The longstanding and mutually beneficial relationship between the capital city and Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base proves we’re better together.
“We are in the schools, in the shops and restaurants, all over the community. We love it here. We are a part of Montgomery and want to support it as it supports us,” said Chief Master Sergeant Mike Morgan, stressing how officers, enlisted airmen and their families are truly embedded in the capital city, even if only for a short while. It’s a point he uses to underscore the importance of the special Montgomery- Maxwell-Gunter AFB partnership that’s been thriving for decades.
As Command Chief to the new 42nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Eries Mentzer, one of Morgan’s priorities is safeguarding and strengthening that partnership. As a piece of that, he recognizes and appreciates Montgomery’s reciprocal efforts. “The strides the city and state have made in support of the military and our military families here are great,” he said.
The relationship between the base and its surrounding city is significant, but it’s also imperative to understand the crucial role the base plays in our country, as Trent Edwards, Senior Vice President, Military & Community Development at the Chamber, explained. “The 42nd Air Base Wing’s mission is critical to national security. It provides the foundation for success for Air University, the intellectual and leadership development center of the Air Force, as well as the 908th Airlift Wing, the Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate, Defense Information Systems Agency and more than 40 tenant units,” he said. “Airmen, space professionals and civilians from across the Air Force and Space Force attend Maxwell and Gunter for professional leadership development and academic excellence.”
Its tangible footprint is powerful: As the host unit for Maxwell-Gunter AFB, the 42nd Air Base Wing is home to more than 12,500 active-duty, reserve, civilian and contractor personnel. All together, the base and its people make huge financial and cultural contributions in the city and the entire River Region. The base’s annual economic impact alone is $2.8 billion.
Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM, outlined the less quantifiable but equally important impacts provided by Maxwell-Gunter, namely access to talent and innovation. “The Maxwell-Gunter community has an immense amount of talent inside the gate,” she said. “We should strive to leverage those skills outside of the gate. Our military teammates bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our community and can drive innovative solutions that can uplift the entire River Region.” Stokes noted the unique opportunities the base brings to business and education in our area by creating an environment that encourages diverse thought and allows for cross-pollination that can “spawn great ideas.”
“The professionals at Maxwell- Gunter AFB are partnering with small- and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs to creatively solve tough military challenges while contributing to our local economy.” - Trent Edwards, Senior Vice President, Military & Community Development at the Chamber
This concept of a symbiotic relationship echoes Morgan’s statements, and the “us” instead of a “them” mentality comes straight from the top; it’s a cornerstone of Commander Col. Mentzer’s leadership style. She remembers starting in ROTC at the University of Nebraska and having a hard time adapting to military culture, despite growing up a Navy brat. “It was a struggle, but there was another cadet who took me in, showed me the ropes,” she said. “I asked her, ‘Why are you helping me?’” Her new friend shared a lesson her grandmother had taught her. “She told me, ‘You can’t go it alone. You have to form partnerships to reach goals.’ That set the tone for my career,” Mentzer said.
This emphasis on teamwork is now infusing every aspect of the base. “It is all about teams and partnerships and going after the greater good together,” Mentzer said. She pointed to the Air Force’s focus on both enlisted airmen and officers, a focus she shares. “The enlisted provide a lot of technical expertise in the Air Force, and it is a combo of our officers and our enlisted that make the Air Force so great,” she said. “Mike is a key part of my command team; I could not do this job without him. Everything we do is together, and we’re both focused on how to get the best from the entire, base-wide team.” This mindset also applies to her husband and Mike’s wife, whom she views as vital players in the team, too.
Mentzer took command on August 24, but it’s not her first time here. Her dad was in the Navy and attended Air War College when she was a kid. The experience made a lasting impression. “I am a black female with red hair and freckles. I remember looking around the base, not seeing many women and not seeing any that looked like me,” she said. “I never really saw any women in my dad’s aviation unit either, so I didn’t think that something like this was possible for me. When I was asked to come here to serve as commander and lead this wing, it was quite a humbling moment and brought those childhood memories full circle.”
