force culture, sharing it across the components and operating as one team," Jorgensen said.
Next up are six bases that are home to F-16s:
• Carswell Field, Texas.
• Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.
• Burlington Air National Guard Base.
• Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minn.
• Joe Foss Air National Guard Station, Iowa.
• Truax Field, Wis.
The positions are already open for these bases, but there has not been a set schedule for when the associations will be up and running. In the next few years, the Air Force expects 10 to 14 more bases to take on active associations, with more to come later.
The service also expects to increase the number of active-duty airmen who will be assigned to each base to 100, up from about 50 approved for Air Combat Command bases.
"It keeps the Air Force in those communities across the country connected to the communities, connected to the taxpayers, connected to the political folks who make decisions on [Capitol Hill], and I think it will serve the Air Force better if we stick to community basing and the total force concept," Wyatt said.