By U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
I.G. Brown Training and Education Center
MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. — Taking a look back at a jarring 2020, the Air National Guard’s I.G. Brown Training and Education Center staff said that they faced extraordinary challenges with bold ideas, innovation, and teamwork amid isolation and unfamiliarity.
Like past national crises, the COVID-19 pandemic made a demarcation line, but with an impact like no other. The year was marked by before health protection conditions and after.
TEC is now into its 10th month of the deadly virus that suspended most in-resident classes in March and pushed staff and faculty to rethink every facet of meeting, teaching, and serving in uniform.
TEC University opportunities
The TEC University division filled campus classrooms before mid-March. It certified and graduated 20 new instructors in the Instructor Certification Program, and it also helped host the Public Affairs X6 Consolidation Workshop in February. Those students received hands-on training in broadcasting and photojournalism. Before travel restrictions, the Instructional Development branch traveled to the 173rd Fighter Wing in Oregon to teach leadership skills to 40 students.
“The interesting thing about that trip was that the wildfires were going on, just off the runway when we landed,” said Larry McCoy, the Instructional Development superintendent.
As the Air National Guard’s hub for broadcasts, TEC-U’s transmission branch provided all A/V requirements to bring total force support to the Leadership Education Development eXperience 3.0 Conference in early March for Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
TEC-U also teamed up with the 134th Air Refueling Wing to develop and conduct the PERSCO Home Station Readiness Training class, with the Missouri ANG as a test group. The Guard-wide effort provided pre-deployment training in an eight-block, virtual training with breakouts.
The division produced many videos and broadcasts throughout the year, as the pandemic placed a demand for such experience, skills, and technology in virtual meetings, leadership messages, and learning.
TEC-U’s launch of the From the Force online video sharing platform in the Spring allowed Airmen to share best practices in their service and receive peer-training from others. More than 30 self-made, short videos were posted to FTF on Airmen’s innovation, tips, and lessons.
From the Force was the first initiative of the newly realigned TEC-U. More initiatives to enhance training and education developed during the year. The division researched, purchased, implemented a Learning Management System, employed six courses, and began work on two courses for release in 2021. The redesigned Public Affairs Managers’ Course is among the LMS professional development available in early 2021.
More extensive video productions from the Production Branch included the Resume Writing video featuring DoD cyber characters Jeff and Tina, who walked viewers through developing a good resume. The ANG Weapons Safety Manager Video series involved eight videos for WSM to review for annual training of explosive/munitions protocol and safety guidelines.
From TEC-U’s broadcasting studios came the ANG-wide Livestream of Financial Management training.
“This broadcast was a first, connecting two civilian FM contractors, teaching from their homes (Maryland and Virginia), connected through MS Teams to our studios, and then streamed out on our VIMEO platform to more than 300 viewers,” said Dave Barlow, a TEC-U broadcast technician.
Among other broadcasts, TEC-U Livestreamed commander’s calls, award and promotion ceremonies, and EPME graduations for the newly designed Virtual In-resident-Remote NCO Academy and Airman Leadership School after the pandemic stopped most on-campus classes.
Running Lankford EPME Center virtually
The Lankford EPME center started the second week of January with in-residence students for NCO Academy and Airman Leadership School. They graduated by mid-February. More EPME classes started at the end of that month. Still, those 330+ Airmen returned to their bases short of graduation when classes were suspended due to increased health protection conditions and travel restrictions. NCOA students eventually finished their studies through distance learning.
All of TEC’s more than 80 regular Air Force, Guard, and Reserve staff worked remotely through three-quarters of the year. Authorized percentages of staff allowed in their offices at any given time varied with the graspingness of the virus. At some periods, 100 percent of staff and faculty stayed home when virus cases and direct contacts got reported.
While there were no alternative learning methods in action for the shutdown, the EPME Center announced that it was already transforming to blended learning and virtual learning methodologies before current events made it homework. They picked up their pace and developed the inaugural VIR-R classes through telework and partnership with the TEC-U television studios.
By mid-June, the first 250 EPME students logged in with instructors for NCOA and ALS. By December, 1,627 Airmen home-trained and graduated. This year, the instructor’s combined in-resident and virtual EPME efforts earned students 12,710 Community College of the Air Force credit hours.
“What has impressed me most has been the fact that through all these different adversities, we have increased the professionals coming through this schoolhouse,” said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Steven Durrance, the commandant, during an October fiscal year review.
PME instructors learned television-studio camera skills from TEC-U’s broadcasting experts, including reading from a teleprompter. The studios maintained constant manning through the summer, recording EPME video lessons and introductions, then broadcasting virtual graduations across the total Air Force through social media.
Those broadcasts allowed tens of thousands of family members, friends, and service members to celebrate the achievement from their homes, as well as post congratulatory comments.
“It has been a massive effort with a lot of challenges,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Beiting, NCOA superintendent, during a summer news interview.
As if a global pandemic and a changing curriculum were not enough, the EPME Center earned a HIGHLY EFFECTIVE score by the U.S. Air Force’s Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education during a summer Program Management Review. The review included more than 10,000 documents and 39 inspectable line items.
The EPME Center also changed 21 percent of its staff in scheduled reassignments, to include eight new instructors.
Piloting the new cyber mission
While EPME Airmen were breaking new ground, TEC launched a pilot Cyber Protect-and-Defend Course for an innovative total force partnership with U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command and its support to Mission Defense Teams.
Considerable work and investment involved starting the MDT mission, setting up computers in the cyber classroom in Craig R. McKinley Hall, and supporting ACC and the Defense Cybercrimes Center to install a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art cyber range.
