JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
The Inter-American Air Forces Academy bid farewell to its exiting commandant and welcomed a new senior leader during a change of command ceremony Aug. 7 in the IAAFA auditorium here.
Col. Marc Stratton turned over command of IAAFA, which provides technical and military education training to 21 Latin American partner nations, to Col. Monica Partridge at the ceremony.
Partridge comes to the academy from the 612th Air and Space Operations Center, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., where she was Chief of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. The 612th AOC is part of the 12th Air Force, Air Forces Southern and the air component for Latin America.
The changeover event also started the countdown for Stratton to an October retirement ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Fla., when his 30-year Air Force career as a Special Tactics officer will officially end.
"It's been incredibly fortunate for me that IAAFA was my final assignment," Stratton said. "It's a great command, a great mission and with great people assigned to it who do great things on a regular basis. It's been an outstanding assignment for my wife and me. We've really felt at home here."
Stratton said what made his final assignment special was the people at IAAFA with their passion and mission focus.
"We have exceptional people," he said. "They each go through a selection process to be assigned here. Because of the language skill requirement, we often get people who are first-generation Americans or whose immediate family immigrated here. They bring with them not only the U.S. perspective, but a great deal of where they came from in Latin America, and that's what helps make the Academy unique.
"This is my seventh command and every unit I've been affiliated with has been blessed with great people and assigned important operational missions. I like to work alongside people who are passionate about what they do and focus on the mission. IAAFA certainly meets that definition."
One of Stratton's focal points since arriving in 2011 has been to keep the Academy's training and education courses, all taught in Spanish, relevant to constantly changing Latin American partner nation requirements. It's been the commander's buzzword from the start.
"Relevance has been a focus," he said. "Certainly the people here at IAAFA have heard the word 'relevance' a lot in the last three years. It's important because if you don't stay on your toes, adapting and transforming, all of a sudden you're not offering what's needed and you're of no value. In today's world that is death.
"We've basically modernized all of our courses. An incredible amount of man hours has gone into that, all in the spirit of relevancy and keeping things fresh and up-to-date. We've done our best to make sure we're providing the best training and education needed by our Latin American partner nations."
One of the largest relevancy tools for the academy came in early 2012. A new $20 million plus training complex opened on the JBSA-Lackland IAAFA campus that combined all IAAFA aviation maintenance courses into one location.
The project was funded by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure law that closed Kelly Field, where IAAFA training courses and aircraft were housed in 11 different facilities.
Stratton said the training complex has delivered a number of benefits. For students, it has meant the end of pre-dawn wakeup calls for breakfast and transport to Kelly, an improved training schedule since students can walk to the facility, as well as savings in staff man-hours and cost.
"It's been huge," he said about the state-of-the-art complex. "Being co-located makes continuity, accountability and force protection less difficult. For us internally, it makes things simpler. Now we have the two squadrons and the group all in the same area, which improves coordination and communication.
"The feedback from student surveys has been very positive. All in all, it's been a huge windfall for the Academy."
While the training complex helped modernize IAAFA training, most equipment modernization has a different connotation for the Academy, according to Stratton.
"In the purest sense, rather than modernizing with the latest and greatest, we are modifying, thereby becoming more relevant," he said. "For example, we don't train on state-of-the-art aircraft because our partners for the most part don't fly them. Modernizing for us sometimes means obtaining equipment that the Air Force no longer uses."
Though the goal of obtaining an A-29 Super Tucano aircraft with a PT 6 engine, used extensively throughout Latin America, didn't come to fruition during Stratton's tenure, he is confident the academy will be able to provide training on the Brazilian-built plane in the near future.
The federal government is purchasing 20 A-29s for the Afghan air force and IAAFA expects to be a part of the training mission.
"We're going to gain knowledge and expertise in the A-29 through training the Afghan air force," he said. "Eventually we'll integrate this advanced aircraft, with its digital instrumentation, the composite material used in the fuselage and wings, and the very modern version of the PT 6 engine, into maintenance courses for our Latin American students.
"These are all things we're being asked by our partner nations to provide, which should be available in the next year or two. To tie the Academy to a vital national mission like training the Afghan air force, and then receive the benefits of aircraft knowledge and expertise that apply to that particular aircraft, it's a win-win."
The IAAFA mission of building partnerships and fostering relationships in Latin America helps break down barriers, whether those barriers are national or institutional. Or as Stratton puts it, "it's the spirit of inter-Americanismo; whether you're from another country or the United States, in this hemisphere we're all Americans."
"It's very important for us to maintain those ties to Latin America," Stratton said. "The changing demographics in this country and the fact we do so much with the region, our futures are unquestionably interrelated; it's important we don't neglect south of our border.
"IAAFA sends a very strong message, a very strong signal, that our country continues to be actively engaged in the region. Many of the problems of the hemisphere are shared problems. Shared problems demand shared solutions. What we try to do here is start the conversation."