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The last days of normalcy: how my squadron is persevering through COVID-19

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

The morning of Tuesday, March 10th, was special for the 27th Special Operations Comptroller Squadron.  It marked the squadron’s second annual “PT and Pancakes,” which included a 5K followed by a pancake breakfast of epic proportions at my house.  We had a lot to celebrate.  The wing had just successfully completed its Unit Effectiveness Inspection, during which the squadron showed off its many successes and innovations born over the preceding months and years. 

 The Air Force had recently recognized our squadron for three annual awards, coming off the heels of winning eight Air Force Special Operations Command annual awards.  We had also started to break down some of the trust barriers between our younger Airmen and their supervisors through a series of uncomfortable, vulnerable and ultimately fruitful conversations led by our senior enlisted.  With three months left in the seat, I was proud of our current position and looking forward to savoring these sorts of moments before relinquishing command to my successor.  

We met near the perimeter road under a still, starry western sky while the sun’s vermilion rays streamed over the New Mexican horizon.  Some Airmen cracked jokes about their peers running late to formation, others wiped the sleep from their eyes. Others hopped in place or huddled together to stay warm on this brisk spring morning.  At the word ‘go,’ we took off, headed north toward the train tracks and dewy softball fields.  I usually like to run ahead, racing our faster and younger Airmen who have yet to master the art of pacing, but that day I settled stride with our squadron superintendent.  We made small talk about the post-run breakfast and issues du jour.  In mile two, I caught a few of our “rabbits” (yes, the old man’s still got it) and discussed, through panting breaths, everything from musical preferences and the surprising lack of wind that morning to their young families and what the future may bring.  

Little did we know that by week’s end the nation would be gripped by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and that life as we knew it would be disrupted for months, if not years.  

In the subsequent weeks, our squadron has settled into a posture and battle rhythm that carefully strikes a balance between public health protocols and mission accomplishment.  This transition was easier for our squadron, whose weapon systems are a computer and attendant financial systems, than for many of our operational counterparts, but not without challenges.  Virtual private networks (VPN) became a four-letter word as budget technicians sought in vain to access our accounting system and finance technicians struggled to log onto the military pay system – both of which required authentication through AFNET and its wicked VPN mistress.  

In spite of these challenges, the most refreshing COVID-19 revelation for this commander has been our Airmen’s resiliency in times of crisis.  Frustrations were met with professionalism, empathy and an inherent sense of duty when the nation was at its most fragile.  When daily in-person engagement with Airmen wasn’t feasible, supervisors and flight chiefs shifted to FaceTime, Wickr, or any other of a panoply of video chat capabilities.  Friday afternoons, normally devoted to team sports, have shifted to video Family Feud (don’t sleep on Team Budget).  Comptroller Airmen found innovative ways to rapidly answer customer inquiries, pay claims accurately and on time, and provide budgetary decision support to wing leadership – all while weathering a once-in-a-century pandemic.  This ingenuity is not only displayed all across the Wing and around our Air Force--it is a living example of that old adage “flexibility is the key to air power.”

As the “PT and Pancakes” runners rounded past the clinic and ended where we had begun, all participants were greeted with a sizzling breakfast and a similarly hearty dose of squadron fellowship.  These sorts of squadron-wide physical gatherings may be suspended for the time being, but the American Airman spirit thrives unabated by malady or distance.