Officials noted that the in-residence cyber graduates who arrived in August also managed the challenges of COVID-19 health and safety measures by initially self-quarantining for two weeks and wearing masks and maintaining distancing and other efforts, inside and outside of the classroom.
“I know that we had no cases of COVID,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Capra, during their graduation. Colonel Capra, TEC’s deputy commander, served as the students’ commandant.
Plans in early 2021 include launching a TEC cyber-training center and assigning a commandant and staff to run it. The Cyber Protect and Defend Course will graduate 156 students next year. The new training mission was among several lines of effort released in TEC’s Strategic Plan in April.
Team TEC efforts
A new Strategic Plan outlined TEC’s priorities and lines of effort from 2020 through 2024. Team champions led a six-month effort to publish the eight-page document. It set the organization’s main priorities: Take Care of Team TEC, Increase Readiness, and Develop Exceptional Leaders.
The plan also called for the engagement of staff and faculty to reach their full potential. Each priority identified a team and a deliverable date and lines of effort, key terms, and focus areas for progressing into the future. The plan’s guiding values were respect, trust, and engagement.
“With focused efforts, we continue to be a high-performing organization that adapts, comes up with new ideas, and thrives in the face of adversity,” said TEC’s Chaplain, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bradley Green, in an April news article on the plan’s completion.
With that accomplished, TEC’s senior leaders focused on another significant document through the summer with an intent to build the organization’s future through a Baldrige framework application.
A draft of the 50-page document got finalized by December and will be submitted and used as a framework for organizational performance management and assessment, among other identification.
The organization was also among the ANG units to participate in the new Defense Equal Opportunity Climate Survey format. TEC’s DEOCS launched in late summer. The survey garnered a 72 percent response rate, where an average of 90 percent of responses considered TEC in a favorable opinion.
“When we started this journey a year ago, we decided to make ‘Taking Care of Team TEC’ our top priority,” said the Commander, U.S. Air Force Col. Kenneth Lozano, in a November news article. “The old cliché ‘if you take care of the people, they will take care of the mission’ is a true statement.”
The DEOCS measured the health of TEC’s culture. The Commander noted the good improvement from earlier surveys and how TEC took an effects-based-approach in setting the conditions to increase and transform the culture to be more inclusive.
Other notable moments
Amidst the adverse operations, TEC’s founding staff Billy Laux and retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard “Dick” Vincent died. Billy Laux was hired in 1968 to serve on campus as a civilian administrator. She became the last of the original staff to retire in 1995, after serving 27 years. Chief Vincent was among the first NCOA instructors assigned in 1968. He became director of NCO Leadership School and was a guest instructor after returning to the 151st Air Refueling Wing in Salt Lake City.
“He was an outstanding Chief and a strong supporter of the PMEC/TEC,” said U.S. Air Force retired Chief Master Sgt. Arthur Hafner, TEC’s ninth commandant.
To maintain their wellness, staff exercised through shared online fitness sessions while in home isolation. They held a virtual tactical pause to ensure a sense of belonging. The TEC softball team, the “QuaranTEAM,” competed safely at Knoxville’s Caswell Park with the city’s fall adult league. The Morale Committee sponsored the U.S. Air Force’s virtual marathon by running together locally and using creative social distancing measures. The committee also organized a Halloween Trunk-or-Treat and a raffle event. Others met outdoors at the base’s new sand volleyball court, while some staff and faculty continued their Freedom Friday runs at the Maryville community Greenways.
“The pandemic and the virtual platform, there has not been a drop in the quality of education we provide, or in our service, and it has been a challenge,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Juan P. Castro, EPME director of Operations, for an earlier news article. “I think it goes to show the resiliency that our team here has as well as the entire TEC that stepped up to make us successful.”
In awards, TEC’s staff gained high honors and recognition with two Air National Guard Readiness Center 2019 awardees for outstanding Airmen and civilians. The organization also received a state total force award from Tennessee’s Air Force Association chapter.
With the New Year fast approaching, Colonel Lozano answered a few questions on the year’s happenings and what may come for TEC in 2021.
Q: How were the difficulties getting TEC through 2020?
COLONEL LOZANO: We had a series of initiatives and milestones we wanted to get accomplished as part of our 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. Thanks to our extraordinary group of supervisors and the team resiliency we set forth to building, we were able to navigate through 2020 successfully and accomplish even more than we planned. Every event that looked like an obstacle to what we originally planned resulted in an opportunity to pivot and accelerate change.
Q: TEC released the strategic plan as well as drafted a Baldrige assessment this year. What are your hopes for TEC remaining viable through these efforts?
COLONEL LOZANO: The strategic plan was an urgently needed instrument — to connect our tactical efforts in daily activities to what needs to be accomplished strategically to make TEC the most agile, innovative, and resilient total force training education provider it ambitions to become. Unlike the plan, the Baldrige assessment unfolds how we execute the mission and get closer to our vision by closely evaluating every organizational process and how it connects to our strategy. I hope that these efforts are effectively institutionalized and become influential in shaping the inclusion and accountability culture we want for TEC.
Q: You leave TEC in a couple of months. What would you tell someone about your experience as the commander?
COLONEL LOZANO: It has been an enriching experience. Having the privilege of commanding the exceptional members that comprise Team TEC has been wonderful. The greatest gift I take from this command opportunity is getting to know and experience each of our teammates deeper. The impact of these relationships and our mutual capacity to understand and value each other — translated into the great level of respect, trust, and engagement we currently enjoy.