Mentzer is only the second woman and the first Black woman to hold the position of wing commander. But these are more than mere distinctions; they’re also influencing her priorities for her tenure. When she got the command assignment, she thought back to her time in Montgomery and recalled Rosa Parks’ story, which led her to read Parks’ bio. Mentzer discovered that Parks worked on base and wrote about it as a place where Jim Crow wasn’t as rampant, where she had real freedom of movement, and how that freedom inspired her to fight for more freedom off the base. “It is such an honor to come back and do this, and in my time here, I want to honor her legacy in a way, so I’m really motivated by Parks’ fight for inclusion,” she said.
Increased inclusion is also a natural offshoot of Mentzer’s teamwork mentality, and it led her to start the Freedom to Serve initiative, a program designed to identify and then remove hurdles than can hinder service. “We want to create conditions for airmen to show up as their best selves,” Morgan said. “We want to make serving easier on them and their families.”
Mentzer echoed Morgan. “This is all volunteer service; people want to serve, but there are sometimes barriers to that service,” she said. “So, we are figuring out what those are and then getting on them and looking for solutions with the goal of making Maxwell a base of choice for our airmen and their families.” Challenges in education, better spouse employment opportunities and access to specialty healthcare when needed are three core areas Mentzer and her team are homing in on.
Despite her guiding motto – “Just do right,” pulled from a favorite Maya Angelou poem – she’s not committed to inclusion just because it is right; she knows diversity brings better outcomes. “To tackle the issues we face and in any decision we make, I ask, ‘Do we have enough diversity of thought on this?’” This quest has led the commander to seek out airmen with different “backgrounds, beliefs and biologies.” “We are especially looking at the lower levels, to the youngest among us,” she said. “We want them to tell us their barriers so we can remove them.”
This teamwork philosophy doesn’t stop at the base’s borders, and that’s a plus for the entire region. “We are going after the greater good together,” Mentzer said. “That’s how I view the relationship with the community, so what do we need to do together here? What will benefit us both? I know for sure when we elevate the quality of life for our airmen, it can do the same for the community. We can bring the best talent and families here, and it is a cycle.”
And she and her team know, they’ll get back what they give. “We don’t have all the answers on base, so we’re reaching out to the business community, to residents, to the Chamber, and they bring new ideas and new perspectives,” she said. “When we open our gates and share ideas and information, we exchange and share a vast array of experiences.”
“We are going after the greater good together. That’s how I view the relationship with the community. I know for sure when we elevate the quality of life for our airmen, it can do the same for the community. We can bring the best talent and families here, and it is a cycle.” - Col. Mentzer, Commander 42nd Air Base Wing
Maxwell-Gunter AFB is home to more than 12,500 active-duty, reserve, civilian and contractor personnel and has an annual economic impact of $2.8 billion on the River Region.
This give and take is not news to River Region leaders and residents; we’ve long understood the multiple positives of the partnership. It’s why the Chamber, local businesses and city, county and state officials work so hard to keep it strong. “We want the River Region area to be an assignment military members proudly and fondly enjoy, an assignment where they can bring their families, attend quality public schools and also receive some of the best military education and leadership development training in the world,” Edwards said, a retired Brigadier General, who once served as the wing commander at Maxwell from 2012-2014.
The Chamber and wider business community are also on the lookout for ways to pool resources that can boost economic development and quality of life for both base and River Region residents. “The Chamber is actively partnering with the Air Force, city, county, community business leaders and academia to build short, medium and long-term strategies to create technological ecosystems that recognize the holistic nature of economic development,” Edwards said.
The foundation of it all is quality public education, which allows us to build and maintain a workforce that will be competitive in the DoD civilian job market. “The Chamber is also actively working with the Air Force to enhance quality of life and place-making efforts to offer more recreational and leisure activities that will attract military members, families and tourists,” Edwards said. Of course, these things also appeal to residents and private industry.
