MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
“For us, Minot is unique. A unique place and a unique challenge” says Col Michael Walters during a recent interview “Minot was our first choice; this is where we wanted to come.”
Col Walters and his family arrived in Minot in the middle of July to assume his duties as commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, and Minot Air Force Base. His resume includes time flying all 3 of the current Air Force bomber inventory including the B-52, B-1B and B-2. After 2 years in Qatar, the decision of the Walters family was MAFB. “This is where Carri and the girls wanted to come, because it’s hard, not because it’s easy” relates Col Walters. “This (MAFB) is where you come to learn to do it well!” For Walters the goal is simple; “When Airmen leave here I want them to be better than when they got here, and I think this place will make you that way. You don’t get better by half-stepping it or setting the throttles at 60%...you’ve got to challenge yourself. Only The Best Come North? You’ve got to earn that every day and that IS what makes you better.” For Walters that goes with a responsibility. “Whether Airmen want to stay for 20 years and retire, or whether they want to do a first term and get out and do something great in the civilian world, I think we have the responsibility here to make them better.” When Col Walters is on social media and catches some of the “old guys” talking about the cold, they talk about it fondly, now; “but more than likely they were the people who were griping and complaining when it (the cold) happened. They may not have liked it, but immediately after it was over, they were proud of what they did.”
Col Walters believes the generation currently serving on MAFB is no different, in that they need to be put into positions and challenged so that they grow. “Growth is hard” according to Walters; “it hurts a little bit, but it’s no different than going to the gym and running or working out…it’s supposed to hurt a little bit.” And after they finish their time at MAFB? “They will look back and be proud of what they have done.”
Getting lulled into a victim mentality is easy, according to Walters and if you enable that type of perspective or approach, “People will buy into it. I am not one of those people,” Walters continues. “They need to understand that you have a role in this, to make it better, to make it what you want. Others can’t do it for you. You have a role to play in this. To make it better, to make it what you want it to be. You have a critical part in making this not just your assignment, but your home.”
The First 6 Months- COVID Tempered
“My first 6 months here were awe inspiring,” according to Col Walters “our time here has already re-affirmed what I knew about Team Minot when I showed up here; it’s a special place.”
The first 6 months were also a challenge for Col Walters and Team Minot. “A testament to what our Airmen, our civilian work force, our families and our community partners can do. Even though 2020 may have a footnote beside it that talks about COVID-19, I have been impressed with our team’s ability to not skip a beat. I’m talking resiliency and the ability to adapt and evolve in challenging times.” There was an unwavering ability to meet the commander’s requirements, guarantee our nation’s security and re-assure our allies according to Col Walters “It’s been impressive.”
Col Michael Walters Takes Command
Col Walters acknowledges that he has pushed the 5th Bomb Wing hard with a well-planned out strategy. “My first 30 days I would observe and not change anything. The second 30 days we re-baseline standards, and the third 30 days we are going to surge” Walters shares “and by in large, that is what we have done.” But Walters is quick to point out, “And they (the 5th Bomb Wing) have responded and responded well!”
And once the bar has been set? “We look for how we can find incremental improvement, where can we up our game.” And according to Col Walters “Not just for the sake of improving the mission and the unit, but for improving each one of the folks that is here and are part of the team. They are the ones who are doing all of the work.” Walters sees himself doing just vector checking and make sure the team has the right objectives. “They send us great Airmen, and I think we need to acknowledge the talent and continue to develop it…that’s human capital.”
“Something I learned a long time ago. The job of a leader is to develop future leaders. That’s part of our job, a big part of it. It’s something that I take seriously, and my team is tracking. We need to build leaders at all levels.” And to retain those leaders Col Walters believes that it is not only important to empower them but enable them. “It’s easy to say ‘go do’, but if they (members of the team) don’t know how to go do, we missed the mark. And the goal of leaders at all levels is to build, teach and train our folks.”
