The General’s Corner—“General”-y Speaking Brigadier General Matt Barker, Texas Air National Guard
Our military is a leadership laboratory. When veterans return to civilian life, employers appreciate their attention to detail, work ethic, and no-nonsense approach to workplace challenges. I think this is because military service immerses new members in complex situations with diverse teams, often under pressure with risk of physical harm. Success in these conditions requires a unique brand of leadership, which is why our armed forces devote a great deal of attention to professional military education and growing ethical, competent leaders at every echelon. I’m going to tell you about four of them I was privileged to work for.
It’s said you can learn as much from bad leaders as good ones, but when I reflect on my Air Force career, I focus on the great bosses I had who showed me the ropes, lifted me up, and gave me an honest “vector check” when I needed it, even if I didn’t know it at the time. As a new lieutenant serving as a Minuteman missile launch officer, Dave was my primary crew commander and mentor. A history buff and passionate baseball fan, our conversations over many long drives, and long alerts buried in a launch control center beneath the North Dakota prairie covered the Civil War and the playoffs, but also his thoughts on leading people in the profession of arms. I was brash and probably a bit arrogant, and I appreciated his steady leadership and coaching. He helped me see myself the way others saw me, and a portion of that truth hurt. But that truth was exactly what I needed to refine my leadership approach and follow in his footsteps as a crew commander, then flight commander. 25 years later I still value his friendship and remember the challenges we faced together.
When I started flying, Justin was my supervisor for my first operational deployment to Turkey in 1997, helping enforce the United Nations no-fly zone over northern Iraq with our radar aircraft. I immediately noticed his genuine engagement with everyone on our large crew, and how deeply cared about people, not just the mission. The extra time he took to learn their stories and circumstances gave him unmatched authenticity and set an example I’m still trying to follow. Tensions were heightened in the region at that time, and Justin’s sense of humor and calm demeanor on the jet set us all at ease and helped us focus on the tactical problems at hand.
Leaving that assignment for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, I met one of the most impactful leaders of my career, to whom I’m indebted for helping me refine my long-term Air Force goals and then lighting my fuse to send me chasing after them. This squadron commander was relentless in the pursuit of excellence. From our EC-130’s maintenance readiness to the unit’s standing in the base sports leagues, he led by example and demanded results. His callsign was “Stormin,’” and you didn’t want to be caught in that storm if you weren’t working to help the team move forward. As that squadron prepared to shut down, he was able to keep morale high and imbue our Airmen with a sense of pride and purpose right up until the very last flight. Loyal to his people, he personally worked the details of our follow-on assignments as 400 of us raised a parting glass and scattered to our new bases still bound by the camaraderie he’d fostered.
Great bosses make the best out of tough situations. As a major, I was assigned to Headquarters USAF, at the Pentagon. Any veteran who has done a staff tour will tell you they’d rather be back in the field, and Pentagon duty amplifies one’s longing to escape the bureaucratic grind and get back to his tank, ship, jet, or jeep. Anything but another meeting or PowerPoint presentation! Throw 10 or 12 Majors and Lieutenant Colonels with that mindset in an office full of cubicles, assign them an endless deluge of position papers, weapon system specifications, and other “special” projects to work (after fighting Washington traffic for at least an hour), turn on the coffee pot and wait for the fun to begin. For my office, the one bright spot was our Division Chief, Colonel “Buck.” Buck was as old-school as it gets. He had a razor-sharp wit and was brutally honest no matter who he was talking to. He also enjoyed a smoke (frequently), so we learned early to keep our jackets handy, because we usually had our impromptu meetings with him “al fresco,” despite the weather. I’ll spend a little more time discussing him because of his unique character and the ripple effect his style had on those who worked for him.
Buck knew how frustrating it could be chasing paper, spending hours churning out briefings that could be rendered irrelevant overnight by a budget decision or congressional mandate. As a seasoned officer and commander, he also had the big picture and knew the value of the work our team did, even when the daily grind distracted us. We had one of the largest portfolios on the Air Staff, and Buck reminded us on a regular basis of the national-level impact we were making. He also appreciated the impact the work could have on our families, and did everything he could to ease the stress. While other offices held late night sessions in the office to respond to higher level mandates or congressional inquiries, he’d send us home at a reasonable hour with the understanding to keep the phone handy.
