Fond farewell

James Whitmore, left, tries to stay dry Aug. 18 as he "congratulates" his father, 82nd Training Wing Commander Brig. Gen. James Whitmore, following his final flight at Sheppard. General Whitmore's executive officer, Capt. Jeanine Hatfield, gets in on the action, too. (U.S. Air Force photo/John Ingle)

James Whitmore, left, tries to stay dry Aug. 18 as he "congratulates" his father, 82nd Training Wing Commander Brig. Gen. James Whitmore, following his final flight at Sheppard. General Whitmore's executive officer, Capt. Jeanine Hatfield, gets in on the action, too. (U.S. Air Force photo/John Ingle)

Brig. Gen. James Whitmore, right, is congratulated by 80th Flying Training Wing Commander Col. Jeffrey Kendall following the general's final flight at Sheppard. (U.S. Air Force photo/John Ingle)

Brig. Gen. James Whitmore, right, is congratulated by 80th Flying Training Wing Commander Col. Jeffrey Kendall following the general's final flight at Sheppard. (U.S. Air Force photo/John Ingle)

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Brig. Gen. James Whitmore sat in his office Tuesday afternoon, briefly pausing as he contemplated the answer to the question he was just asked. 

The commander of the 82nd Training Wing thought of all the achievements the men and women of Sheppard accomplished during his tenure here. He mentioned the high promotion rates for enlisted and officers, finishing No. 1 in the Combined Federal Campaign and Air Force Assistance Fund drives, having the largest Air Force Sergeant's Association in the Air Force, and having so many "No. 1s" or "best of" individuals and organizations in Air Education and Training Command and the Air Force, adding it's difficult to list them all. 

But, as he prepares to leave Sheppard this morning following a change of command ceremony at the parade field, the proudest moment he recalled was one that tugged at his heart strings. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast almost a year ago, the men and women of Sheppard opened their hearts to comfort 1,200-plus displaced Airmen from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. 

"To see how everybody on this base came together, it was probably the galvanizing event for this wing on my watch," he said. "I had more people volunteering to do things than jobs for them to do. Everyone wanted to be involved." 

General Whitmore said personnel wanted to provide and help the displaced Airmen in addition to completing their daily jobs. He said he received thank you notes, e-mails and phone calls from parents, validating the tremendous job Sheppard had done in taking care of the Airmen. 

Watching off-base organizations and businesses respond before the first plane landed was also indicative of the valuable relationship the base shares with the community. 

General Whitmore said the atmosphere on Sheppard has changed over the last year from being viewed as strictly a training facility, to one that produces combat-ready Airmen. With today's high operations tempo, he said it was important for Airmen here to make that transformation. 

It began with banning the 'S' word, he said. 

"They're not students, they're Airmen," he said. "This isn't a campus, it's a military installation. We're preparing these Airmen to go out and take care of our nation's business." 

He said many Airmen could be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year of graduation. Because of the combat readiness training in basic training and the skills learned here, General Whitmore said Airmen today are much better prepared than they were in the not-to-distant past. 

"We owe that (training) to them," he said. "We owe that to their families." 

During the general's two-year stay here, he said more than 172,000 Airmen have been trained by the 82nd TRW. That equated to nearly two-thirds of the Air Force's active duty enlisted force. 

"No other wing does it like Team Sheppard," he said. "We taught them to go out and be warriors." 

An example of that was in mid-June when an Air Force F-16 dropped a smart bomb on a house in Iraq, killing al Qaeda's leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He said it wasn't just the explosion that killed perhaps the most sought after man in the world. It began in the training facilities here. 

He said peeling back the onion provides valuable insight into why that mission was successful. 

"When you look at all the people involved in getting that aircraft to the right place at the right time to execute the mission, where were they all trained?" he asked. "The crew chief, the weapons folks, the avionics technician, the fuels person ... all of them learned their skills right here at Sheppard. One person doesn't make the mission go, it takes an entire team." 

The general said Sheppard has been his most rewarding assignment in his career because he can see the tangible results of the hard work of this great team - our graduating Airmen. But, it's also been rewarding because of the relationships he's built within the community, on and off base. 

As with any good commander, the general said he believes it is important to try to leave a unit in better shape than you find it. He is proud that we're no longer focused on just getting Airmen-in-Training through the pipeline, but are geared toward the bigger picture.
"We are literally building tomorrow's Air Force, today," he said. "It will only be as good as we make it." 

General Whitmore's new assignment will be at the Pentagon as the director of Operations and Support Integration, Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force.