The Need To Challenge
“Our people need to be challenged, and a lot of times challenged in ways that they haven’t been” says Walters. “That’s uncomfortable for folks, and it requires feedback and professional critiquing. Those are uncomfortable conversation to have sometimes. Nobody wants to hear that they are not the best thing since sliced bread.” But Walters also understands that nobody’s perfect. “And when you think you are perfect and don’t have anything to learn, that’s a sure-fire way to get yourself in trouble.”
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
“I refuse to surround myself with ‘yes’ people that tell me what I want to hear, and I want to make sure that my folks approach it the same way” according to Walters “You need to hear the good, the bad & the ugly because none of us has it figured out yet, and so I think it is much better to surround yourself with folks who know that they can be open and honest.” Walters believes that is how collectively an organization improves. “I want and need Airmen to be comfortable making mistakes. There are some aspects of our job that we can’t make a mistake on- the nuclear mission. The nuclear mission is critical.” But Walters goes on to explain “we build by making mistakes and being comfortable with making those mistakes. However, you must accept critique and work to improve and ultimately be a better version of yourself.
The Minot Missions
“Minot is unique,” Walters continues, “the mission is hard, and the environment can be hard…but my message to people is that you will be given the chance to do a lot of things.” And Walters has this advice for all of his Airmen; “So, if you are going to show up, and you are going to commit yourself to this (the job and mission), then do it well, engage, do the best that you can and leave it all on the table.” Walters explains that nobody is more surprised than himself that he has been able to do what he has. “I am extremely fortunate and humble to have had those opportunities. I feel that because I’ve had this opportunity (command of the 5th Bomb Wing) I need to earn it every day. So, before I turn the lights out every night, I turn back the clock and do a mental tally. Did I leave it all out on the field? Not for me, but for the Airmen I work with and for. I need to set examples for those Airmen” says Walters.
When You Wake Up Each Morning
“The first thing I think about is…OK, what are the big tasks at hand? What are the second and third decisions that I will make and how they will affect our forces and our families? How will those decisions accomplish the mission?” shares Walters. “But it’s a balance. If you think too far ahead, it can be overwhelming. But if you are too short sighted you will miss something.” Col Walters smiles and says, “My Dad used to say if you want to make God laugh, show him your plan.”
Being Flexible & Willing to Adapt
“You need to be flexible, willing to adapt to an evolving situation,” Walters says. “That’s really what I’ve learned, too. There’s a lot going on, and you have to constantly be flexible, you have to teach your folks to be flexible and adapt, and constantly find those incremental improvements. I don’t need or necessarily want someone to make a 100% improvement on a multitude of things all at once. Sometimes all it’s about is a 1% improvement on one thing that day, and if you multiply that by the 12,000 plus people who are on this installation, think of the dramatic improvement you would have” Walters shares.
World Class-It’s A Mindset
“It’s a mindset…it’s ensuring that we are doing everything we can to get that buy-in, that improvement, that self-assessment and wanting to be varsity…wanting to be world class. That is what is important. That’s really what I want. Not for me, but for the organization.” Walters continues, “For the people that are here, you want them to have the opportunity to be part of something that is world class. You don’t get a lot of opportunities like that.”
Other Thoughts & Questions:
Funding The Nuclear Triad
“There are multiple things in our budget that Global Strike Command and General Ray have taken the lead on. I can assure you that not only with the Warbirds, but also with the Roughriders, the mission sets are, and will continue to be relevant,” Col Walters says with confidence. “When you talk about the relevance of the mission set here; our nuclear deterrent really underwrites our diplomatic efforts and actions globally. It backs our conventional forces in what we do, and it deters our adversaries as well as assuring our allies. So our ability to be able to do that 24/7, 365…that’s a big deal. I don’t think the relevance of our mission set whether nuclear or conventional, the 5th or the 91st, I don’t think that becomes irrelevant. I don’t see it changing with the emerging strategic competition with Russia, China or other potential adversaries. While there is always competing demand for funding, the modernization of the strategic nuclear force continues to be critical for the defense of our nation, and interestingly enough, the nuclear triad has remained, whether it be on one side of the aisle or the other, the most effective way to maintain deterrence, and it’s done by being responsive, being flexible and being survivable. We have a lot of irons in the fire right now that make sense from the standpoint of being able to maintain that nuclear deterrent. We’ll continue to evolve, and we’ll continue to maintain our relevance and provide that deterrence piece for the President of this nation.”