Buck’s leadership philosophy was “Professionalism, Accountability, Communication, and Teamwork,” a “PACT.” He said it was a pact you made with yourself first and then with those you are privileged to lead. He lived that pact, he ensured that his officers upheld it, and I still remember and use it today. After I spent two years in his Division, a Colonel in Florida reached out to him about hiring me to lead one of his squadrons. We were undermanned, and my tour was supposed to last one more year—the obvious answer was no. But Buck gave a glowing recommendation and released me early, setting me on a path to command that you could say was my first big break. He wasn’t rewarding me, he was betting on my future leadership potential to benefit Big Air Force, and I’ll be forever grateful for his confidence.
I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve had more great bosses than I have room to list. I’m also lucky to still be experimenting in the leadership laboratory, trying to synthesize all the best traits of all those great bosses, trying to pay forward their investments in me. If we served together, you probably recognize at least one of the leaders I described, and if we didn’t I’m sure you can substitute those bosses that made you who you are. And for those of you still in the laboratory, thanks for of taking care of America’s sons and daughters who put it all on the line for us. You’re growing the next generation of awesome bosses.
As Veterans, we identify as part of a special community of men and women who have volunteered to serve our great nation. We further identify with the branch of service we chose, and even more specifically with our “tribe”—our “rate,” Military Occupational Specialty, or Air Force Specialty Code. Every military specialty has unique training requirements, performance standards, and often history and customs surrounding the job. For most of my 31 years in uniform, I held the AFSC 13B: USAF Air Battle Manager (ABM). That defined my day to day duties, shaped my career, and gave me a front row seat for the interesting times we live in.
It’s been said that air traffic controllers use radar to keep airplanes separated, whereas the ABM uses radar to run them together. That’s an oversimplification, but maybe a good start. The Air Force uses ABM officers to orchestrate and execute the combat air campaign for the commander using tactics and technology. I volunteered for the career field in 1996, when the Air Force was increasing school house throughput to bolster the ranks in this critical specialty. I was attracted to the duty because unlike some other specialties, ABMs are in demand everywhere the Air Force fights. ABMs must learn and appreciate the nuances of air-to-air combat, air-to-ground operations, electronic warfare, missile defense, search-and-rescue and a multitude of other airpower missions; only then deploy to support them around the world.
I reported to the 325th Training Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida, in June 1997. The location was perfect for the task at hand, as a primary location for fighter pilot training with weather and overwater airspace conducive to a rigorous flying schedule. That dovetailed with the ABM syllabus: we’d be able to meet face to face with the pilots we were supporting to plan training missions and receive “constructive criticism” in person minutes after they landed. The mobile radar equipment we trained on was identical to what the USAF deploys to operational theaters, just set up on a more permanent concrete pad with robust power and environmental control systems to ensure reliability in the Florida heat.
The course (at the time) ran nine months, not including survival school and water survival training I completed in the weeks prior. We started out in the books, going from higher level command relationships and equipment before drilling down into very specific details about fighters, bombers, weapons, and automated command and control systems—those used by our forces and allies, and also those of potential adversaries. Like me, many of my classmates had an affinity for military aircraft and devoured the material. We did, however, have a few candidates that struggled, having been assigned to the career field without prior knowledge or even interest of the technical subjects we explored. This would become more of a challenge as we progressed to radar control of rudimentary, then more complex air-to-air training engagements. In fact, our class would eventually hit the “average” attrition rate, with four of our original twelve failing to meet performance standards and being reassigned to other career fields.
Most graduates at the time were assigned to the E-3 “Sentry” Airborne Warning and Control System, a 70s-vintage jet liner converted for the command and surveillance mission. I was no exception, and reported to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City to begin my operational career on that storied airplane. One thing I came to recognize and enjoy early on was the camaraderie, and sometimes hijinks, that come with the territory when your crew consists of up to 30 aviators with different backgrounds and perspectives. The other thing I came to appreciate was the importance of the “big picture” that our eyes in the sky provided to pilots, as well as to commanders on the ground. I saw this on my first operational deployment to Turkey, helping enforce the United Nations no-fly zones over Iraq, during a time when Saddam Hussein was still lobbing the occasional surface-to-air missile at our jets and being punished accordingly.
