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  • Military & MGM: Standing Strong Together

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    The footprint of the military in Montgomery is incredible in terms of jobs and dollars. It’s also indelible. The mark made by military members and their families is meaningful, lasting and goes beyond money and other measurable aspects. They make a difference that matters, and that’s why the city continues to elevate the level of its steadfast military support.
    The leaders of tomorrow depend on the time, energy and resources we invest in education today. This isn’t news to those at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base; it’s the premier educational and intellectual development institution of the Air Force, home to Air University and multiple education programs that ensure our military is packed with not just the best and brightest but also, the most highly trained. With such a firm educational foundation, the installation is a natural fit for the Department of Defense Education Association’s new school pilot program.

    On April 30, 2021, Maxwell Elementary & Middle School (MEMS) was approved by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) as the first site for a four-year program that opens enrollment in the on-base school to children of full-time, active-duty military who live off base. (Previously, enrollment at DoDEA schools in the United States was limited to children of military personnel residing on base.) This is an important advancement in Montgomery’s ongoing dedication to provide support to military families.

    Lt. Gen. James Hecker, Air University Commander and President, applauded the pilot program initiative. “This program expands public education options in the River Region,” said Hecker. “Access to high-quality public education is essential to readiness and morale for our military families. MEMS is a blue-ribbon K-8 school close to many of our workplaces, so this pilot program gives some of our families another way to access high quality education. We appreciate the great local community partners and DoDEA collaborations to increase public education options, and we’ll continue to work with them and the team at DoDEA on this important issue.”

    Trent Edwards, the Chamber’s former Director of Military Affairs, echoed Hecker and outlined why the program is such a win for our area, first praising the school itself. “It shows consistently great performance, so when we’re looking to create every opportunity to give military families what they need so they’ll want to come here as a family, including the base school in our efforts made sense,” he said. “We don’t want them making the tough decision to leave part of their family elsewhere, and this just adds another great education choice to our mix.”

    That’s a plus, because when entire military families move here, we get broader contributions to the community. Every military family that comes to Montgomery brings additional skills, talents and other qualities that add to our local culture. They bring diverse viewpoints and global influences. “It simply results in a richer experience for everyone here,” Edwards said.

    Leslie Sanders, Vice President, Southern Division of Alabama Power, agreed. “They’re an important part of our community fabric. Perhaps our kids attend school together; we may attend the same church services; we enjoy civic and community events, perhaps enjoy the same local restaurants and shopping,” she said. “While many of our friends at Maxwell-Gunter may only be in our area for a short period of time, while here, they are important and valued members of our communities.”

    There are more tangible reasons to bring more military families here too, according to Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed. “Maxwell-Gunter AFB and the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard stand as among our state’s greatest economic assets,” he said. “More people work for Maxwell-Gunter than any other employer in Montgomery.” The base alone generates a whopping $2.6 billion economic impact in the region.

    Hecker stressed that he’d like that impact to get even larger and that the pilot program at MEMS is one wheel on the vehicle to drive that growth. “Our goal is to retain or grow this footprint. This will require us to make Airmen, Guardians and their families see Maxwell-Gunter AFB as an assignment of choice. The Maxwell Elementary & Middle School (MEMS) Pilot program contributes to this effort,” he said.

    But landing the coveted pilot school program didn’t just happen. Pushing for its creation and ensuring Maxwell was among the handful of locations chosen for its initial implementation was the result of tireless work by Montgomery’s business leaders, its congressional delegation and the Chamber, all culminating in the efforts of the Military Stability Foundation and Commission, a statewide board of six members, with Paul Hankins, a retired Air Force Brigadier General, and Sanders co-chairing the Foundation and representing Montgomery on it. Since its formation, the Commission has been instrumental in passing more than 70 pieces of legislation to make Alabama more welcoming to the military. Hankins explained the Commission’s role in the DoDEA school. “We are the people who got the school program in last year’s defense authorization bill,” he said. “And then we worked to get Maxwell selected as one of five bases in the U.S. to host it.”

