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MQ-9 Airmen expand horizons, integrate into community

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
As MQ-9 Reaper aircrew members begin to settle in at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, they must also adjust to a new environment which resulted from the Culture and Process Improvement Program.

The commander of Air Combat Command’s initiative, which began in August 2015, surveyed more than 3,300 remotely piloted aircraft Airmen to identify challenges aircrew members and their families faced as well as propose solutions to Air Force leaders.

MQ-9 aircrews wanted more options for basing and wanted to move other places where things grow naturally, explained Lt. Col. David, 432nd Operations Group Det. 1 commander, referencing the different desert locations many aircrew members were previously assigned to.

In response to survey results, the Air Force took action to diversify assignment opportunities. Leaders conducted an environmental analysis at each eligible base leading to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson’s approval of Shaw to host a new Reaper group, Jan. 10.

“They took our recommendation and ran with it,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew, 432nd OG Det. 1 evaluator sensor operator. “What this shows to the Airmen in our career field is that (higher leaders) care about us, they care about our career field and they want to develop our career field down the line by taking care of the Airmen first, which is awesome. There’s nothing more we could ask of our leadership than to take our recommendation and then actually put it on the line and do it, so we appreciate that.”

Team Shaw Airmen were tasked by leaders to take action quickly in preparation for the first of 400 MQ-9 aircrew members expected to arrive in the next several years.

“As soon as we got official notification, (we were) breaking ground with boots on the ground,” said Don Kendrick, 20th Civil Engineer Squadron horizontal repair section foreman. “Everything went into action at that point.”

Airmen assigned to the 20th CES prepared the new MQ-9 group’s site by clearing a path for new facilities, providing power and installing fences to establish a secure compound perimeter.

“Most of the equipment out there is from 20th CES,” said Gary Hallett, 20th CES electrical superintendent. “It was a lot easier and faster to use our own equipment.”

The equipment originally would have taken months to order and would have set the project’s completion time back, preventing Airmen from reaching operation deadlines.

The project took more than 25 civilian and military members from various agencies nearly 2,000 hours of work on the ground to get the area ready.

While 20th CES Airmen provided physical infrastructure, the 20th Communications Squadron provided the technological connectivity needed to stand up the unit and execute operations, the 20th Contracting Squadron researched and procured resources, and other organizations across the installation rallied together to facilitate the MQ-9 mission.

For example, David said an agreement was reached with the 20th Force Support Squadron to allow some of the group’s higher ranking individuals to eat at the dining facility who were not able to do so previously. This change was agreed upon to accommodate the influx of Airmen working non-traditional shifts.

Although the new Shaw Airmen are not yet operating in a permanent facility, Matthew is not letting it distract him from his excitement.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said Matthew. “I’ve been a part of another unit standup, but I’ve never been at it from the beginning to the very end.”

Part of this excitement also comes from having access to accommodations that were unavailable at his previous assignment, such as a Base Exchange, commissary, lodging facility and base housing.

As the MQ-9 aircrew members continue to adapt to their new environment and work with Airmen from local agencies, they foster a connection that stems from their decision to volunteer for the Shaw assignment.

“That’s what’s really good about our unit here and being at Shaw: everybody here volunteered to be here,” said Matthew. “There’s not one person that was told, ‘Hey, you’re going here.’ Everybody wants to be here and that’s going to be awesome for the base, for our unit and for the RPA enterprise. … We’re all pumped and ready to get going.”