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A Word with Wenke: Q&A with new 176 Wing commander

Col. Donald S. Wenke, commander of the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing

Col. Donald S. Wenke, commander of the Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- On Sept. 18, 2011, Col. Donald S. Wenke received the 176 Wing command flag, after serving since May as wing vice commander. A former fighter, tanker and instructor pilot, Wenke previously served as commander of the Eielson-based 168 Air Refueling Wing.

Col. Wenke recently spoke with the wing's public affairs staff about his vision for the wing.

Now that you've had a little time to settle in, what's it like to be commander of the 176 Wing?

It's different than being commander of the 168th. It's a little more challenging here because of how spread out we are. So meeting all the airman -- seeing them do their jobs and giving them a chance to speak to me -- is a little more difficult. There's more people, more facilities and it's simply a bigger base.

My experience so far has been exciting, with lots of new faces. The people are incredibly professional and proficient at what they do.

What's been your greatest challenge coming in?

One of my greatest challenges over the last six months since coming here is what I call 'breaking the barrier of the unknown.' I am the unknown. People may have heard stories about me and wonder what I'm like. So it's a process of getting airmen comfortable with me. It's not my intention to break the culture they are so proud of, but to learn about each of them and how they operate, so we can work as a team.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I mean what I say and I say what I mean. I'm about as straight forward as they come in this line of work. I call it like it is, and tend not to sugarcoat things. We'll make changes and move forward.

Other than that, I believe in recognizing airman for good performance. I also believe in mentoring, and in developing a pool of talent so that when one person moves on, the organization has a pool of competitive people to choose from.

I believe in our people. I don't pretend to know how to do your job better than you do. I know there are experts out there and I appreciate that. What I know how to do is bring people together as teams, and help those teams focus on accomplishing a mission in an outstanding fashion.

What is your vision for the wing?

Our first goal is to refine what we're doing and become the best at it before adding to our plate. Right now, that's what I'm focused on. I have some strong ideas about ways to grow and expand our mission, but I don't want to elaborate on those yet; I want the wing to be focused on being the best at what they do now.

What are your top priorities for the wing?

Our priorities fall under the adjutant general's: recruiting and retention, safety, and compliance. It comes down to the internal core of operations. We improve operations from the Airman up.

So recruiting first. We have to compete nationally. We must fill our positions. That's the way to complete the mission. We need people to want to come to Alaska. I would be thrilled to get phone calls from people in other states saying they have heard about the 176th and want to join.

As far as safety, we have to watch out for each other - that's our responsibility as wingmen. And it's not just physical or workplace safety, it's the whole package. We must look for signs of depression. If we can't help, we put the person in contact with people who can. There are enough qualified people, such as the chaplains or the wing's director of psychological health, who are available to assist so that no one has to take it all on his or her own shoulders. We must be close enough to our co-workers to notice a difference. A loss of one airman is too many. Thinking about safety in this way is paramount in everything we do.

Finally, compliance. Compliance is simply following rules. We should follow the rules whether we're being inspected - which, obviously, we are - or not. The rules are there to keep us safe, and they will keep us safe 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent is on the individual to use common sense. Like [Chief of Staff of the Air Force] Gen. Norton Schwarz said, we should be compliant every day. There's no reason to fear a compliance inspection.

What do you need from the members of this wing to realize your priorities and vision?

First, I need their support. I need people who are willing to listen -- and I'm not saying we're not doing that now. I need people willing to get the job done. We have to work together as a team. It takes everyone to get into the mix with a positive attitude.

The second thing I need is people to want to get involved. As a senior officer, I can direct people; but at the end of the day, it's not as good a product as when someone is self- motivated.

The core values apply. I say that because we must have complete integrity when we're working together. Service before self -- we have to accomplish the mission. Excellence, because we want a product all of us can be proud of. It's as simple as that.

What are the greatest challenges you see on the horizon?

The first thing that comes to mind is the economy. There are entities out there that wish our country harm and would like to take advantage of our weaknesses, and our economy could easily be perceived as a weakness right now. We need to be smart about what we do and honest about our capabilities. It's important the leaders in D.C. make good decisions based on an honest assessment.

It's a time of doing less with less. I'm not saying it's a time to kick back, but we can only do so much in one day or we'll end up with no people and no equipment because we can't fix what breaks. We must find a smart way to operate ... figure out ways to use our existing resources and verify our capabilities.

I believe that through the teamwork and camaraderie in this organization, we will succeed in any kind of environment.

Final thoughts?

I'm extremely excited about the leadership team we've built: Col. Bob Doehl as wing vice commander, and Command Chief Master Sgt. Steven Calvin. I think we've got a rock-solid set of group commanders. I have absolute faith in their abilities. We work well together and share the same focus for the wing.

I'd like to say thanks to the Airmen for their hard work and dedication. It's not an easy decision to raise your hand and enlist. I want to thank them for that decision, thank those who reenlisted, and ask everyone to help reach out to new members. The Alaska Air National Guard is one of the best-kept secrets in the nation, and I don't want to keep that secret anymore.
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