Taking Home The Omaha Trophies
“I think it validates what the Warbirds and the Roughriders already know in their hearts, we’re world class organizations, we’re varsity, and the awards validate that we do what we need to do to perform at that level, 24/7, 365. I think the recognition is great and I am proud of our folks for having sustained such a high level of mission excellence and performance, but I always think you have to be careful about believing your own press. Trophies are great and awards are important, it’s important recognition to be able to give praise and slaps on the back. People need that. The Omaha Trophy is great, and you stand at the top of the mountain, but you don’t want to stand there too long because the air is thin, and you have to come down sometime and earn it again. Like we say, this place is a challenge, but calm seas never made a great sailor. You got to be able to take some risks to get that reward.”
No Training Missions
“What we do is a big deal. Nothing we do here, and I tell people this every day, whether you are sitting alert in a 91st Missile field or turning a wrench to fix a jet for the 5th, none of those are training missions. We don’t fly training missions in the 5th, we don’t do training missions in the 91st. All of those are operationally active missions. What I mean is that our ability to launch those jets, to fly those missions, and I don’t care if it’s going out to Powder River for a 4-hour sortie or going over the Persian Gulf for a 38-hour sortie, those are active deterrents. They demonstrate our ability to provide global strike capability, anywhere, anytime, at a time of our choosing. It proves to our allies and our adversaries that we can do it. And we’ve done it” Col Walter says with conviction.
Maintaining The Pace
“We’ve been going at a pretty good clip since I’ve been here,” according to Col Walters, “and we haven’t skipped a beat. That’s hard to do even in an easy environment. We’ve done it when it’s hard. We’ve done it when it’s 47 degrees below zero. We were the hardest hit state, county & city, per capita, with active COVID cases and never skipped a beat. I got here and we did the Bomber Task Force to Europe in the midst of COVID. Then we did Global Thunder and the first Prairie Vigilance (PV) and some higher headquarter missions. Then we went right into a Nuclear Surety Staff Assistance Visit, then right into another PV, and between December 26th and January 16th we flew 4 different missions to the CENTCOM AO that were 38-hour sorties to demonstrate our ability to do it, to support CENTCOM and General McKenzie, and to show our adversaries and our potential adversaries that we are able to do it. That’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because not everybody can do it. So, it makes our adversaries stop and question whether they want to make that next strategic move. It’s one thing to park fighters in someone’s back yard overnight. It’s a completely different message when you can send B-52s anytime, anywhere, around the globe at the drop of a hat, good times or bad. That’s a big deal to me. A lot of times people forget that we are able to do that. And so, the Super Bowl…they got a lot of press and I think it was great and it showed a lot of people the trifecta and how we can join bombers at one point, at one time and fly over a football stadium for the world to see…we do that every day, every day, and I’m proud of that.”
“My biggest challenge is, where is the right position for that re-set? Where is our surge capacity? I keep a really close eye on that to be sure I am not pushing folks and families too hard. But finding that curve, that apex, right, where we perform right on the curve of the apex, and not getting too far across that power curve.”
Your Thoughts On How to Improve the Quality of Life on MAFB?
“You need to be open and honest and improve our feedback system so that we are hearing what is working and addressing the stuff that’s not.”
Col Walters continues, “ We need to make sure that we are hearing what those issues are and that we are addressing issues that are posing challenges for our folks and it’s important to me that they see the steps that we are making towards improving the quality of life.”
We’re Winning Battles
“We’ve had several heavy lifts since I have been here, you can talk to my folks, we have been pushing hard to get some of those wins in the first several months, because you want to establish trust, a genuine trust.”
“First was reinvigorating the ties between the base and the community because it has to be more than an assignment, it has to be a home. For that to happen, especially in a COVID environment, folks have to know who their community is. The civic leaders have been great about making themselves available to us to come up with new ideas and to help us.”
“Adopt an Airman- A lot of the Airmen that come to the community are young Airmen, so they are still maturing. So, we need to understand that part of the community is raising Airmen, and I think it’s fundamental for the community to have a role in it.”
