JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
The 433rd Airlift Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has spent the last three months successfully innovating new ways to accomplish the mission due to the restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before COVID-19, it was expected that most Reserve Citizen Airmen were to report to their work areas for unit training assemblies physically. This face-to-face culture suddenly had to change, along with the processes and policies designed around it.
Chief Master Sgt. Shana Cullum, 433rd AW command chief, said that she was surprised and impressed the most by the young Airmen in the wing who rose to the occasion.
“The coolest thing has been watching our young Airmen step up because they have the tech knowledge and know-how,” Cullum said. “It’s been crucial breaking through some of our restrictions and red tape to move the wing forward, and we’re no-kidding relying on these young Airmen to make it happen.”
According to Cullum, it’s been a "forced medicine," but the results have been astounding.
“The analogy I like to use is that we’re building the plane as we fly, and we just keep flying higher and higher,” she said. “Before we know it, it’ll be a spaceship.”
Even though going virtual has been successful in a lot of ways, according to Cullum, UTAs will never go entirely virtual because some aspects of the mission require the presence of Airmen. They are needed to maintain the equipment, fly the aircraft, and train in skills that can’t be accomplished remotely.
Maj. Leigh Barker, 433rd Civil Engineer Squadron commander, said most Airmen in her squadron have jobs that fall into the category of requiring physical interaction to accomplish the mission.
Construction, firefighting, pest control, and electrical wiring are just a few examples of the variety of jobs the 433rd CES encompasses. Training to fight a fire or run a heavy piece of equipment requires hands-on training that is unavoidable, she said.
“However, these past few months have given us a huge opportunity to take care of a lot of the administration work that sometimes falls by the wayside in favor of mission accomplishment,” Barker said. “Also, it’s allowed us to get ahead so that when it’s time to bring everyone back in, we can focus on the hands-on tasks.”
Balancing virtual work with the physical and separating the two has been challenging for the entire unit; however, both Cullum and Barker agree that the biggest challenge has been to stay connected with the Airmen.
According to Cullum, prior to the social distancing restrictions, the Professional Development Committee was offering one class per UTA. The PDC greatly expanded their class offerings to maintain connection with and between wing members.
“We have tried to fill that gap, and one of the ways we’ve done this is by providing professional development classes at least four times a week,” Cullum said. “Sometimes, it’s six or seven times a week.”
In the civil engineer squadron, Barker said the experience of overcoming social distancing has been enlightening and has brought the Airmen in her squadron closer together.
“Our May UTA was completely virtual, and the feedback I’ve received about it has been positive,” Barker said. “Typical UTAs are tough in the fact that everyone is usually busy accomplishing the tasks they need to finish, and often there isn’t time in those two days to connect and engage the way we’d like to.”
Accomplishing a completely virtual UTA for a wide variety of careers that are typically hands-on, in nature, requires intensive pre-planning, according to Barker. So not only did leaders have to collaborate on that, but they had to stay engaged during the UTA.
Barker said it was neat how in some cases, Airmen came out of their shells to speak in a virtual environment when they usually don’t talk as much when they’re physically present and perhaps busy with tasks.
“During the last virtual UTA, I met with every single shop throughout the day,” she said. “What I found was some of the Airmen who are typically quiet and don’t speak much, were suddenly articulating and conversing with me, and I loved it. It was nice to have those conversations with them.”
Another benefit, she said, is that many Airmen have been more productive working virtually than when they come in for a UTA and have enjoyed it.
Senior Airman Winfield Beaman III, 26th Aerial Port Squadron air transportation journeyman, was an Airman who enjoyed working virtually during the June UTA.
According to Beaman, he usually must drive three hours one way to attend a UTA. However, by working virtually, he doesn’t have to worry about reserving lodging, packing, and driving in, just to turn around and drive home two days later.
“In that way, it’s been a relief to participate virtually,” Beaman said. “Also, I’ve been able to focus on a lot of administration tasks and computer-based training without the distraction of other people in the room who sometimes vie for my attention. I’ve been able to finish my work much faster than I normally would’ve been able to.”
Even though the work was performed in the comfort of his home, Beaman said professional decorum and accountability, was still maintained throughout the virtual UTA.
“Our senior leaders stayed engaged with us and would pop into our meetings just to check to see how we’re doing,” he said. “It comes down to the core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in all we do, regardless if we’re at home or physically at work.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed much in the way the 433rd AW performs its mission, but members of the wing proved that they could add innovation to the military mindset to get it done.