"Leader, inspiration, friend" retires after half century of service

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
When seventeen-year-old Bob Baker entered Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, May 27, 1955, he probably never envisioned his career as an air traffic controller would span more than 23 years and take him around the world to countries like France, Italy and the Philippines.

And he almost certainly had no idea that 55 years to the day, he would be presented the Outstanding Civilian Career Service Award for his contributions and leadership throughout nearly 30 years of civil service.

Yet that's exactly how it all ended up when dozens of his friends, family and colleagues gathered for Mr. Baker's retirement ceremony at the Hurlburt Field Airpark to mark his last day as the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron's airfield manager May 27.

"I never considered this work-- it was always a pleasure," Mr. Baker said. "It was thrilling and no two days were the same."

Having first worked with special operations Airmen while stationed in Thailand 1967-1968, Mr. Baker said he admired how the close-knit units were attached to the mission so much that he knew he had to work with them again somehow.

"I paid my family's way across the country and took a two-pay grade reduction to get this job," he said. "'C'est la vie,' I told myself, but I really wanted this."

When he first took the position as airfield manager in Dec. 1989, the 1st Special Operations Wing prepared itself to take on Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega in Operation Just Cause, and the Air Force Special Operations Command wouldn't formally exist for another six months.

Throughout his tenure, Mr. Baker also led airfield operations during other critical chapters in Hurlburt Field's history like Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Unified Response.

"In none of those missions did we ever get maxed out to our capacity," he said. "This airfield has always been able to meet the number of aircraft needed. Whatever the mission required, we got it done."

Like a farmer who knows every distinct patch of soil on the land he's cultivating, Mr. Baker's knowledge of every painted taxi-line and any crack in a section of concrete conveyed a person immersed in the mechanics and complexities of airfield management.

"I really try to project into the future when making a five-year plan," Mr. Baker said. "When we do something, I always try to look at not only what we're doing now but what the future may dictate we do."

Among some of Mr. Baker's legacies mentioned at the ceremony: altering the position of rotators, or returning aircraft, so Airmen didn't have too far to walk for homecomings; the expansion of cargo ramps to effectively handle C-17s and C-5s; the completion of the east and Clearwater ramps; and the addition of a road around the airfield to prevent ammunition and fuel trucks from crossing the flightline.

But his time at Hurlburt Field was not without its trials. He lost the lower half of his left arm when a bird pest control device accidentally exploded near him in July 1998. He later joked to those who asked that a crocodile actually bit his hand off when he was checking approach lights in the swamp.

Despite that episode, he finished out his time right up to his retirement at a pace that would rival the most vigorous Airman less than a third his age.

According to the retirement ceremony's program, his efforts saved the Air Force millions of dollars, thousands of meetings and countless operational missions--a common trait in the praise he received from squadron leadership.

"There's a guy on every base that people go to when they need to get things done and has the knowledge of the best way to do it: Bob is that guy," wrote Lt. Col. Leighton Anderson, 1st SOSS commander, in a statement read by Lt. Col. Jeremy Kokenes, 1st SOSS director of operations, at the ceremony.

"Bob's been a leader, inspiration and friend to this base and will always be a friend to special operators all over the world," said Col. Mark Alsid, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Training Center commandant. "He should take pride in that, because we certainly do."

After turning in his cell phone as his last act, Mr. Baker sought to spend his retirement with his wife, Im, by visiting with relatives around the country and traveling overseas once again. But he said he would always be grateful for the opportunity to have two exciting careers totaling more than half a century of serving alongside the men and women in the Air Force.

"I appreciate the trust you placed in me and the support you gave me when I needed it," Mr. Baker said to those in attendance at the ceremony. "I absolutely loved it here, and this field's future is headed in the right direction."