Tuesday, January 10, 2012

TOP STORY >> Minihan: Mission is never done

Leader executive editor

Much has changed since Col. Mike Minihan, the outgoing commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, arrived at Little Rock Air Force Base in August 2010.

The U.S. was fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where C-130s from LRAFB were making deliveries day and night. The wing had not had a break since 9/11.

American combat forces have left Iraq, and the war is winding down in Afghanistan. Yet Minihan says even if the tempo of overseas operations has slowed, C-130s continue to fly into Afghanistan as well as into the Middle East in support of troops in forward operations near Iraq.

“Tonight we’re sending some folks off to war,” he said in an interview in his office Tuesday afternoon. “The tempo has slowed, but it’s still significant.”

“The tempo has lightened up a bit, but we’re changing focus on operations in Afghanistan,” Minihan explained.

About a dozen C-130s and 500 airmen are in combat operations right now, he said. At the height of Iraq and Afghan operations, up to half of the wing’s 50 combat-ready planes and several hundred more airmen were going into war.

Minihan is getting ready to clear out his office — his personal belongings are spread out all around his desk — on Jan. 31 to make way for Col. Brian (Smokey) Robinson as the new 19th Airlift Wing commander.

Robinson is executive officer to Gen. Raymond Johns Jr., commander of Air Mobility Command at Scott AFB, Ill.

Minihan will assume command of the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., from Brig. Gen. (Select) Jacqueline D. Van Ovost. She’s the officer who escorts President Obama to Air Force One.

The wing’s responsibilities include flying Air Force One and other planes assigned to top officials.

But in Tuesday’s interview, Minihan stayed focused on the 19th Airlift Wing, which he says is successful because of the character of its airmen and the community that supports them.

“The change of command is about the men and women of the 19th Airlift Wing,” Minihan said. “It’s a chance to say thanks to the airmen and their families and the community to celebrate the mission and the successes of the entire team. I can’t take credit for that.”


Pressured by Congress, the Obama administration has announced dramatic reductions in defense spending, yet the Air Force and Navy have been spared the worst cuts, which will amount to $1 trillion in the next decade.

The Air Force, like other services, will have to work under “fiscal constraints for the next couple of years” and make “manpower and monetary adjustments,” he said.

The Army and Marines have taken the brunt of the cuts as Pentagon officials plan on relying more on reaching global targets with the Air Force and Navy.

“The new strategy is more Air Force and Navy-centric,” Minihan said.

“The President and Congress have determined that the Defense Department must downsize. It’s very painful on the local level.”

The Air Force enlistment could drop to just over 300,000, about half of what it was two decades ago. But that will make the C-130 more essential than ever, the commander said.

“The base is relevant in the current fighting and future fights that might emerge,” he said.

For Minihan, any cuts are painful. “Compared with the Army and Navy, we’re less affected,” he said.

But the base has started laying off dozens of civilian workers, and more layoffs are likely.

“When we start cutting back, it doesn’t matter if it’s one or 40. It’s still a big deal,” Minihan said.


Minihan said the damage from last April’s tornado will take several years to repair.

He estimated 60 buildings, five planes, a hangar and other infrastructure suffered about $85 million in damage.

In addition, some 250 homes were also damaged.

He said the fire station still needs a new roof. One plane needs a new wing.

“It will be a long process,” he said of the repairs, which will take several years to complete. “Two planes will never fly again. Complete repairs are years away.”

The Pentagon has accepted a bid for $16.9 million for the first phase of the repairs, which will mean jobs for hundreds of local workers.


Minihan had hoped to stay here longer than 18 months.

His daughter, Adair, is a junior honors student at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs. He had hoped she would finish her year in the spring.

“To leave Team Little Rock six months earlier is devastating,” he said.

He said what makes it difficult to leave is the team work between the Air Force and the community.

“I understand the importance of the job,” he said. “It’s an absolute honor to command airmen and their families.”

“The challenges have been absolutely incredible,” Minihan continued. “We were promised a break in December 2010.”

But that didn’t last long. Two horrific snowstorms followed, then the tornado in April, and yet the base carried out thousands of combat sorties with thousands of airmen who were proud to call Little Rock Air Force Base their home.

Minihan was often on the flightline at 6 a.m. and watched families say goodbye to the airmen as they left on their three-day trip to combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The weekend before the tornado hit, he sent off 40 airmen and a couple of C-130s into combat.

“On Jan. 31, when I’m riding out of here, I’ll turn my attention to the 89th Airlift Wing,” he said of his new assignment.

“It’s an absolute honor to be offered a chance to lead again. Till then, I’m a Black Knight,” the 19th Airlift Wing’s insignia.

“It’s going to be hard to leave,” Minihan said. “My focus will be on Col. Robinson to make sure this wing goes on motoring.

“He’ll find out this place is amazing.”