Fort Report: The Fightin' Fifty-Fifth
As I stood at attention today at the change of command ceremony for the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, I was struck again by the dignity and efficiency of our men and women in uniform. A change of military command is not some trite rite or rote ritual. It symbolizes a deep continuity of trust that our nation’s military is never without formal leadership.
With great humility and formality, outgoing commander Colonel Michael H. “Gravy” Manion relinquished his command. He showed exemplary leadership during his two-year tenure, especially during recent floods that affected Offutt so dramatically. I wished incoming commander Colonel Gavin P. Marks the very best as he prepares to lead one of Air Command’s most important units. Speaking personally and without notes, Colonel Marks reflected on his responsibility to the men and women and their shared mission: “Command is not an honor to be won.”
Located just south of Omaha in Bellevue, Offutt is home to various agencies, units, and commands, including United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the nerve center of America’s nuclear enterprise, whose new $1.3 billion headquarters is nearly complete. Offutt’s 55th Wing provides intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and “precision awareness” to our military leadership and to our soldiers around the globe. Offutt is also home to the 557th Weather Wing, the 595th Command and Control Group, and a satellite laboratory of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. In the previous Fort Report, I told the story of Ludwig and Julius Pieper, twin brothers from Creston, Nebraska, who died aboard the supply ship Stardust during D-Day operations. Julius’ remains were identified at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s lab at Offutt.
As impressive and formidable as these operations are, the base was not spared by the recent bomb cyclone that struck our state. It’s a pretty jarring scene when you see so much of Offutt’s critical infrastructure under several feet of water.
In the months since the floods, Congress has taken bipartisan action to ensure Offutt’s complete recovery and operability. Included in the just-passed 2019 disaster supplemental is $120 million for immediate cleanup. In the appropriations committee on which I serve, we initially secured $300 million in military construction funds to rebuild destroyed infrastructure as well as $230 million for Air Force procurement of RC-135 flight infrastructure.
The Nebraska congressional delegation and local leaders also worked together through the Offutt Air Force Base Task Force to conduct careful oversight of the runway replacement process. The original plan represented only a repair of current defects, before the Air Force authorized full deconstruction and rebuilding of an entirely new Offutt runway. The timing of the authorization could not have been better in light of the recent floods.
Offutt Air Force Base is not only a critical piece of military infrastructure, it is critical to Nebraska’s cultural infrastructure. If you ask any long-time Nebraskan to list the top ten things for which our state is known, somewhere after Cornhusker football, Offutt is on that list.
Every few years, there is a change of command at Offutt. In many parts of the world, the peaceful transfer of military command is not so guaranteed. Ever since George Washington relinquished his command of the Continental Army in 1783, the peaceful, regular, and orderly transfer of military command has been a hallmark of America.
We instinctively recognize this rare achievement when we attend a change of command ceremony. We stand a bit straighter upon seeing the presentation of the colors. We feel our heart rise at the playing of our national anthem. We are suddenly more ordered, purposeful, and precise in our thinking as we observe how members of our military strictly and elegantly adhere to their prescribed roles.
Yet through all these changes, all this pomp and circumstance, one thing remains unalterable: “The sun never sets on the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth.”