The Enid community and Vance Air Force Base have had a close relationship ever since ground was first broken for construction of the facility in 1941.

But how many people not in the military or part of the base’s civilian work force really know what goes on every day behind the Vance gates?

Strengthening that community-military relationship, and educating local business and civic leaders about the day-to-day workings of the base, are two goals of Vance’s Honorary Commander program.

Every year 18 local business and civic leaders are asked to become honorary commanders of various units at the base. Each honorary commander serves a one-year term.

“It was designed to encourage the exchange of ideas, experiences and friendship between key members of the base and the community,” said Bob Far-rell, Vance’s community relations chief and the man in charge of the honorary commander program.

The program was begun in 2000 by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg. At the time, Raaberg was a colonel and was commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance. He brought the concept with him from his previous base, Dyess AFB, located in Abilene, Texas.

“We brought up a lot of the community leaders from Abilene to go over the program and what it meant to them,” said Farrell.

Col. Chris Nowland, the current Vance wing commander, is a firm supporter of the program.

“I am a big fan of the honorary commander program for several reasons,” Nowland said. “The most important reason is it helps strengthen the bond between Vance Air Force Base and the local community.”

Nowland called the honorary commander program “A fantastic vehicle to do that because it allows the interface of personalities and people, which is where relationships really get together.”

New commanders are welcomed and the outgoing group honored at a banquet that kicks off the new term. Each new commander receives a certificate of appointment.

The nucleus of the program is four group events. One is a wing tour, during which the honorary commanders receive a briefing outlining Vance’s mission and a tour of the base. The second is a tour of the 71st Operations Group, which gives the group a look at the base’s pilot training mission, including a trip to the flight line and the control tower.

Next they will get a tour of the 71st Mission Support Group, including 71st Security Forces Squadron and the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

The final tour involves a visit to the 71st Medical Group, which includes stops at aerospace physiology, during which honorary commanders get a look at the way pilots train to deal with the physical stresses of flight, as well as Mental Health flight and the Vance Clinic.

“With those four tours, they’ve got a basic, good working relationship and they understand what we do here and how we do it,” Farrell said. “It gives them a chance to meet a lot of Vance people within that year.”

“They get to do hands-on, fun type of activities and get a little bit of a taste and a little bit of an experience of what it means to be a member of the United States Air Force and a member of the 71st Flying Training Wing,” Nowland said.

Each honorary commander is assigned to a unit and will have a relationship with that unit’s active duty commander throughout the year.

“Maybe they will go to a sporting event, they may go out to dinner, or something, on a personal note,” Farrell said. “On an official note they can bring those honoraries out to attend commander’s calls, take them on tours of the squadron and understand how that particular squadron fits into the mission here at Vance. It’s pretty much what a commander and an honorary want to make of it.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit enjoyed by those chosen for the honorary commander program is the chance to take a ride in one of the aircraft used to train pilots at Vance, the T-6A, T-1 and T-38C. Flights are not mandatory, but are offered to each honorary commander.

The flights, Farrell said, give the honorary commanders the chance to “Feel and see first-hand what our mission is.”

“You truly can’t understand the mission of Vance Air Force base unless you understand the ops group and what the instructor pilots are doing,” Nowland said.

At the end of the year, he added, each honorary commander is “A pretty well-rounded individual that understands what Vance is all about.”

“We are hoping we get trained ambassadors out into the community,” Farrell said.

Each class of honorary commanders comprises a cross-section of people who are influential in different areas of community life. This year’s group includes former mayor Ernie Currier, Enid Police Department detective Lt. Brian Skaggs, Security National Bank President Brad Blankenship, Enid Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Hime and the Rev. Roy Schneider, pastor of Enid First Presbyterian Church.

“We don’t just pick anyone for this,” Farrell said. “It’s usually people that are in influential positions, that deal with a lot of people, that actually have a lot of contact with various folks, that can tell the Vance story.”

Honorary commanders are chosen, they don’t volunteer. Vance commanders can either recommend their own honorary, can take suggestions from people in their organization or pick from a list of candidates compiled annually by Farrell.

“We’re involved a lot in the community,” Farrell said, “in all aspects. We serve on boards, we go to churches, we do all the things a normal individual in the community would do. In doing so we come into contact with a lot of people.”

Commanders choose candidates and submit names to Farrell, who then goes over all the selections with the wing commander, who has the final say.

“Once the boss has signed off on that, they (Vance commanders) have the go-ahead to contact those individuals and make sure they want to be an honorary commander,” Farrell said.

Honorary commanders are given a one-year pass to the base.

“They can come and go and do whatever it is they want to do or with the squadron that they are involved with, or anything else that has to do with the base,” Farrell said. “As an honorary, not only is the squadron going to invite them to things, but if we hold certain events, we are going to invite them out as a distinguished visitor.”

In turn, honorary commanders will invite base personnel to community events.

“We really want it to be a two-way program,” Farrell said. “We want to get to know individuals within the community better, but the primary goal is so those individuals can understand and learn what Vance Air Force Base is all about.”

“We then also get the opportunity to talk to some significant civic leaders and understand their world a little bit,” Nowland said, “which helps us capitalize on new ideas, new thinking, innovative type of things that are going on in the business community or the local government arena.”

After their one-year term, honorary commanders are ineligible to take part in the program again.

“That does not mean that once you are not an honorary, that you will break off any relationship with Vance Air Force Base,” Farrell said. “If you want to be involved with the base, there are things out here to be involved with.”


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