    He shared sentiments similar to Edwards’. “We wanted to provide high-quality education options to those assigned to Maxwell-Gunter so they don’t balk at coming here,” he said. “The Montgomery school system is improving for sure, but this is faster.” He also noted how the perception of the program is a benefit too. “It just underscores our support of our military here and deepens our welcome for their families.” Hankins stressed that the DoDEA program is an interim step in an expansion of services for military families. “When you look at this and all the efforts we’ve made, they push Alabama and Montgomery way back up on the list,” he said. Other related successes include changing the window for magnet school applications and providing in-state college tuition for students whose parents are transferred out of state.

    While education is a vital piece of the support puzzle, it’s still a single piece; the collaboration that led to the base school pilot program is only one in a long string of such efforts, all designed to prove the River Region’s commitment to the military families in our midst by removing impediments to their quality of life here. To that end, another crucial aspect was making it easy for military spouses to continue and advance their careers while in Montgomery. Earlier this year, a new Alabama law was enacted to allow for license and registration reciprocity in multiple professions (teaching, nursing, medicine and more) for military spouses to help them get local jobs. Hankins noted that this move not only assists military families; it equally benefits area employers. “It gives our companies here a bigger workforce to pull from,” he said.

    The measure was part of the most recent group of bills pushed in the Alabama Legislature by the Commission, the Chamber and Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed that addressed needs and concerns voiced by local military personnel. “The Military Stability Commission Legislative package reassured our service members that Montgomery and communities across the state remain committed to doing what is necessary to support military families,” Reed said. “The passage of this legislation was another signal to defense leaders that Montgomery is moving forward and ready to invest in a better future for our community.”

    The decades-long relationship between Montgomery and the military remains mutually beneficial as Reed outlined. “With expanding missions and capabilities, Montgomery is uniquely positioned to be an innovator among defense hubs,” he said. “Our city is also primed to increase the network of River Region businesses working in support of these missions.”

    MGMWERX is an ideal example of the close ties being formed between the private sector and the military; the tech-focused initiative builds a direct bridge between the base and local entrepreneurs who’ve got innovative ideas that can benefit area military partners. “In many instances, this collaboration leads to new jobs and expanded opportunities in our city as a whole,” Reed said.

    Montgomery County Commission Chair Elton Dean also stressed the history between Montgomery and the military. “We have been so fortunate to have the military presence in Montgomery for so long, with Maxwell, Gunter and Dannelly Field,” he said. “The military is the biggest ‘business’ we’ve got and as such remains a huge player in terms of money coming in and people coming in. Both contribute a lot to our economy and our way of life.”

    Edwards makes it simple – equating what’s good for the military with what’s good for everyone here. “The military community is completely integrated into our community,” he said. “We may think of them separately, but there is just one community, our River Region community, so when we talk about things that benefit the military, we need to understand it benefits the entire area.”

    According to Sanders, some of these positives include the events, eateries, attractions and activities that appeal to the military as well as the surrounding community. “The Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery Biscuits, Montgomery Trails, Whitewater and expanding downtown restaurant choices are only a few\ examples of incredible opportunities which are here for visitors and residents alike to enjoy,” she said.

    Montgomery’s corporate citizens also understand the key role the military presence plays our community’s present and future and do their part to strengthen the partnership. But for many, it goes beyond protecting the bottom line; it’s also about recognizing and honoring service. “The men and women who serve our country, and their families, deserve nothing less than our very best and total support,” said Sanders. “They give of themselves, and we are right to do everything possible to make this a welcoming community.”

    It seems that so far, our hospitality has been effective. When they hit retirement, many who’ve served at Maxwell stay or even come back. Thousands of former servicemen and women elect to spend their golden years in the capital city. Hankins was at Maxwell for three years and joined the retirees’ ranks in 2005 and did so because he felt at home here. “We come back or stay because this community makes us so comfortable here,” he said. He went on to outline retirees’ vast impact. “We really get involved in the community, and we bring a lot of expertise,” he said. Hankins currently serves on seven different boards.

