Maj Gen Christopher J. Bence, commander of the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center, tours the facilities of the 8th Expeditionary AMS at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, March 4, 2018. USAF photo by SSgt Joshua Horton
By MS. KIM KNIGHT, Staff Writer
Maybe the old adage is true that “all good things must end.” But not everyone who retires from a lifelong career can say they’re leaving behind a legacy that will continue touching lives worldwide for years to come!
I caught up with Major General Christopher J. Bence, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center (EC) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. We discussed accomplishments of the EC enterprise under his command and he shared some parting thoughts as his official retirement approaches in December. He began with an overview of the EC, which cares for eight subordinate organizations.
“To help us better support those organizations, we operationalized the staff,” he explained. “We created a directorate of plans, a directorate of logistics, and a directorate of strategy and policy so we can continue to deliver Rapid Global Mobility around the world.”
Bence said the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center puts the “RAPID” in Rapid Global Mobility through its five lines of effort:
He then explained how EC activities enhance partnerships within and outside of the Department of Defense and the Air Force.
“We provide Responsive joint basing and installation support. For example, we maintain close relationships with the 80-plus mission partners at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. That includes events like staging for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] relief efforts and joint exercises like Mobility Guardian. Over 30 nation partners participated in that last year—about 3,000 personnel.”
To exemplify Agile contingency response operations, he talked about the Mobility Support Advisory Squadrons.
“The west coast squadron, which is predominantly Spanish speaking, works a lot for SOUTHCOM in Central and South America. We have a team in Panama now and one in Guatemala. Our east coast squadron is predominantly French speaking Airmen who work a lot for AFRICOM. Those squadrons build partnership capacity around the world.”
The Persistent global en route operations are top notch, according to Bence. Indeed, 23 countries are on the receiving end of command and control, aerial port operations, aircraft maintenance, and aeromedical evacuations. He added that installations everywhere develop valuable relationships with host nations, allies, and partners around the world, which will be in place when a crisis happens.
“Innovative expeditionary education and training is ongoing, too,” he said, “in subjects ranging from aircraft maintenance to intelligence to combat skills. One recent Phoenix Raven graduate was from Norway, and an air advisor course included four British personnel who were going to stand up operations in Afghanistan. Everything we do enhances our relationships with partner nations.”
Bence said that Developing world class Airmen is a cornerstone of the EC and drives the staff to meet continually changing demands.
“When combatant commanders needed increased Air Force personnel to deploy, we doubled the amount of training for those personnel,” he continued. “We train for hostile environments, as well as uncertain environments like personnel may find in Africa. We went from approximately 2,000 students per year to over 4,000, and most courses are about three weeks long.”
He said the EC expanded training to meet requests for things like production supervision, missile maintenance, and bomber maintenance. And oh yes, there was the Mobility Guardian exercise …
“We provided all the base operating support at Lewis-McChord, and our contingency response forces simulated opening airfields in austere locations—but in Washington State, of course. Plus, we deployed and opened a main operating base and helped stand up an aeromedical evacuation staging flight. Our forces partnered with Australian forces, which turned out great!
The Expeditionary Operations School teaches on site and online, and courses give Community College of the Air Force credits. Bence said in 2017 alone, the EC graduated over 43,000 students and handed out almost 30,000 credits!
It is hard to condense his long and illustrious career into these few pages without mentioning a few extraordinary efforts, some of which occurred simultaneously or in quick succession. As he deployed a contingency response team after Hurricane Matthew, which devastated the Caribbean and Haiti, his team in Iraq was opening a critical air base that ultimately allowed the Iraqi Air Force to clear Mozul. A few weeks later, a third team went to Syria to build a landing zone so Syrian partners could fight against ISIS.
“In Iraq, that meant 340 missions, 3,000 passengers, and over 440 tons of cargo,” he said. “At the Syrian airfield, there were 230 missions, 14,000 personnel, and over 3,000 tons of cargo. Then came hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Contingency response forces deployed, and we provided command and control expertise to the air operations center in Florida, where they ran over 800 sorties and moved 11 million pounds of relief effort very quickly.”
Regardless of the location or events, Bence said working alongside skilled Airmen who respond to the world’s needs 24/7, all 365 days a year, means he never had a bad assignment.
“They and their families made this a career instead of just a job. Everywhere I have been was equally memorable, rewarding, and fulfilling. I can’t think of a better way to close my career than as a U.S. Air Force EC commander with a phenomenal mission and a great bunch of Airmen.”
The Expeditionary Center is the Air Force’s center of excellence for advanced combat support training and education, while also providing direct oversight for en route and installation support, contingency response, and building partner capacity mission sets within the global mobility enterprise. The Expeditionary Center provides operational control of the Expeditionary Operations School and administrative control for five wings and two groups within Air Mobility Command.He left them—and you—some words of wisdom.
“The foundation for success is truly abiding by Air Force core values: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all you do every day. Also, I hope we created conditions where people really enjoy their work. Obviously, we must not compromise safety, but if you aren’t having fun, then you’re doing something wrong. Finally, I challenge you to learn something each day, whether personal or professional.”
In closing, General Bence said he is grateful for his wife Wendy and daughters Breanna and Rebecka who served along with him for the duration of his incredible career, and they look forward to the next chapter in life.