Forward together: Green, blue teamwork keeps massive community safe

Coldwater, Michigan, and New Castle, Pennsylvania, are separated by 285 miles of Interstate, a west-to-east drive that passes The Glass Capital of the World, Cedar Point Amusement Park, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Today, separated by less than five miles are two of those towns’ proudest sons. They are senior military officers in the Army and Air Force in key leadership roles at a pair of overseas military installations near Kaiserslautern. Since mid-February, Army Col. Jason T. Edwards and Air Force Col. Robert S. Thompson have been paired up to do everything possible to abate a pandemic in the largest American community outside of the United States.

As the pandemic spread, they both understood what their leadership meant. “Lives were on the line, and we needed to get it done,” Edwards said. “It’s just an extraordinary effort to make sure that we’re all aligned considering the different policies coming down from higher headquarters.”

With the goal of protecting the largest community of Americans outside the United States, Air Force Col. Robert S. Thompson (upper left) and Army Col. Jason T. Edwards (upper right) have been working closely to ensure the life, health and safety of the Air Force and Army communities totaling more than 50,000 people. Photos by Senior Airman Elizabeth R. Baker, Keith Pannell, Erinn Burgess and Jason Tudor

Edwards, the Michigander, is the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz. His responsibility covers 29 sites in Germany, including several in the Kaiserslautern area. His counterpart Thompson, the Pennsylvanian, is the 86th Mission Support Group Commander, part of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base. He has a similar role as the “town mayor” for several Air Force sites in Europe and at Ramstein overseeing functions like infrastructure, human resources and force protection.

Snow, high winds and other weather events usually precipitate Oh Dark Thirty phone calls between the two to decide what services and facilities should be closed. When the coronavirus crisis exploded, the two leaders had already started the process of aligning efforts.

“We began by figuring out what our left and right boundaries were,” said Thompson, a 36-year Air Force veteran. “Our marching orders were to take care of the humans that live, breathe, and work at these installations.”

Green and blue parts of the puzzle

More than 50,000 Americans call the Kaiserslautern Military Community home. Its footprint includes dozens of mutual-use facilities. Some are ‘owned’ by the Air Force. The Army owns some. Contractions of services and some operations due to COVID-19 began around Feb. 15.

Many here believe the KMC is a ‘joint’ military installation like ones found in the U.S., which share some resources and make mutual decisions. While the entire community uses shared assets like child development centers, schools, vehicle registration and others, the business of the Air Force and Army here is separate.

In a 2013 paper for the Army War College about potential joint operations, Army Col. William S. Galbraith wrote, “In the military, each of the services has a strong culture. The service culture is deep-seated in service personnel at the beginning of their career … Regardless of how someone enters the service, service members spend their time at initial training immersed in their service lifestyle and culture.”

Although each is proud of his service roots, the relationship between Edwards and Thompson shaped in meetings, phone calls, chance encounters and elsewhere binds the two. Their professional relationship also aligns their actions and creates a “jointness” that ensures each service works in concert with the other.

“We linked up on everything from the start – the gyms, stores, child development centers, even the food trucks, and the ice cream guy,” Thompson said. “Jay is very approachable. We’d already formed a great relationship, and there was trust, so for this situation, it was very easy to fall back on that relationship and make things happen.”

That doesn’t mean they always agree. The Army won’t always do what the Air Force does and vice versa. The services had differing ideas on what was best for the people in their charge. That meant Ramstein using different screening procedures than the garrison, which Thompson said was the only thing the two services separated on.

“In the end, it’s like family. Sometimes, you just don’t come to an agreement, so you accept it and move on. And in the end, I think that actually helped us both in a couple of ways,” Thompson said. “If there was an issue, we were going to talk through it.”

For instance, both sides agreed that the first facility to close would be the nine shared child development centers. The 10 fitness centers were a close second. Then, other facilities followed.

“Closing CDCs affects so many who had to either stop working or make large changes to their schedules,” said Edwards, who was familiar with quality-of-life impacts when supporting service members in Japan for the disaster relief following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “That’s one we have to get absolutely right.”

There’s still work to do

While the coronavirus crisis has meant significant changes to both sides’ military business, the mission still rolls on for both commanders.

Thompson and the 86th Airlift Wing have continued their airlift mission, including ferrying needed medical supplies to Italy and other countries. Meanwhile, U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz continues to serve as the Army’s premier strategic readiness platform overseas. The Army’s Installation Management Command praised Edwards and other Army garrison commanders for leading the way in community response.

“Garrison commanders are the center of gravity in this fight,” said Lt. Gen. Douglas M. Gabram, IMCOM’s commanding general. “Their leadership has been decisive; they are leading the Army through this at the tactical level.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein emphasized the continuance of the mission through several updates, drawing a line to mission support group commanders like Thompson. “We’ve changed operations significantly all through this. What I asked the [major command] commanders to do so that we were doing this from a senior leadership perspective the right way is, OK, in this environment, let’s identify the mission essential tasks that we have got to put resources (against).”

Communication throughout, between the two commanders and to their respective audiences, has been vital. Almost weekly since the start of the crisis, both commanders have talked to the community through live video town halls and American Forces Network radio. They reach out through the military newspaper, via email and every other conceivable channel to keep tens of thousands of people updated, including family and friends back in the United States. There have been meetings and meetings and meetings, and both have lost count of the number of phones they’ve had and continue to have, even as the situation begins to settle.

“We go together, and we were going to do it right together,” said Edwards.

The way ahead

Through the crisis, the Michigander and Pennsylvanian — who share more than 50 years of military service — were quick to note that any success found through the coronavirus crisis is because of strong relationships.

“We have been open and transparent with one another from the start,” Edwards said. “We’ve always had a synergy, a great give and take.”

“This is about relationships. I made a very pointed effort to work on building our relationship when I arrived here. I saw that part as essential to my command,” Thompson, said. “We’re dealing with a global pandemic. Some of these are life and death decisions, and the trust I had in our working relationship was never in doubt.”

Edwards said for the fight against COVID, if the Army is winning, “we’re winning. And if the Air Force is winning, we’re winning. And that’s all I want to see – is that we’re winning. I have no doubts about how we’ll work and grow in the future,” he added. “In our relationship working as a team and solving problems, I have a very positive outlook. We will be in great shape for years to come.”