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Effective Team Building and Leadership at Al Dhafra, 2015–2016

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

 

In 2019, as part of a study of air operations conducted by US Air Forces Central Command (USAFCENT) against the Islamic State (ISIS) (Operation Inherent Resolve), recent historical research revealed an exemplary case study of team building and leadership. Between June 2015 and June 2016 at Al Dhafra AB, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the wing leadership team of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing (380AEW) consisted of Brig Gen Daniel Orcutt (CC), Col Johnny Barnes (CV), and CMSgt Charles Mills (CCC). These three leaders took advantage of favorable circumstances, employed creative techniques for team building and leading their team, and produced impressive outcomes.

Favorable Circumstances

In early 2015, the current 380AEW commander, Brig Gen John Quintas, allowed his successor the opportunity to select his incoming CV and group commanders. Following his friend John Quintas’ advice, the new wing commander, General Orcutt, made it a priority from the start to strive for great working relationships with his CV and CCC. All three men were to deploy at the same time, at the end of June 2015, for a year at Al Dhafra. General Orcutt selected a trusted, experienced, and highly capable vice commander he knew from his KC-10 days—but who was considered to be “too old” to be promoted beyond colonel. For his wing command chief, Orcutt did not have a previous relationship with Chief Mills to draw upon but, upon interviewing him as part of the normal process, he knew immediately they could work well together.

Next, the three took advantage of predeployment requirements to travel together on TDY. When traveling to Beale AFB, California, where they became familiar with U-2 operations, they flew commercial air, rented a car, and attended all briefings together. This provided a more relaxed atmosphere and more time together to get to know one another well. They learned family members’ names and what made each man “tick,” as Chief Mills expressed. It also helped them establish a shared vision for the deployment. In 2019, the chief said the TDYs together “really solidified our relationship.” By the time they arrived at Al Dhafra, “We knew how each other thought,” he added. In a 2019 interview, General Orcutt highly recommended that deploying leadership teams conduct predeployment training together as much as possible.

Creative Techniques for Team Building and Leading

Perhaps the most creative and effective initiative was for the leadership team to spend time out and about with their Airmen. Colonel Barnes and Chief Mills worked behind the counters for morale events on base, and the chief ran in every 5k race, starting at the back of the pack and working his way toward the front, encouraging the other runners along the way. The leadership team wanted to impress upon 380th Airmen that their leaders actually “worked for” them. While dealing with a bus issue at one point, General Orcutt and Chief Mills hit upon the idea of getting licensed to drive the shuttle bus at Al Dhafra. When taking an occasional shift driving the bus—which was unannounced—Orcutt intentionally removed his ABU blouse and asked questions along the way. This provided a perfect opportunity to learn what the Airmen’s concerns were, from living and working conditions to dormitory internet service, food quality, and more. He recalled, “It was awesome, they often had no idea I was the wing commander, and so I got unfiltered truth data AND . . . learned if there were rumors or bad information floating around.” The CV and CCC had similar experiences while pouring concrete with the civil engineers, passing out Gatorade on the flight line, or cooking steaks for their Airmen.

The wing leadership team also followed a practice of other Air Force leaders, keeping an eye out in the dining facility for Airmen sitting alone and joining them to make sure they were doing alright. In the process, they not only looked out for the Airmen but also heard some amazing stories and learned things previously unknown to them. On numerous occasions, Chief Mills came away from those informal talks with action items to assist an individual Airman and family. The chief also mentioned “The Things That Matter” tracker that the CC, CV, and he kept to help individual Airmen achieve their career goals—and that no one else knew about. In several cases, deployed individuals and their families back home were the beneficiaries of this initiative, such as one enlisted Airman they assisted to gain acceptance at the US Air Force Academy and others whose parents received a personal letter from the 380th leaders informing them of the contributions their son or daughter was making overseas.