Stokes highlighted a few specific projects where the Maxwell-Montgomery partnership has scored major wins, including securing the F-35, the Montgomery Internet Exchange and the creation of MGMWERX, a partnership between Air University, the Chamber and DefenseWerx. “This brand new innovation facility has been used by organizations globally to tackle military challenges,” she said. “And Business Enterprise Product Innovation (BESPIN), the agile software factory that was recently stood up in Montgomery, provides a collaborative environment for software developers to work on some of the Air Force’s most important business applications. All of these advancements have helped to lay the groundwork for our Innovation District. They are tools in our larger toolbox to attract and retain talent and businesses in the Montgomery area.”
During this year’s virtual AFITC in late August, Mayor Reed announced the Montgomery Techlab, a startup accelerator that will focus on mobile app development and will mentor, coach and train start-up entrepreneurs in the digital services and mobile application development space. The accelerator was created through a public/private partnership between the city, county, local economic development partners, IT companies and Maxwell- Gunter AFB leaders and is being facilitated by one of the best in the business, Marcus Shaw, current CEO and Executive Director of the highly successful CO.LAB. “The Montgomery Techlab is another advancement we are making to shape our tech and innovation culture in Montgomery,” said Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM.
“The 187th Fighter Wing at Dannelly Field is excited to receive the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter; one of the premier air superiority weapon systems in the United States Air Force. To be one of the first Air National Guard wings to convert to the F-35A is a tremendous honor and shows the faith that the Air Force has in our Red Tail Airmen and the state of Alabama,” said Col. Ed Casey, 187th Fighter Wing commander. The Red Tails will continue to fly the wing’s F-16 aircraft until the first F-35’s arrival at Dannelly Field, estimated to be in 2023. “The new mission will bring more than $60 million in military construction projects to Montgomery and spur additional economic development opportunity for the River Region,” said Trent Edwards, Senior Vice President, Military & Community Development at the Chamber.
ON THE LEADING EDGE
According to Stokes, the tech sector in particular has presented opportunities for collaboration that are aiding local workforce development efforts, opportunities that other communities simply do not have. “The Maxwell-Gunter community has a tremendous amount of IT expertise. And with the constant influx of military members coming in and out of Montgomery for professional military education, we have an even greater opportunity to tap into their talents and skills. Having facilities and opportunities like MGMWERX, BESPIN and the Montgomery Techlab gives us great reach into those military members,” she said. “They often visit MGMWERX to collaborate and solve some of their military related challenges, inviting the business community to join. Several activities occur throughout the year where they mentor and coach our young professionals and students.” And soon, these military members will work closely with the just-announced Montgomery Techlab to seed and incubate start-up entrepreneurs who can help solve their digital transformation and modernization dilemmas.
Today, the base’s scale and reach are growing, and the vast potential of the partnership is expanding along with it. “The Air Force Business Enterprise Systems Directorate (BES) and Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) at Gunter are intimately involved in consolidating and awarding IT contracts that will help accelerate change and make the military more agile, efficient and effective,” Edwards said. More growth opportunities are found in BESPIN and MGMWERX, which put the city in a position to play a role in addressing critical Air Force and Space Force priorities. “The professionals at Maxwell-Gunter AFB are partnering with small- and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs to creatively solve tough military challenges while contributing to our local economy.”
“The Maxwell-Gunter community has an immense amount of talent inside the gate. We should strive to leverage those skills outside of the gate. Our military teammates bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our community and can drive innovative solutions that can uplift the entire River Region. - Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM
AT THE READY: Maxwell-Gunter AFB COVID-19 Response
According to Trent Edwards, Senior Vice President, Military & Community Development at the Chamber, Maxwell-Gunter did a “great job” ensuring the health and safety of base personnel while continuing its vital missions and operations during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak. “They improvised, adapted and implemented safety measures that protected a base population of about 42,000 including students and family members,” he said. These efforts included establishing virtual classes for students attending the Air University colleges, and in what Edwards calls a “true spirit of collaboration and partnership,” worked with the Air Force and the city to host the annual AFITC event virtually. “The format allowed 40,000 people to virtually visit the 2020 Air Force IT and Cyberpower Conference and learn more about what Montgomery and the River Region can offer businesses, military members and their families,” he said.
