It was 2003, and then-Col. Stanley Clarke was standing in the middle of the desert with orders to set up a base.
"I've been asked before what my favorite platform is in the Air Force, and I tell people it's the 10K forklift," he said. "I had to build a base in the desert at the kickoff of Iraqi Freedom, and I noticed that none of the parts and pieces of a normal wing … are as obvious as when nothing's there and you've got to start from scratch. You've got to be able to build the base, and then you've got to build it so it's robust enough to go through 24-hour operations for multiple days, day after day."
But above all, there was an important lesson to keep in mind.
"You've got to recognize that the people pull it all together," he said. "It's things beyond just air power. It's a lot to do with equipment, and it has to do a heck of a lot more with the people involved."
Now-Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, the director of the Air National Guard, is planning to retire after nearly 35 years in the service. His last official day will be March 1, but between leave and transition time, his last day in office will likely be in early January.
"I'm looking forward to still being an advocate for airmen and air power," he told Air Force Times. "I'll have that opportunity to do it in a different capacity."
Since March 2013, Clarke has served as ANG director, but he's had lots of previous experience with the Guard, including serving as the deputy director from May 2007 to June 2008, and as the assistant adjutant general for air in the Alabama Air National Guard from December 2005 to June 2006.
The emphasis on people, though, is one thing Clarke said he has always prioritized during his time in the military, and it's advice he would pass on to the next director.
"I always tell people I didn't learn anything while I was talking," he said. "Do a lot of listening and consult with those that would be helpful to you in forming opinions, shaping policy, directing resources. … You just find those people and bounce ideas off of them, have conversations. Dialogue a lot but certainly listen to what people are telling you and then make the best decision that you can based on the information you have."
Putting people back into ancillary training for the Guard is one change Clarke said he's proud of during his time as director.
"The time spent trying to get ancillary training is hard for any airmen, but especially those in the reserve component because you have limited time," Clarke said.
One concern was that too much instruction was being done by computer alone.
"The computers can be a time-saving device in the sense that they can quickly calculate or simulate data," Clarke said. But human instructors have "the ability to actually teach en masse and let people learn — and just as important to me is that the instructor gets feedback as well — we think it makes the information more effective that we're trying to teach but we also think, know rather, that it gives more time back to the airmen themselves."
Integrating the Guard
Focusing on the people that make up the Guard is also an area Clarke says the next director should try to build upon.
"We never fully developed everything that supports moving from a strategic reserve to an operational force," he said. "All of the things like status, benefits, pay, all of that is still trying to catch up to how operational we've become in today's environment."
Likewise, Clarke said he wants to see an easier transition between the active and reserve so airmen can move between the different components over the course of their careers, something other Air Force leaders have called for as well.
"I think the relationship between the regular Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve is at a very high level. I'm proud of that," Clarke said.
But changes need to be made so that moving to the Guard isn't expected to be the last step before retirement for an active component airman.
"The system is kind of built to back people out rather than allowing them to back down or to ramp back up in what they do on behalf of the Air Force," Clarke said.
The members of the Air National Guard are kept constantly busy, the general said. When not deployed overseas, the airmen are home focused on air defense, security, firefighting, search and rescue, emergency response, and training.
"You could return from a deployment from Afghanistan and the next day you have some kind of crisis in the homeland and you could be out there supporting that," he said.
That dedication to both national and local missions is something that's always made Clarke proud.
"The organization showed up ready to operate on Day One because we all wear the same patch that says United States Air Force across the top of our pocket," he said. "That means a lot to the people in the organization who are participating in something overseas … knowing back home there are people performing significant missions at the same time that are also in Air National Guard."
"When we were asked to do the most stressful thing, the hardest mission, we showed up ready to play," he said.