Saturday, October 05, 2013

TOP STORY >> Colonel calls on public’s support

Leader editor

Col. Patrick Rhatigan, the commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, welcomed a visitor to his office Wednesday afternoon. The civilian receptionists were gone, along with the other civilian workers since the government shutdown Tuesday.

The base has laid off about 350 civilian employees — just over half the civilians there. Rhatigan said that at a staff meeting that morning, about half the people who usually attend were absent because they’re civilians.

“It feels like a ghost town,” said Rhatigan, who is a fighter pilot and cargo hauler. “We need those civilians to do our mission. We don’t have any extra people or money. I can guarantee you that.”

“These civilians have been through the wringer. They were furloughed for six days this summer because of sequestration,” the colonel said.

There are 690,000 people in the Air Force, Air National Guard and Reserves, including 170,000 civilians who are affected by the shutdown. “They are as integral to our jobs as anyone else,” he said.

(The Pentagon said late Friday it might soon recall 400,000 civilian workers in all branches of the military.)

“Like anywhere else, we close ranks,” said Rhatigan, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who grew up on nearby Long Island. “We try to get the mission done despite being shorthanded. We can only do that for a certain amount of time until you’re feeling the real impacts.”

Before taking charge of 19th AW last July, Rhatigan was commander of the 379th Expeditionary Operations Group in Southwest Asia from May 2012 to May 2013.

Rhatigan, who piloted bombing missions over Afghanistan, pointed to a framed photo on the wall showing several planes on a flightline in southwest Asia representing the Air Force’s three missions: RC-135 and E-8 intelligence planes (global vigilance or “see it and hear it”); C-21 and C-130 cargo planes and a KC-135 refueling plane (global reach) and a sleek B-1 bomber (global power).

He has flown them all, including the B-1 bomber, on missions in Afghanistan, where he dropped bombs on enemy convoys. He has also flown C-12, C-141 and C-17 cargo planes.

Rhatigan found out Monday his wing had passed a unit effectiveness inspection conducted mostly by the wing itself with outside supervision — a first for the Air Force.

This kind of new inspection doesn’t require dozens of outsiders and bigwigs to examine the base. After going through every unit’s strengths and weaknesses with the help of airmen, inspectors awarded the wing an overall effective rating and highly effective rating when it comes to executing the wing’s mission.

Then the government shut down, which has hurt morale.

“Uncertainty affects every area of operations,” Rhatigan told us. “Where are we going next? What are we going to look like in the next few years?

He said, “It’s on me to get them what they need.”

“In 2013, we had sequestration and had some draconian measures when we had to furlough our civilian employees. We don’t even have an FY 2014 budget, and now we’re trying to posture for FY15.”

As civilian workers go without a paycheck and there is uncertainty about pay for military members, Rhatigan says it’s more important than ever for the local community to show its support for the air base.

“Businesses have called to ask ‘how can we help?’ Banks have called to say they can ‘work with people who bank with us for overdraft protection.’ Any help for our airmen and civilians is more than appreciated. When people say they support our airmen, this is when we need their support because there are a lot of airmen as well as civilians living from paycheck to paycheck.

“They’re asking the same questions: How long will this take? How am I going to pay my bills? It’s breaking trust with the people who signed up voluntarily to serve their country.

“Right now, I have a crisis to deal with,” the commander continued. “We have civilians furloughed. Anything people can do to help is appreciated.

To save money, the commissary was closed Tuesday. When people heard about it, they bought all the perishables in a few hours.

“It was like a natural disaster there,” the commander said. “You drove by the commissary and the cars were stacked up. There was a run on the commissary. They’re closed. Once that was announced, the place filled up. Someone took a picture of the meat rack around 4 o’clock. Empty.

“What is the new normal?” Rhatigan asked. “We have to keep getting airplanes everywhere. Operationally, we are still getting planes in the air.

“We’ve reduced services across the base. We have the childcare center open, but, beyond that, this is all about taking care of the people. Broad picture, when you join the military, you get paid, there’s housing, there’s a health care plan, so you don’t have to worry about that. You can go out into harm’s way. It’s sort of a contract.

“For our civilians feeling that break in trust, all I can say is we need them back as soon as possible.

“We just sent 400 folks in the last two to three weeks out the door to Afghanistan,” the colonel continued. “Those folks are doing the combat mission in one of our military bases there.

“We’ve got folks in the combat mission, and we’ve got folks in the training mission. That’s not going away anytime soon. The enemy is indifferent to sequestration or government shutdowns. So we have to focus on that mission. We need our civilians to get our mission done. I need those civilians back.”