Fall 2017 Corps Review | Back
By Maj. Susan Frank, U.S Air Force
I graduated from Virginia Tech in the tragic year that was 2007, and since then, I have served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, both on active duty and in the reserve.
The time I spent with the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC) was a game-changer for me; I grew and matured in ways that would not have been possible at a non-senior military college Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) program.
The unique program that is the VTCC offered me both the military structure and discipline of a corps of cadets while allowing me the freedom to mature into adulthood. I left the VTCC with a solid understanding of military structure, the chain of command, discipline, and honor. At the same time, the program wasn’t overly restrictive, so I still learned effective time management, how to exercise good judgment, and the ability to balance a myriad of being-on-your-own demands and responsibilities. I also had a very narrow point of view in high school, but my time at Virginia Tech exposed me to a multitude of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. When I graduated in 2007, I saw the world less in absolutes and more in shades of gray.
Since graduation, I’ve spent my working life serving the U.S. Air Force as a logistics readiness officer (LRO). The LRO career field is broad, and the processes within the field are complex.
Eight enlisted functional specialties fall within the spectrum of an LRO: fuels, supply, vehicle operations, vehicle maintenance, air transportation, logistics plans, traffic management (inbound/outbound cargo and passengers), and training. As generalists, LROs are expected to be the “jack of all trades and the master of none.” With so many different functional areas, even gaining a general level of knowledge is difficult as each career field comes with its own unique set of processes, systems, and guiding regulations.
However, I’ve learned over the years that the enlisted force is far beyond capable. The many young airmen, experienced non-commissioned officers, and senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) I worked with were pros at getting the mission done, which allowed me to focus on the broader picture. This perspective began taking shape during my first assignment as a second lieutenant at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
My squadron commander first placed me as an officer-in-charge within Fuels Management Flight. I was only in fuels management for one year before my commander rotated me to a new flight, but in that short amount of time I grew immensely. I learned how to be the “new kid on the block” and promote organizational improvements while still maintaining working relationships with the enlisted force that had been there long before me (and would continue to be there long after me). SNCOs took me under their wing and taught me to write awards packages and performance reports. I learned and honed my mentoring and counseling skills — specifically the ability to talk to people about change and process improvement without putting them on the defensive. All of these concepts I learned in my AFROTC classes at Virginia Tech, but I practiced and developed them in my first assignment.
All of these skills translated easily to my next assignment within Material Management (supply). This was even more challenging than fuels for the simple reason that the organization was much larger — nearly triple the number of airmen.
This is when the time-management skills that I had started developing during my time with the VTCC really came to work for me. I had to balance all the paperwork (routine, disciplinary, projects, etc.) that was part of my duties with the need to be an approachable leader. I wanted my airmen to see me out and about in the warehouse, so they would know first-hand that I knew what their day-to-day environment was like. This also allowed me to create opportunities to get to know them and their jobs on a more personal level.
I still look back and reflect on how I could have done that better. The astronomical amount of desk-work and emails that go into running a flight really make it challenging to be that “walkabout” leader.
While I was assigned to material management, I also deployed twice.
I deployed to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010 after a massive earthquake devastated the country. I was part of a special operations team sent to reopen the airfield so that USAID and other organizations could send humanitarian relief. As one of two LROs sent to Haiti, I worked with a handful of our enlisted counterparts, the newly formed Hurlburt Logistics Sustainment Cell, and other organizations to provide logistics support for the broader team. It was a huge learning experience for me as it was my first exposure to the amount of detailed planning and coordination that goes into setting up and sustaining a forward-operating location.
The hours were long and eating MREs daily got old pretty fast, but the work was so meaningful that none of us really cared. The Haitian people were in dire need of aid, and we knew our work allowed the Tactical Air Control Party airmen to do the critical work they needed to do: provide air traffic control for the humanitarian missions flying into Port-au-Prince. Ultimately, this team effort brought the Haitian people the immediate relief they needed.