I cut my teeth as an ABM at Tinker and would go on to fly the E-8C Joint Stars and EC-130E airborne command posts supporting the Army on the ground (taking me back to the renewed action in Iraq and Afghanistan) and the much smaller RC-26B for the Texas National Guard, reconnoitering the impact of Hurricane Harvey and supporting counter-drug and border security missions. I also got to command a ground radar squadron and work in our Air Operations Center in Germany, orchestrating the daily air campaigns in both Europe and Africa while getting graduate-level experience in a variety of joint mission areas. As a one-star general, I’ve been privileged to still be flying and leading a battle staff of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines on the U.S. Strategic Command’s E-6B airborne command post and finding the same rewards in the “crew dog” life that I did as a much younger officer. I still learn something new every time I step on the jet.
My time as an Air Battle Manager offered lasting memories: being airborne over Iraq during their first election day. Watching 100 or more aircraft on my scope squaring off over the Nevada desert in the world’s largest air combat exercise, RED FLAG. Seeing my name on the side of an airplane for the first time. Seeing the sunrise behind the San Jacinto monument from 6,000 feet, and seeing destruction wrought by Harvey on the Texas coast in the same mission. Most importantly: countless early morning briefings, long missions, and work hard/play hard deployments with some of the best people you could ever hope to serve with. I’d do it all over again without hesitation.
I’d like to begin this new feature by thanking the Veterans’ Chamber for the opportunity to share some thoughts and reflections from my time in uniform, and also to thank our readers for your service or support to those who have served and their families. Lifting up those who have sacrificed for our nation and way of life is noble work, and also very rewarding. It brings to mind some of my earliest experiences as a young Air Force lieutenant and Base Honor Guard officer 31 years ago.
I arrived in Grand Forks North Dakota in the winter of 1992-93 and reported to the 447th Missile Squadron to begin 4 years’ duty as a Minuteman III missile launch officer. I went out to the missile complex around six days a month for a 24 hour alert with my crew partner, and spent the rest of the month on training or administrative duties. Additionally, I volunteered for our base Honor Guard, performing in ceremonies or funeral details all over eastern North Dakota, and as far away as Minneapolis, Minnesota (every Air Force base is responsible to support a larger geographic area to provide final honors when a veteran passes away).
Our Honor Guard was unique in that we had a saber drill team, performing fairly elaborate routines for the public and at base functions. We trained new members with weighted wooden dowels before “graduating” them to actual swords which were flipped, thrown and spun within inches of our colleagues’ ears and noses. I still have a small scar where I skewered myself in the side one afternoon at practice, hopefully serving as an example to the formation on the need for precision and attention to detail!
We took pride in our performances for visiting dignitaries, and put a lot of work into our routines, but we took far more pride in the solemn work of funeral duty. As our readers know, there is a special connection between veterans that manifests itself most profoundly in the ceremony where we lay a warrior to rest. A mistake during a base ceremony was unfortunate, but a mistake during a funeral detail was unforgivable. The family of the departed deserved perfection on that day, and that’s exactly the standard we aimed for. From the arrival graveside to the last notes of Taps and the presentation of our flag to the bereaved (containing in its folds three shell casings from the rifle salute), we understood that we were representing our entire service as the final impression that our brother or sister-in-arms’ loved ones might have of the military, in our case the United States Air Force.
We learned what we could about the patriot we were helping honor, but usually there wasn’t much information. A young NCO gone too soon or a “Greatest Generation” veteran who passed after a long, prosperous life, it didn’t matter to us. They were each heroes. We were almost always overwhelmed by grateful family members afterwards, often inviting the team for a meal, which we politely declined. We’d be surrounded in short order by the other veterans in these small towns, shaking our hands and relishing for those short moments the opportunity to reconnect with their own experiences and younger days in uniform. Then it was back in the van for a couple hours’ drive back home. Packed in tight with our rifles and other gear there was the usual good-natured ribbing and joking after the inevitable fast food stop, which would wane as the miles went by. Those miles afforded ample time for reflection on the life we’d just honored and the connection to something larger that we’d just witnessed and reinforced. It’s been said that the folded flag presented on behalf of a grateful nation is the heaviest weight a service member will carry in their military career. Taking a knee and looking into a widow’s eyes in a remote graveyard on the Dakota prairie, I don’t think I’d dispute it. I’m glad for the opportunity to share a bit, and hope you’re still finding connections to fellow vets and reflecting on the experiences that shaped you.