Positive Outcomes

The 380AEW enjoyed impressive results while participating in all five Air Force core functions in the operations against ISIS (air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control). Perhaps the best known operational event of the year was the January 2016 air strike against an ISIS bank in Mosul, Iraq, that sent the cash flying into the air, while leaving civilian structures untouched only yards away. Days later, ISIS cut their soldiers’ pay due to lack of cash. The wing did not lose an Airman to combat action, accident, or suicide. In at least one troubled Airman’s case, timely intervention and good counsel contributed to a positive outcome. And in a picture-perfect end to his US Air Force flying career, General Orcutt, piloting an F-15E, blew the turret off an ISIS tank on his final sortie.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Orcutt, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, Col. Johnny Barnes, 380 AEW vice commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Charles Mills, 380 AEW command chief, left to right respectively, pose for a group photo after the 380th is awarded the Meritorious Unit Award during a ceremony at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Jan. 18, 2016. The award recognizes Air Force active duty, Reserve and Guard units for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding achievement or service in direct support of combat operations for at least 90 continuous days during the period of military operations against an armed enemy of the U.S. on or after Sept. 11, 2001. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin/Released)
380th awarded AF Meritorious Unit Award
Brig. Gen. Daniel Orcutt, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, Col. Johnny Barnes, 380 AEW vice commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Charles Mills, 380 AEW command chief, left to right respectively, pose for a group photo after the 380th is awarded the Meritorious Unit Award during a ceremony at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Jan. 18, 2016. The award recognizes Air Force active duty, Reserve and Guard units for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding achievement or service in direct support of combat operations for at least 90 continuous days during the period of military operations against an armed enemy of the U.S. on or after Sept. 11, 2001. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin/Released)
Photo By: Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin
VIRIN: 160118-F-FN000-019

(US Air Force photo by SSgt Kentavist P. Brackin)

Figure 1. 380AEW awarded AF Meritorious Unit Award. General Orcutt, Colonel Barnes, and Chief Mills, left to right respectively, pose for a group photo after the 380AEW is awarded the Meritorious Unit Award during a ceremony at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, 18 January 2016. The award recognizes Air Force active duty, Reserve, and Guard units for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding achievement or service in direct support of combat operations for at least 90 continuous days during the period of military operations against an armed enemy of the United States on or after 11 September 2001.

All was not perfect on the base, however. There was one unintentional food-poisoning incident (spaghetti) that affected more than 200 personnel: General Orcutt called it, “Barforama 2015.” Wing members who managed to avoid the bad spaghetti responded without complaint to fill in for their temporarily indisposed fellow Airmen. Furthermore, Orcutt had to relieve three key wing members for various misbehaviors; a colonel, a chaplain, and a chief. But many 380th personnel recognized the investment the leadership team had made in them and their welfare. Maj Christina Harris, the wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, recalled (writing from a deployed location in 2019), “I felt completely empowered under their leadership. . . . I had the Wing’s first victim advocate training and certification at [Al Dhafra AB]. Brig Gen Orcutt personally attended and spoke directly with the group. . . . He, Col Barnes and Chief Mills were serious about a Wing culture free of harassment and negative factors.” She added, “On a personal level, each of them were amazing mentors. . . . I was invested in their leadership and was loyal to them. They were truly a dynamic team.”

There were other highlights of the year at Al Dhafra, among them, the celebration of the 25-year US–Emirati partnership that had begun during Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and the continuation of the periodic US–Coalition Friendship Games that General Quintas had started. The Americans greatly appreciated the Australians as partners, and General Orcutt was glad to approve the temporary (unofficial?) hookup of disparate communications systems that allowed the Australians to watch their team play in the World Rugby Championships. In morale terms, it was akin to the Americans watching the Super Bowl. According to Orcutt, the Americans showed up just to watch the Australians!

Conclusion

In short, while the 380AEW leadership team enjoyed favorable conditions, clearly their intentional team building—beginning with the three of them—and an authentic, creative, Airman-focused approach throughout the deployment appeared to pay high dividends. In a footnote to their shared deployment, Orcutt, Barnes, and Mills remained close-knit well beyond 2016. When General Orcutt retired in late 2017, Colonel Barnes and Chief Mills attended. The three of them shared a special time together during the post-retirement celebration. With his former boss retired, Mills had been directed to call him, “Dan-O,” which—although difficult at first—he managed to do. When Chief Mills retired in June 2019, General Orcutt officiated his ceremony. And whenever Colonel Barnes retires, the three of them are planning to be together again, a testament to their close-knit relationship. All of which tends to validate that their team building and leadership example is a noteworthy one for the Air Force in 2020, and perhaps beyond.

Dr. Forrest L. Marion

Dr. Marion (VMI; MA, University of Alabama; PhD, University of Tennessee) has been a staff historian and oral historian since 1998 at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He retired as a colonel from the US Air Force Reserve in 2010 with 16 years of active duty. His most recent publications are Flight Risk: The Coalition’s Air Advisory Mission in Afghanistan, 2005–2015 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018) and “The Contract Broken, and Restored: Air Rescue in Operation Inherent Resolve, 2014–2017 (Part 2 of 2),” Journal of European, Middle Eastern, & African Affairs 2, no. 1 (Spring 2020), 40–56.


 

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