17th Air Force gives HQ ultimate makeover

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- 17th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Ron Ladnier may have put it best when he described the new unit in its first year of operation as "like building an airplane while in flight." The General was referring to conducting operations and engagement in Africa while tailoring the unit to suit the evolving mission and acquiring the tools needed to execute it. But many members of 17th, also known as Air Forces Africa, might translate that phrase in a more literal sense, as building a headquarters while also working in it.
 
The growing staff of more than 250 has been conducting business to an orchestra of drills, jackhammers, saws, and a whole lot of hammering since a much-needed renovation on the HQ began in October of 2008. By June 2010 -- the estimated project completion date - the unit will have accomplished, and endured, more than $6.29 million worth of facility and communications upgrades, according to Master Sgt. Eric Dumpert, infrastructure support manager for 17th AF Logistics, Installations and Mission Support Directorate. 

"The scope of this project is very large - from communications infrastructure, alarm systems, furniture, and facility upgrades," Sergeant Dumpert said. "About 30 percent of the building is under construction at any given time." Major components of the renovation include reconfiguring space for the 617 Air and Space Operations Center and Watch Cell, creating work areas where classified information can be secured, upgrading the electrical capacity of the facility, and upgrading the communications setup to include fiber optics capabilities, Sergeant Dumpert explained. The HQ has also undertaken projects to install new carpet, buy and install furniture to accommodate a much larger work force, lay new sidewalks, refurbish the building's conference room, install air conditioning for some sectors, and build a new pavilion--minor projects in comparison. While the comprehensive overhaul of the facility is not unprecedented, Sergeant Dumpert said conducting operations throughout projects of this scale is a first. 

"Previously in my career, we have never done this much construction while we kept something 100 percent operational," Sergeant Dumpert said."This is something unprecedented in my career. Never seen it before and I don't think I will ever see it again." Because certain areas are closed for construction, and the staff continues to grow as the unit reaches full operational capability, space is at a premium, Sergeant Dumpert said. While the average member of Team Ramstein has about 130 square feet in their personal work area, members of 17 AF are down to about 50 square feet. 

Frequent relocation has also been the norm during the project. "Everyone has moved a minimum of two times," Sergeant Dumper said. "Some directorates and staff agencies have moved four or five times." In addition to being mobile, cramped, and trying to ignore the constant noise from ongoing construction, members must pull escort duty to make sure contractors can work alongside ongoing operations. Additional cleanup activity is also a constant requirement. Logistics Director Col. Lonny Baker lauded unit members for their patience and cooperation. 

"This is a total team effort," Colonel Baker said. "There are new challenges to overcome everyday, but overall everyone has been patient and adapted quickly to the inconveniences, and they've given our team the help and access they've needed. We are all committed to getting the mission done." 

The Colonel cited 17 AF Communications Directorate as being integral to the project, along with the contractors, and the 86th Civil Engineer Squadron. Capt. Moroni Booth said specialists from the communications directorate have benefited from a similar team spirit while revamping the building's infrastructure. 

"We've been working with the different directorates and they've been very cooperative in accommodating us, often with little notice, so we can get in and do what we need to do to keep the mission going," Captain Booth said. 

Communications has been working in concert with logistics directorate on the renovation, hammering out creative solutions and adaptations as they go while enduring the same inconveniences. Captain Booth has moved offices five times since the unit activation a little over a year ago. The unit created a Communications Support Team that developed a plan of attack for each office move to ensure continuity of operations. He attributed this, and the well-honed flexibility of 17 AF troops, to virtually seamless moves. 

"To still be working in the same section and in the same unit and to have moved five different times is unprecedented," Captain Booth said. "Flexibility is definitely the key. The last time we moved, we just unplugged our computers, picked up our desks with everything on them and completed the move in 20 minutes. I think we've got the technique down." 

When the infrastructure project reaches completion next summer, at least eight walls will have been knocked down, a parking lot and sidewalks chewed up and re-laid, and the floor plan will have some considerable differences. The benefits of the project, including flexibility and team building within the staff and AOC, are fundamental to the unit's mission as a whole, according to General Ladnier. 

"As our unit has grown and evolved over the past year, everyone has been great about pitching in and helping out when and where needed," General Ladnier said. "And I'm not just talking about the tremendous improvements to the facility. Without a doubt, our communications and logistics folks have been the unsung heroes in keeping us up and running throughout these renovations, but the way we've come together overall as a team. I'm very proud of each and every member of 17 AF. I want to offer a personal "thank you" to each individual for their sacrifice and support during our first year."