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Duke Field commander bids farewell after 22 years

  • Published
Col. James M. Phillips relinquished command of the 919th Special Operations Wing July 8. Before he departed, he answered a few questions about his time with here and shared some parting words for the base population and local community.

What are your thoughts as you wrap up a tour of duty at Duke Field that has spanned more than two decades?

I came here 22 years ago as an active duty [officer] and became a Reservist. My wife was a Reservist here too. My kids would sometimes come in and play on the dry erase boards. The 919th has been part of our family for a long time, so it will be difficult for us to leave.

Describe how Duke Field has changed since you first arrived in the summer of 1995.

When I first started at Duke, there was no guard at the gate. All the trees that now line the entrance of McWhorter Drive coming into Duke were not there when I arrived. In many ways, the base resembled an old World War II installation. We were using two-story barracks for office space. So it has changed significantly since then. My part in the change for the last four years has been shepherding projects that had been on the books for years to ensure they were completed.

Is there one special event or moment while here that you’ll always remember?

The one that stands out the most is 9/11. The attacks occurred while the senior leadership from the 919th were in a staff meeting. Immediately after hearing the news, the consensus was, this meeting is over … let’s start getting prepared. Within a week or so, we were out the door flying Talons [MC-130H aircraft] in some of the initial combat missions in Afghanistan. We’ve had plenty of missions in support of other contingency operations since then that stand out. But at the end of the day, it’s the people I will remember most.

Describe the challenges of being the wing commander for the 919th SOW the past four years.

The biggest challenge is meeting everyone’s expectations. I’ve tried very hard to make this a place where people are happy coming out to work. At the end of their duty period, I want them to feel good about their time here and look forward to when they get to come out here again. I’ve tried very hard to manage those expectations and always keep in mind what’s good for our people.

How does the 919th Special Operations Wing stand out from other assignments for you?

This mission is very different from most Reserve wings. We have new members throughout the unit and many serving in key leadership positions. To succeed here, people learn quickly to adjust and embrace that change and become Citizen Air Commandos. That requires us to be a little quicker and a bit more proactive. I think our culture reflects that mindset.

What are the challenges you see in the coming years for the 919th in light of this unit’s diverse mission?

I think the biggest challenge is getting qualified members to help sustain our mission. We have vacancies for full time and part time positions. We have good people who are coming into the wing through our Development and Training Flight who want to be part of this mission. Once we spend the time and effort to get new members trained in the special operations mission, we have to demonstrate a return on that investment.

What leadership traits do you feel Col. Les Bradfield brings to the table that make him the right person to lead the 919th SOW during such a challenging time in the Wing’s history?

Colonel Bradfield was the face of our Total Force presence to Air Force Special Operations when he was part of the 5th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field [in 2013]. I think our members will find him to be energetic and willing to engage on the tough issues. He understands this mission and will be able to come in and lead this unit while taking care of his people in the process.

How does your family feel about the time they’ve spent on the Emerald Coast and as part of the 919th SOW?

We’ve been here a long time. My wife and kids have been out to our family days and spent a lot of time at Duke Field. There are churches, scout groups, baseball teams and a network of friends that we’ll miss dearly. The community support we enjoy on the Emerald Coast has been second to none. Our Military Affairs Committees have really stepped up to support us in so many ways over the years. I could never thank everyone enough--it’s been great for us.

What will you miss most about your time with the men and women of the 919th SOW?

The 919th is a special place. This wing is one of the most decorated units in the Air Force Reserve. We are still doing important things. As we talk now, we have 2nd Special Operations Squadron members flying combat lines. There are dozens of members who are overseas in harm’s way doing our nation’s business. I’m very grateful for the level of commitment and dedication our Citizen Air Commando have to this mission. It’s something I’ll always treasure.