KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
When he first arrived at Kirtland AFB in June 2019, Col. David Miller had a few important items on his bucket list. Among them:
“Do I really like red or do I really like green?”
Miller said he had a vague idea about what he was getting himself into, but kept himself flexible for whatever came next.
“When you come into a position like this, you have ideas about what processes to work and how you want to take care of the people making the mission happen. I came in with a lot of inclinations of what I wanted, but nothing really solid.”
At Kirtland, he found a complex set of priorities.
“All the mission partners, the work they are doing, it’s all critically important. How do you best take care of them and facilitate their work, while simultaneously taking care of our own operationally focused mission here at the 377 ABW?”
During his tenure, Miller said he was able to accomplish many of the targets he initially set for himself, despite the all-encompassing COVID-19 pandemic that would strike.
“Building our relationship with the downtown folks was very important to me when I first got here, and I think we’re seeing the fruits of all the time spent working on that. Relationships with the mission partners have improved, we’ve really brought the organizations together.”
Miller spoke on many topics, with one common thread: how proud of the Airmen he was.
“I get a thrill being around Airmen and seeing them flourish and grow. We’ve made progress in the way Airmen connect with each other, in how we all take care of each other. I am proud of how our Airmen relate with each other, the whole wingman concept, and taking care of each other.”
Even during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have seen him starting to ramp up his own initiatives and programs, Miller said he was impressed with how completely the community worked together to tackle COVID.
“When we put together our mission-critical forces to make the mission happen, to find a way to thrive during the pandemic, and to see the way the entire wing came together around that. Every piece of the wing came together to help support that effort; fire, finance, security forces, airfield ops, contracting, personnel, everyone had a role to play in it. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard, it was, but the team blew it out of the water. When we had to quarantine 300 of our mission critical forces, we did that better than anyone else in the DoD. The Secretary of Defense referred to our model as the gold standard. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Miller recalled the first time he heard about COVID-19.
“I first heard about it from the news, but the first local conversation about it was from Col Coleman. He was the first, at the senior leader level, to bring it up. He brought the issue to me and said ‘we should be watching this more closely.’ Within a week of that, it hit the West Coast, and that’s when he warned me: ‘It’s coming.’”
A global pandemic has a way of affecting everything it touches.
“If I wanted to blame anything about why we aren’t were we were originally planning to be, it would be because of COVID. One thing that came out of this was learning which tasks are important. Certain things we couldn’t get done because of COVID. Maybe they aren’t all that important, because we’ve been able to make it this far without doing some of those things. COVID helped us to see the forest through the trees.”
Different processes and diverse management styles were not the only thing that changed during COVID; people learned a lot about how they work best.
“We saw many people thrive in this isolated culture; it came as a surprise to me. I am a social person, and sometimes I have to remind myself that not all people are like me. I love being around Airmen, but COVID was an opportunity to see that not all people are that way; some people are drained from being around others. If they are drained from just being around people, how much energy can they really dedicate to the work they’re doing? Some people found that when they are left to their own devices, in peace and quiet or by themselves, that they are just cranking out products like never before. I think this allowed people to fully explore what kind of work environment they really thrive in.”
Miller said the three things he’ll miss the most are the people, the mountains, and the area’s peace and quiet.
“We’ve loved being a part of this community, we’ve loved participating in the community, and we’re going to miss everyone in it. We’re going to miss the Sandia Mountains. We went downtown and bought a large piece of artwork depicting the mountains during sunset. We’re going to miss that a lot. It’s just so quiet here. At Sandia Peak, the Manzano Mountains, or being on the backside of the base; there are so many places where you can go and the quiet is deafening. It gives you time to think and offers perspective. It’s hard to find a place, base or city, where you can have that kind of tranquility.”
He talked about time management and work-life balance as a commander.
“We all struggle with it, but it’s important to find the time to do things right.
One of them is your sleep, to get the rest that gets you through the day. Another is some physical exercise, being able to burn off some energy. Then you have to have some downtime, where it’s just you or whatever brings you pleasure. Then the work piece. There’s an amount of days that we need to be able to give to our country and an amount of work that has to be done. If we’re not careful, we’ll allow that to be all of our life – work -- we need to find balance.”
He said reading is a worthwhile leisure activity; a book he specifically recommended was, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There” which he described as a “cartoon book, so it’s easy for even someone like me to read.” The gist of the book is about looking at yourself and what made you successful, how you defined success, and re-examining those actions.
“It’s easy to fall into the habit of ‘this type of behavior that’s going to get me promoted,’ so you keep doing that same thing. There will come a time where those things aren’t as helpful, and you need to learn to be able to move to different things.”
When asked what he learned from the book, one of his takeaways coincided with one of his command difficulties during COVID.
“I’m a people person -- I like to go out to communicate with the Airmen firsthand. With all the Airmen across the installation, it’s not physically possible for me to personally meet with all of them and give them my message. The only way I’d be able to do that would be to dismiss all of my other responsibilities. I had to accept that I’m not going to get to all the Airmen. I’ve had to change the way I communicate; I’ve had to communicate more through the group commanders and squadron commanders, which is what I’m supposed to do. It was hard for me to accept that, because I like to do things a certain way, but I realize that I can’t continue to do those things.”
When asked if there was any advice he’d pass along for the new commander about commanding the fifth-largest Air Force base:
“Make a commitment to being with the people who work for you -- the Fighting Tigers and the critically important mission partners. The key to those relationships is making sure there’s a good connection at the top. Also, with the people downtown, at the government level as well as those who support the base. When you leave here, you’ll have more appreciation and great memories of the people you spent time with, rather than the paperwork you spent time with.”
When asked how this assignment stood out from previous duty stations, he spoke of the area’s uniqueness.
“Leigh Ann and I truly felt embraced in Albuquerque. We’re not new to a community that supports the military. This is the first time we felt fully embraced by the community and were given a chance to see the whole culture of the people of Albuquerque and New Mexico. It was special for us.”
Miller’s last remarks, spoken carefully and with poignancy, touched on his admiration for the state, the city of Albuquerque, and the members of Team Kirtland.
“I’m really going to miss the people I got a chance to work with every day, and I’m really going to miss the people that I never got a chance to connect with. This is a special time in all of our lives. I have very fond memories of the people of Albuquerque, the state of New Mexico, and of the people we got a chance to work with here at Team Kirtland. My ask of the other members of Team Kirtland, of the city, and of the state, is to continue to work harder at taking better care of each other. This is a time for us to welcome and embrace individuality, to celebrate inclusiveness, and to be representatives of unity and trust, as we look after each other.”
His answer to red or green?