For my second deployment, I worked within a broader theater as the deputy director of logistics and maintenance (J4) for the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component. Again, I worked with a team of enlisted functional experts, and together we managed all of the Air Force Special Operations cargo and passengers coming into, out of, and traveling within the United States Central Command theater.
This job exposed me to the challenges of coordinating efforts between a plethora of higher-level organizations. It was all desk work because at the headquarters level we didn’t directly operate any aircraft, but I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with all of these organizations to improve and sustain the processes that transported key personnel and cargo. Our organization worked hard to get people home at the end of their deployments as quickly and painlessly as possible. Likewise, we worked hard to get people out to their deployed location so they could begin the critical work they needed to do to support the mission.
After my second deployment, I did a short, one-year stint as a group executive officer. The work played into my strengths, so I thrived in that environment and was fortunate to have an amazing mission support group commander. All of the task management, scheduling, coordination, and diplomatic skills that go into being a good executive officer were all skills that I started developing as a cadet and continued to strengthen over the course of my career. Fortunately, my boss was very down-to-earth and gave me ample opportunities for mentorship and growth.
When I finished up my tour as an executive officer, I had a newfound appreciation for the broad range of tasks that run across a mission support group commander’s desk.
It was about this time that my first son, Matthew, was born and our family came to a crossroads. My husband was an active duty AC-130U gunship combat systems officer, and he deployed fairly often (two to three 60-day deployments a year). I was torn between providing a stable family life for my newborn son and continuing to serve as an active duty LRO. Ultimately, I made the tough call to join the Air Force Reserve, and I transitioned from Hurlburt Field to the neighboring Duke Field, Florida.
At Duke Field, I started off right back in Material Management (supply), and not long after, I transitioned into the director of operations role. Although I had previous logistics experience, the Air Force Reserve came with a new set of challenges. A reserve unit has to cope with unique challenges such as an airman being laid off from a civilian job, airmen struggling to find time to exercise with hectic civilian work schedules, and a myriad of other concerns.
Currently, I am back on active duty as an AFROTC instructor at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). In this position, I have the unique privilege and opportunity to mentor and teach some of the future generations of Air Force officers. I’ve also seen first-hand how a different senior military college operates, and all I’ll say on that point is that VMI and the VTCC are definitely two unique programs, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.
To me, life has been a series of challenges. Current challenges prepare you for future ones without you really knowing what you are preparing for, except for the knowledge that if you’re not giving up in the present you are that much less likely to give up in the future. And the challenges that have accompanied military duty assignments are only one small piece of this puzzle.
My perspective on life has also largely been shaped by great personal loss. Not the least of which is Cadet Matthew La Porte, who died in the April 16, 2007, tragedy at Virginia Tech. He was my former AFROTC flight physical training leader, a member of the cadet Air Force Special Operations Prep Team, and a spirited cadet with a bright future. I also know he was brave and a hero, but whenever I think of him I am always struck by the magnitude of his sacrifice … the loss of his life.
Fast-forward through time and on Dec. 8, 2014, my second son, William, died at 3 months old for undetermined reasons (aka Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). His death would have broken me if not for my motherly sense of duty and the love and support of family and friends. As his mother, I felt an obligation to take action to honor William’s short life, and I knew that my oldest still needed me.
Thanks to the support of my husband, family, and friends, I somehow made it through the funeral and the moments of grief that follow me today. I still miss him terribly. I can’t even bring myself to remove the pictures and videos of William off my phone, but I keep on pressing forward and living life as fully as possible because to do any less would be a dishonor to those who didn’t get much of a chance at all.
The 10 years since graduation have definitely been a dramatic journey, mostly filled with joy but overshadowed at times by unbearable sadness. I continue to take pride in serving my country and look forward to the work-related challenges the next military assignment will bring. At the same time, I hold on to the hope that life will be less cruel in the future.