By Melissa Goslin Collins
The civilian jobs often intersect with their military lives. Brig. Gen. Norman Ham is a pilot for Delta Airlines, so when he became commander of the 440th Airflift Wing at Pope Field, he simply traded his Delta blues for the signature Air Force green jumpsuit.
But his command chief master sergeant, Jeffrey Roeder, leaves behind more than just his family back home in Wisconsin; he also leaves a dozen workers in the small chemical factory where he's worked for 24 years. "My military career has virtually nothing in common with my civilian job," he says, a job where he manages an inventory of products designed to make paper whiter and glossier. He has cross-trained on just about every aspect of the business, from driving the forklift to shipping and receiving. As the top enlisted person in the wing, he offers guidance on every matter from finances to family matters.
"It's similar to deployment," Roeder says, "except I can pick up the phone and call my family at any time."
Reservists have often been called "weekend warriors," but things have changed since those old television commercials touting one weekend a month and two weeks a year of service. As Col. Karl Schmitkons, wing vice commander, points out, the 440th is the first Air Force Reserve wing to have an active associate. As an Air Reserve technician, Schmitkons has a unique role as a civil service employee and an Air Force reservist; his civilian job essentially requires him to be a reservist. "People come to us with a wealth of experience to offer. On the average, reservists are older," Schmitkons says. "In general, they focus on one job and get really good at it."
As part of the Base Realignment and Closure Act, the 440th Air Reserve moved from Milwaukee to Pope. The first unit training assembly was in October 2007 when about 120 folks flew down for the weekend. These days, closer to 50 make the trip once a month, flying in Friday and staying through Sunday. They are Fayetteville's Wisconsin commuters.
The 440th maintains the C-130H2 Air Force Reserve Hercules aircraft, and even its commander pencils flight time into his busy schedule. "I call the C-130 the airline of choice in the war zone," Ham says. "We bring the beans, the bullets and the people."
It seems the actual flying isn't so different from his Delta runs. "As far as flying from point A to point B, there's not a lot of difference," Ham says. The difference, he points out, is in sticking the landing on a commercial craft after flying military planes for a while. "You have to make sure you don't bang it in, but at least you have a built-in excuse for your hard landing."
Juggling a military career with the civilian one at Delta has been challenging, but you won't hear Ham complain. He accepts his roles with equal parts humility and inevitability.
"I'm a statistic," Ham says. "The oldest son of a pilot has an 85 percent chance of becoming a pilot himself." His father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam. "I give him grief about flying fighters, and he gives me grief about flying heavies."
On Ham's watch, his senior leaders, including Schmitkons and Roeder, are encouraged to do walk-arounds. "I thoroughly enjoy getting out in the wings with the boss," Roeder says. "It allows us as a leadership to get to know our people on a much deeper level."
He credits his military background with providing the structure and discipline that allows him to work well unsupervised. "It's a skill that has served me well," Roeder says. "I have great relationships with my civilian and military bosses as a result."
It also helps that he has an understanding family. Roeder recently traveled to Wisconsin to see his son graduate from high school. It was a bittersweet trip - a proud moment but also a reminder of all the family time he's missed. "I have a very understanding family. They've been phenomenal," Roeder says.
The military calls Pope's blend of Reserve and active-duty cooperation "total force initiative."
"It makes a lot of sense, especially in this fiscal environment where we need to do more with less," Schmitkons says.
Roeder and Ham are quick to clear up misconceptions the private sector may have about their jobs. "Ten to 15 years ago, people thought of us as weekend warriors," Ham says. "It's so far from the truth. Over half of the airlifts are done by reservists." He should know. On any given day at Delta, out of 12,000 pilots, between 500 and 600 are on long-term military leave.
"I have so much fun here," Ham says. "I show up for work and people are always doing great things. There's a special bond between military members and the civilian community here. We get amazing civic support."
Still, a commercial pilot's life is always calling. "That's what I'll go back to," Ham says. "Some day."