Squadron Commanders’ course focuses on leadership: Gen. and Mrs. Welsh share experiences and expectations

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- On the wall behind Gen. Mark Welsh's desk is a framed American flag and plaque, and on its back is inscribed in pencil "With my deepest respect, MSgt McGarr" - a gift presented to him during a farewell in 1992; it was a flag the general flew during a combat mission in the Gulf War for the maintainer. It was a life lesson he has never forgotten.

Welsh and his wife, Betty, shared many of their personal and professional experiences with 15 attendees at the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Squadron Commanders' and Spouses' seminar held June 18 to 22 here.

Addressing the commanders and their spouses, he said above all else, the job is all about people.

"Performance is the bottom line," said Welsh. "You don't perform without people, and people don't perform without pride."

Deployed as a squadron commander in the first Gulf War, then Lt. Col. Welsh approached his F-16 Fighting Falcon in preparation for a bombing mission over Baghdad, Iraq, and noticed that Master Sgt. Dave McGarr, his nightshift senior NCO, added a small American flag to his maintenance vehicle's antenna. Welsh said he offered to take the flag on the mission and the visibly stunned sergeant responded, "You'd do that for me?"

After completing the mission, Welsh said he returned the flag to McGarr who held it gently, treating it like a prized possession. The general said he didn't think anything more of it until McGarr presented the flag to him at a farewell ceremony nearly two years later.

"Leadership is a gift," said Welsh. "It's given by those who follow you, but you have to be worthy of it."

It was a theme ingrained in each aspect of the seminar. And, he said, commanders and their spouses play an equal part in taking care of one another and the Airmen in their unit.

"Your job is to ensure your people are taken care of, they're proud to do what they do and their performance meets the standard we set," Welsh added.

The seminar, held four times a year, was created in 1998 following a decision at Corona South '95 to educate squadron commanders on command philosophies regarding leadership and policies. During the seminar, that translates into reality-based training and education to help inbound commanders, as well as their spouses, attain mission and command success while focusing on taking care of Airmen and families.

Michelle Padgett, assistant course manager for the seminar, said although the seminar curriculum was developed before the Welsh's arrival in December 2010, they've added a personal touch that's changed the way the course is executed.

"They have a shared vision that they brought into the (USAFE) leadership team," said Padgett. "They shared it with the functional experts. It has translated to the Airmen that there is a commitment and trust in the mission, how we get ready, how we develop and care for our people."

That commitment begins with squadron commanders, she said.

"What we're doing is we're planting a seed," said Padgett. "General and Mrs. Welsh are putting their expectations forward so (the commanders and their spouses) know what their leadership thinks and how they fit into the big picture."

Lt. Col. Keithen Washington, 86th Force Support Squadron incoming commander, said he encourages new commanders to bring their spouses to the seminar.

"It's a unique opportunity to hear from the MAJCOM commander and (his) spouse to get their perspective on how to operate," he said. "It also gives the spouses an opportunity to see the rigors commanders will go through for the next two years, the challenges and what kind of support will be essential to help them be successful."

While Corona's intent was to educate inbound commanders, a significant portion of the USAFE seminar is dedicated to spouses.

The seminar is the Welsh's first opportunity to share their knowledge with both audiences, said Mrs. Welsh.

"We just want to make sure we reach them and empower them to feel comfortable for when they go back and become part of that command team," she said.

Tina Lovell attended the seminar with her husband, the 48th Maintenance Operations Squadron inbound commander, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. She said the course is meeting all of its objectives.

"This was an invaluable course," said Lovell. "You get a good feel for the mission rather than reading it out of a book or on a PowerPoint. We were very fortunate to see it firsthand."

Lovell said she learned a lot about the variety of support programs available from the health and wellness center to the airman and family readiness center to the services provided by TRICARE. Lovell added that she now better understands how to help the squadron as the commander's teammate.

"I feel that I can be a mentor, armed with the knowledge that I've learned here," Lovell said. "And even if I don't know the answer, I've learned where to go to get answers for the spouses in my group."

Lt. Col. Bradley Barnhart, 86th Mission Support Group deputy commander, and his wife attended the course in March 2011 as the 86th Communications Squadron incoming commander. He said the seminar laid a foundation for their success.

"The lessons learned reduced the coordination and 'crisis management' times," said Barnhart. "The course provided a basic understanding of these programs, which I was able to use as a foundation for the base-specific expectations."

Since the first course, Barnhart has returned several times to offer briefings and share his experiences as a commander. He said he's impressed with the attention General and Mrs. Welsh devote to the course.

"Many courses have a welcome letter or 10-minute opening from the owner of the course, but General Welsh will know every attendee by their first name by the end of the week," said Barnhart. "That speaks volumes to his leadership style and the importance he puts on this course, but more importantly, it also defines the expectations he has of the commanders within USAFE."