    Montgomery State Farm agent and past Chamber Chairman Willie Durham retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a master sergeant and shared what, in his opinion, makes the area so attractive to other military retirees. “The cost of living is great here. You are centrally located to a lot of great places. It’s a great environment for family,” he said. But those elements attract all kinds of people. The area’s open and obvious support of the military is often the deciding factor for those finishing their service. “The River Region is a patriotic community and strongly supports the military,” Durham said. “Our communities recognize the contributions our military members are making, so when it’s time to settle down post-military life, many decide to make The River Region home because of these things.”

    The Chamber’s new Director of Military and External Affairs Lori Rasmussen retired as a Colonel with the Air Force. She and her husband were both assigned at Maxwell more than once, and she was thrilled at the chance to come back to Montgomery. “Our children really grew to love their friends at Saint James school and the local area with Biscuits baseball, Auburn football and the overall welcoming environment,” she said. “In short, we didn’t feel like outsiders here in Montgomery, and after 16 moves with the Air Force, we grew to really appreciate that sense of home and belonging that we didn’t have as active duty military members. Of all the places I have been stationed, nowhere has been as welcoming and inclusive as Montgomery.”

    Describing the core elements of Montgomery’s warm welcome, Edwards circled back to the DoDEA pilot school and called it a “major success story” while praising the transparency and honesty that have been hallmarks of Maxwell’s connection to Montgomery. “We should be proud that the community’s relationship with the base is strong enough that they can identify requirements that would make things better for them, and we can get behind it and help make it happen,” he said. “Getting the pilot program approved shows the common goals shared by the Chamber, our elected leaders and the military.”

    Reed acknowledged the work to embrace our military neighbors is never done and outlined some of the ongoing endeavors as well as the motivations behind them. “My administration is investing approximately $50 million into neighborhoods and communities across Montgomery. Our goal is to uplift everyone in our city by improving quality of place and increasing access to resources and amenities,” he said. “The future of Montgomery is tied to the success of our military partners, along with the well-being and support of their families and loved ones. We take pride in being known as the Best Hometown in the Air Force, but my administration realizes we can and must do more to support these vital members of our community.”

    Like many other organizations, businesses and entities, the military is progressing with the times and putting focus and resources on enhancing and increasing the diversity among its ranks. Lt. Col. Kim Bender, Director, Public Affairs for Air University shed some light on AU’s diversity, inclusion and equity efforts.

    MBJ: What are some of the diversity, inclusion and equity programs and what are their goals?
    Bender: The goal of the Air University Diversity and Inclusion Council is to foster and nurture a culture at AU where the opportunity and privilege to serve is rooted in humanity and equality. The Council enriches the AU community by creating a welcoming and affirming culture guided by deliberate efforts to make a difference across the university and is comprised of military and civilian members. Some of the milestones the Council has accomplished since the creation and official charter are:
    • Published Air University Commander and President Diversity & Inclusion Statement
    • Incorporated AU/CC D&I Statement to Newcomer Packets (new civilian hires/military members)
    • Completed AU Enterprise Small Group “Meaningful” Discussions
    • Created D&I Resource Guide
    • Created D&I Library Resource Guide
    • Devised AU D&I Council Charter and
    • Appointed a Representative from Each School
    MBJ: What was the thought behind adding the Equal Justice Initiative experience to some of your senior leader training?
    Bender: The Eaker Center’s Commander’s School added the Equal Justice Initiative experience into the Chief of Staff’s pre-command training for wing and group commanders and their spouses as well as the group Senior Enlisted Leader students from the Barnes Center. On the heels of the Air Force’s Racial Disparity Review and in view of our National D&I challenges, there was an identified need to prepare our senior leaders to have some difficult conversations with their Airmen. In addition, we were fortunate to have Mr. Stevenson [founder of EJI] come speak to each of these classes this year about the importance of understanding our nation’s past, particularly as it pertains to racial injustice and inequality, in order to heal and move forward together.