Edwards also praised the base’s ability to continue programs and classes, even when the virus hit peak levels in the city. “When other services suspended their ROTC programs due to COVID-19, Air University and Maxwell Air Force Base successfully hosted more than 1,000 Air Force ROTC cadets from universities around the country to maintain Air Force readiness while protecting individuals,” he said. And Air University started fall classes for this school year with thousands of students. “All will be in residence with deliberately planned and layered defenses including social distancing, maintaining air quality and modified seminar size and scheduling,” Edwards said. Air University has continued other courses through virtual learning platforms.
Col. Mentzer wasn’t at Maxwell-Gunter AFB when the pandemic struck, but she’s seen the Air Force pivot in response and believes the virus has provided valuable takeaways. “We train to serve our nation in its darkest moments,” she said. “Never would I have imagined our great adversary would be a pandemic. But we’ve done so much with technology; the virus pushed the Air Force to transition some of its operations, and that’s been a good thing.”
As things normalize, Mentzer is paying attention to see if changes made in COVID should be permanent. “I told my team, let’s not lose the good things we’ve learned,” she said. “If we’ve found ways for people to accomplish their mission and not have to be physically present, let’s continue allowing that flexibility.”
GUNTER: GROWING STRONG
MBJ asked Business & Enterprise Systems Program Executive Officer Richard Aldridge to share what’s currently fueling the growth at Gunter Annex.
Aldridge: Working from their kitchen tables and home offices across the River Region, and across the country, more than 100 Business and Enterprise Systems Product Innovation (BESPIN) team members have pivoted from in-person team collaboration at our downtown Montgomery offices to virtually distributed teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are resolving a wide range of issues, from poor-fitting flight equipment for female pilots, improving customer services on every Air Force base and improving informal communication at the Air Force Academy to revolutionizing cyber and Information Technology training and education for all airmen.
The latter is Digital University, an online technology skills platform that is free for airmen that went live in August and saw nearly 1,000 users in its first month of use.
The Mobile Delivery as a Service (MDaaS) team is working to ensure the security of Air Force mobile apps by implementing an application development pipeline. Having a fully provisioned environment decreases time for capability delivery to airmen. Most importantly, the MDaaS pipeline enables any airmen developer to build deployable applications, not just BESPIN personnel.
In the past year, we awarded the Small Business Enterprise Application Solutions, or SBEAS, Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity contract. This contract vehicle has a $13 billion ceiling and creates growth opportunities in the Montgomery area for small businesses who want a local presence to be closer to the programs a lot of their development will support.
We are also taking some new programs into the portfolio that will deliver modernized business systems for several Pentagon customers, including a publication management system that will help manage directives and instructions and more easily update or eliminate outdated policies, all with a goal of reducing overall documentation by 80 percent. We’ll be working on a modernized Inspector General system to improve unit readiness and reduce the time burden to conduct unit inspections. We’ll be improving a system that tracks the structural integrity of every plane in the Air Force fleet, improving modeling on items like crack growth on wings and increasing safety.
The Technical Services and Service Management Divisions implemented agile software techniques and tooling to automate and accelerate product deliveries to users with our Agile Delivery Strategy.
These new efforts are being driven by a three-fold strategy by the Air Force senior leaders – a shift to agile software development implementation of DevSecOps, migration to the Air Force cloud solution, Cloud One, and a transformation of the Air Force to a fully digital enterprise. One direct response to an increase in cloud technologies resulted in BES awarding a contract for cloud support services.
Like many other businesses, COVID-19 has forced our workforce to successfully adapt to working from home and to accomplishing their jobs with collaboration tools instead of face-to-face meetings and conferences. In a span of weeks, the Air Force increased the capacity of its virtual private network connections from 8,000 to more than 400,000. This increased technology set the stage for a successful virtual execution of August’s Air Force IT and Cyberpower Conference.
In June, the U.S. Senate confirmed General Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff, making him the first Black person in American history to lead a branch of the U.S. military as its highest-ranking officer. Brown will also be the first Black officer to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff since retired General Colin Powell.
The decorated pilot and experienced commander will serve from the Pentagon, but will regularly visit Maxwell-Gunter AFB to speak to the premier educational base’s leadership classes, offering student airmen his insight and sharing with them his wealth of knowledge.