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Leaders at Fairchild Air Force Base work to preserve base culture in midst of pandemic

Col. Cassius T. Bentley III, the Commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild Air Force Base, left, and U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Guzman, 92nd Air Refueling Wing command chief, gather inside a hangar Wednesday.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Col. Cassius T. Bentley III, the Commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild Air Force Base, left, and U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Guzman, 92nd Air Refueling Wing command chief, gather inside a hangar Wednesday. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Fairchild Air Force Base movie theater has been serving the base’s command staff nowadays for less cinematic purposes.

Unit leaders use the facility for exercises like commander’s calls, during which they meet with their airmen for open dialogue and future planning. The theater’s size allows personnel to spread out while observing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Col. Cassius Bentley III, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, recalled how he committed on one particular occasion to interact with as many airmen as possible amid the gathering restrictions. As a result, he hosted 11 commander’s calls in a single day.

“We could’ve done it via video,” Bentley said of the 11-call marathon, “but it’s hard to really connect with our airmen and really hear what their concerns are. So, we did it in the theater.”

Repurposing the theater is among the ways the base has adapted to coronavirus restrictions since Bentley assumed command of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing this past July.

Fairchild Air Force Base has a population of more than 12,980 people between employees and their families. The 92nd Refueling Wing, the Air Force’s largest refueling wing, is the more prominent of the two wings located at Fairchild. The base also hosts the 141st Air Refueling Wing and the 336th Training Group, which is home to the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School.

“We’re doing a lot of things despite COVID,” he said. “We respect COVID; we’re going to make sure we’re mitigating. But we cannot stop the progression and the movement forward on all these things we can do to improve the quality of life of our airmen and their families.”

Fairchild has utilized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to help stem the spread of COVID-19, said Bentley, who emphasized social distancing, face coverings, hand-washing and staying home when appropriate. Distancing, however, is not always conducive to duties like maintenance work.

“When those cases happen, we do the best we can to control the spread, but for missions, nothing’s changed,” Bentley said. “We’ve had to do it a little bit differently, but we still execute our missions the same way.”

Scheduling adjustments are among the largest changes, Bentley said, as leaders have had to adapt to staff quarantines. Meanwhile, some airmen had their deployments extended by a few months due to the pandemic.

Citing guidance from the Department of Defense, Fairchild personnel declined to release data on the number of COVID-19 cases on base.

“We’ve had cases. I can tell you that,” Bentley said. “I think overall, we’re less than what we’re seeing outside the gate, but we make sure our folks get as healthy as they can, and get them all the support they need during that.”

Just last week, Fairchild received shipments of the Pfizer vaccine for distribution among base personnel. Bentley said base leaders are anticipating another shipment in the next few weeks to cover a significant portion of the base population.

Vaccination is voluntary, with phased distribution starting with first responders, health care workers, public safety personnel and select deploying individuals.

“Our team spent a lot of time with planning and practicing how to do this,” Bentley said. “We’re ready. We’ve been ready and we’re so glad to get the first set of vaccine last week. We’re excited. We’re ready to get things back to normal.”

Addressing mental health, social issues

Navigating the pandemic isn’t the only challenge Bentley’s had in his nearly seven months as the 92nd’s commander, as Fairchild’s concerns with child care and housing availability remain.

A child care task force was formed in August. Since then, Bentley said Fairchild has seen a 40% reduction in the child care waitlist, though recruitment for on-base child care remains difficult due to potential risks with the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the waitlist and occupancy rate for on-base housing remain high, he said; finding airmen alternative housing opportunities also remains a challenge.

Across the Air Force, suicidal ideation and domestic violence rates are up, prompting Fairchild commanders to take a proactive approach with the “One Fairchild” initiative, Bentley said. One Fairchild is an ongoing suicide prevention effort aimed at bolstering access and delivery of suicide-related care, teaching coping skills and creating protected environments, among other solutions.

At Fairchild, first sergeants, frontline supervisors and commander-appointed spouses are getting trained through the national Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program, or ASIST, to learn “how to talk to someone who’s struggling and get them the help they need,” Bentley said.

“We want people, if they have any issues or concerns, if they need to take a knee, take a knee,” Bentley said. He added, “Our Air Force, we’ve been struggling about racial disparity and concerns about that with diversity and inclusion. One of our biggest things we do is, any time we have the opportunity to talk about it, we’re going to talk about it. And if you open up the dialogue and people feel comfortable with sharing their struggles and things that have happened to them, it creates greater understanding across the base and we can move forward.”

Improving base culture

A key cog in meeting airmen’s needs is Daniel Guzman, the new command chief master sergeant for the 92nd Refueling Wing.

Guzman, who assumed the command chief position in late December, is responsible for advising Bentley on everything to do with the readiness, training, professional development and well-being of the 92nd’s personnel. A 23-year Air Force veteran, Guzman comes into the position after a two-year assignment at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“A lot goes into having a mission-ready airman,” he said. “I have to be an advocate for all of those things to keep them connected and to be (Bentley’s) extra set of eyes and ears on the ground, in essence.”

Among Guzman’s major endeavors in the early going is Fairchild’s “One Dayroom at a Time” project, which involves upgrading the common areas in four of the base’s dormitory facilities.

Aiming to outfit each common area with a certain theme, Guzman said one particular dayroom set for completion next month will be outfitted with televisions, video game systems and the like.

The project encapsulates Fairchild’s effort to bolster the base’s quality of life. Similar efforts include the creation of more than two dozen recreational clubs, a space for virtual reality gaming (including virtual golf) and a new food pantry. The latter two facilities are expected to open next month.

“We have 500 airmen living in our dorms, and right now, there’s not a whole lot for them to do downtown or even in this base,” Bentley said, “so we’re creating opportunities for them that we can do with COVID mitigation.”

Looking ahead, the Fairchild leadership team is working on a long-term plan to help guide future decision-making and upgrades. The management plan, Bentley said, would take the base into 2042 – Fairchild’s 100th anniversary.

“Being up in this seat, I won’t be able to see everybody in this base,” Bentley said. “But the airmen that supervise them, the airmen that are with them day to day, they can tell when there’s a difference, and that’s what we really need. We need everyone to buy into this culture and making sure everybody has empathy and cares.”

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