When Col. Cliff Bray was called into Gen. John Jumper’s office in 1999 to discuss the creation of a new kind of unit, the general had a big idea.
“He really gave us very little guidance,” recalled Colonel Bray, now retired after 30 years in the Air Force. General Jumper, then-U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, wanted to create a unit that would enhance the global reach of the Air Force by deploying with speed, precision and lethality.
“We needed to have all the specialties you might need to open up an expeditionary airfield,” he said.
By the end of the meeting, four tenets were laid out for Colonel Bray: the new unit would have its own force protection, it would deploy very quickly, it would contain experts on every possible aspect of the expeditionary airfield operations and the Airmen of the unit would act as ambassadors for the United States.
“My main concern was there was going to be a flood or some kind of insurgency in Africa and we were going to have to go out on a moment’s notice and survey an airfield,” the colonel said. “We certainly didn’t worry about going up against large fighting forces like the Taliban and others that are the real challenges today.”
In February 1999, after months of sweat, toil and a lot of time on the phone, Colonel Bray was ready to present his new product: the 86th Contingency Response Group – the first of its kind.
On May 1, he returned to Ramstein to celebrate the unit’s 10th anniversary.
“The overall spirit and tenets that General Jumper wanted to have in the CRG are still exactly the same. That’s refreshing for somebody coming back after 10 years,” Colonel Bray said.
Today, eight active-duty and two reserve CRGs operate in the Air Force, all of whom look to the 86th for guidance.
“For about five years the Air Force had no real doctrine for how to train, organize equipment or deploy. It really was the 86th CRG setting the pace,” said Col. Timothy Brown, current CRG commander.
Today, the 86th CRG is active in countries all over the world, finding the majority of work in former Soviet Bloc countries.
Staff Sgt. Chris Droegemueller, who has been with the CRG since 2004, was enjoying a glass of lemonade after a weekend round of golf last August when his phone rang – he had 60 minutes to be on a C-17 bound for Tblisi, Georgia. As an aerial porter, he would unload the first humanitarian goods in Georgia after the Russian invasion.
“It was me and one other porter and a bunch of colonels. We had to figure out how to unload it with all the press and everybody who was out there getting in our way,” Sergeant Droegemueller said. “We were out there 20-plus days.”
Estimating that he’s averaged 150 to 200 days a year away from home, Sergeant Droegemueller has trouble naming all the countries he’s been to since joining the unit.
“If you say you want to see the world, you’ll definitely be able to do that here,” he said. “Going out on the road, a lot of people say we’re cowboys, but we follow the rules. We just do it with a quarter of the people.”
The secret to getting so much work done with so few people is cross-training, said Tech. Sgt. Stanley MacDonald.
“Out on the flight line you don’t hear the old, ‘Oh I’m not trained on that. I can’t do it.’ Everybody’s trained on it; They can do it,” Sergeant MacDonald said. “Whether it’s weapons, 10K (forklifts) or Humvee driving, the whole idea is to make sure everybody’s qualified and ready to help out whenever it’s needed.”
As a member of the CRG’s new two-man contingency air traffic control unit, his life has changed dramatically since joining the unit in September, he said.
“As far as a normal ATC goes, they’ve got me trained up pretty good,” he said. “I feel like I’m more of a benefit to the Air Force. I think that’s gratifying.”