    Following his remarks, the students had the opportunity to visit EJI’s Legacy Museum. The program is designed to allow students to gain an appreciation for part of our Nation’s history they might have otherwise been unfamiliar with, highlighting how some of that history can lead to some unconscious bias, or gain an understanding about the environment from which many of our Airmen come. Since the course is mandatory training for all inbound wing and group commanders—along with a sizable number of Air National Guard and Reserve commanders—the engagement prepares our senior leaders to have direct impact on our Airmen and their families at a local, tangible level. Feedback has been exceptionally positive, with the event consistently rated one of the best parts of the course.

    While Montgomery Whitewater, the pumped-water paddling course and outdoor entertainment and recreation venue scheduled to be open in 2023, will positively impact the entire region, bringing multiple fun activities for all ages, it is also the most recent wave in a swell of initiatives that area leaders point to when asked about current efforts to exhibit our commitment to our military partners. “The most visible change is occurring right now along Maxwell Boulevard, Montgomery Whitewater,” said Leslie Sanders, Vice President, Southern Division of Alabama Power and co-chair of the Military Stability Foundation and Commission. “The new park will anchor incredible development and growth around Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base and in west Montgomery.” Montgomery County Commissioner Elton Dean also gave the park a nod. “Everyone here and our visitors are going to love it. But as it is adjacent to the base, it will give military members and their families something fun and exciting to do, some topnotch entertainment and activity options unlike anything else we have now,” he said. “They have already been talking about it a lot and see it as a real positive.”

    Landing the Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets project, meaning 22 of the aircraft will be “bedded down” at the 187th Fighter Wing of the Alabama Air National Guard based at Montgomery’s Dannelly Field, was one of the River Region’s most significant victories ever in terms of strengthening the area’s military mission and adding serious boom to the local economy. The announcement was made in late 2018, and now, the transition of the wing from the F-16 to the F-35 mission is in progress. MBJ asked the folks at the 187th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard who are leading conversion efforts, including one of the training pilots, for a status update and some expanded info on the role the leading-edge warplane will play in our nation’s national defense strategy.

    What is the timeline for the F-35’s arriving here?
    Captain Silena Yow: The F-35 aircraft will begin arriving here sometime between July and December 2023. Once the first arrive, two to four additional aircraft will arrive every month thereafter until complete.

    What role does the F-35 play in our nation’s defense strategy?
    Colonel Doug DeMaio, Commander of the 187th: This is a really historic time. We are shifting away from parts of the world we’ve been in, and our national defense strategy is moving toward strategic competition with threats like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as terrorist activities. What strategic competition means is, the fight against a nation involves every citizen, all of us, not just the military; it is nation against nation, their way of life against ours. Our objective is to prepare for this strategic competition, and the F-35 is an integral piece. We have to accelerate change or lose. When you look at this wing’s history, the Tuskegee Airmen, they engaged the Nazis with quick movements. We are now leading in agile combat, like the Tuskegee Airmen were. We’re training our airmen to be multi capable, which means they have a primary job but are also ready for ancillary jobs. All of these points combine to be our vision.

    From your pilot’s perspective, how does the F-35 compare to the F-16?
    Lt. Col. Brian Miller: The main difference is the weapon system. The technological advantages of the F 35 are huge. The sensors and communications capabilities set it far apart, plus its stealth signature. This all combines to mean that others can’t see us, but we can see them, and we can tell others what we see. It really works well in a joint environment. From a “feel” standpoint, the F-16 Viper was designed in the 1970s. It’s like a fun, old-school ’69 Corvette. The F-35 is like driving a Tesla, with a smoother, more comfortable ride.

    What’s the “cool factor” of having these aircraft in Montgomery?
    Yow: As an Air National Guard unit, we are very high functioning, a very well-oiled machine as far as what we do now and executing our mission. That’s our reputation across the military and even outside the military. It’s a real honor for us to get the most advanced fighter aircraft and take that to the next level.

    Miller: We all ought to be so proud. From a guy who flies it, every time I do a flyover, people get excited to see it. And the caliber of pilots we have here at the 187th, they’re some of the most talented and hardworking in the nation, and to fly this aircraft you have to be at the top of your game. I think having the F-35 come to the 187th, coupled with our rich history of the Tuskegee Airmen, adds to the lineage and heritage of this wing.
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