“Having a Diversity and Inclusion Council to make sure we are addressing the issues with discrimination whether you are talking racial or otherwise. Making folks feel that this is a home that they are comfortable with and that we are addressing issues as far as diversity.”
“Working with Minot State University to make sure that we have educational programs that Airmen can take advantage of that can transfer back & forth between what they do here on the base, and elevate their opportunity to get an advanced education and also provide an interim program here on the base for local folks from Minot that are going to Minot State will have an opportunity to intern here on the installation and maybe have an opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and we really appreciate the University for what they have done.”
“We opened a new Welcome Center, so we can do a better job of on boarding our Airmen and their families, along with a sponsor program, for each unit. I have a high bar for what we are doing as far as sponsoring Airmen and making sure that no Airman shows up here and is lost and doesn’t know the culture of what their particular unit is, let alone the wing. I want to make sure they are welcome; they are sponsored, and they are onboarded correctly. Not just into this base, but into this community.”
“Along with that is the Key Spouse program. I feel that over the last couple of years we haven’t really taken advantage of this existing Air Force program. So, it’s a big deal that I tasked the squadron commanders and the group commanders to get after the Key Spouse program. It’s a commander’s program to be able to use Key Spouses to make sure that our spouses and families are informed about what we are doing and to be able to have the line of communication between the spouse network and key leaders on the base.”
“We’ve opened up the ESC (Airmen Entertainment Social Center). It’s great that we now have a virtual gaming center, but it’s also a way to prove to Airmen that I am serious, and if they come up with a great idea, and they are willing to sacrifice their time and their hard work, then I’ll fund that idea. It’s by Airmen, for Airmen. The Airmen are the ones that are going to have the great ideas. The Lt looks at the world through a completely different lens than you or I do. So, he sees problems differently than I do. These young Airmen are going to be the ones to come up with a solution. I just have to be willing to listen and advocate for it, through the authority or the funding line that I have. And that was what was really important and was fascinating about the ESC. That it was their work, that it was their idea, and we were able to put that idea into action, and that’s what I want Airmen to learn from the ESC…that you have a voice; and I’ll empower your idea, so show me what you are capable of doing.”
“Over and above that, we’ve got the dome. We’re going to put turf on the field behind the McAdoo, so it will be a turf field and we’ll put a dome over it. We’ll start putting the hardware in place this fiscal year and follow up over the next year or so to be able to start laying in the turf which I’m pretty excited about.”
“What we’ve accomplished overall is just taking the time to listen to folks and being critical in thought in this process.”
Where do you see MAFB going in the next 6 months?
“That constant incremental improvement in order to make us a preferred home for Airmen, not just an assignment. When people say ‘Why Not Minot’, I want to be able to list the reasons why you want to come here. I want this base to be number one on their list, for all the right reasons. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, right?”
“You want to be a great Airmen? You want to be that better version of yourself? This is where you go, because we challenge folks, and we are a varsity team.”
“I have the right people here, I have the right team here that holds themselves to that higher standard that holds others to the higher standard that they have established for themselves.”
“This place is important to me, and it means something that while we are here this place is our home.”
We want doers!
“Great ideas are a dime a dozen. I want doers. That is how we make this place what it is and keep it where it is at. It’s not just great ideas, its people sacrificing and getting action on those ideas. Airmen watch that, they are watching to see if you are going to put-up or shut-up. My credibility is important to me.”
“It’s a huge responsibility for me, not only the mission that we do, but it’s also the Airmen and the fact that I have parents and I have families and I have children dependent upon me making the right decisions. It’s important to me that I build leaders, it’s important to me that we provide a safe and controlled environment for people to grow and develop in. That’s a very real thing. I’ll never be the best pilot any more, and I’ll never be able to do the things that I got a kick out of in the past…the important stuff to me is to make this that varsity, world class team. I propose to them that they can be that amazing version of themselves. It’s a privilege and it’s an extreme honor. I am the luckiest person for getting the opportunity. If you can’t do it genuinely and authentically, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”