Col. Wells: Build relationships today to strengthen your tomorrow

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Col. Hewett Wells, 50th Network Operations Group commander.


Back in April 2014, I was the Space Communication Squadron Commander at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.  The crisis action team was assembling to understand the circumstance of a significant communication outage, assess mission impacts, and prioritize and coordinate corrective actions. For weeks leading up to this day, the Buckley AFB flight line was undergoing a significant construction project, which included tearing up and replacing major portions of the runway.  Despite extensive coordination, markings, flags and warnings, the project team successfully located a buried communications cable path, severing the only communication path to the east side of the base, isolating tenant organizations and mission critical capabilities. 

When I surveyed the flight line construction site, I was amazed to see how effectively the bulldozer had unearthed and severely damaged a 3 feet by 3 feet concrete-encased communication conduit – hats off to my civil engineer brothers and sisters. This situation represents a normal day for a communications squadron commander, and I handed the entire situation off to the squadron deputy to lead and manage; as I had other business.

            What made this day so tough for the communications squadron was that the first sergeant and I were heading to Denver International Airport to meet the parents of Senior Airman Michael Snyder. Two days earlier, Snyder was riding his motorcycle through Denver when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Snyder did everything right; a safety conscious motorcycle enthusiast who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I had never met or seen Snyder’s parents, but it was immediately obvious who they were as they came off the escalators, filing out with a crowd of other passengers. The first sergeant and I approached the Snyders, embraced them, and shared initial thoughts and words regarding the tragic situation that had brought us together.


The squadron surges in response

            Ten days during April 2014 – which started early one Wednesday morning with the operations group commander standing at my door asking if Michael Snyder was a member of my squadron, to the funeral service nine days later where I handed a flag to Snyder’s mother and expended rifle rounds to Snyder’s father – remain a vivid sequence of events in my mind.

What remains forefront in my memories is how the squadron came together to cope with this tragedy and how our relationships helped us through a difficult time.

The first sergeant and chief cared for me, the squadron and the Snyders. The casualty assistance representative and the entire force support squadron team of professionals guided us through activities to take care of Snyder and his family. The lieutenants I appointed as the escort officer and summary court officer, challenging assignments for most young officers, executed their tasks with dignity and respect. The senior non-commissioned officer who organized Patriot Guard escorts through Buckley AFB to the airport; from Davenport, Iowa, to Snyder’s hometown of Secor, Illinois; and finally to Eastlawn Memorial Gardens in Bloomington, Illinois. The chaplain and staff who embraced the family and the squadron at a time of intense emotions. The various squadron members pulled together to mourn and honor Snyder, support one another, and embrace the Snyder family during the memorial service and other emotional events that followed.

I’m sharing this story for three reasons. The first is to honor and remember Senior Airman Michael Snyder – a son, brother, friend and Airman. This young man’s death offers a reminder about how precious and fragile life is. The second is to reiterate the risks and impacts of drinking and driving. A family’s life changed forever; a squadron of Airmen scarred by the tragic event; and a valuable military asset lost – all results from one person’s decision to drive while impaired. And lastly, to emphasize the importance of personal relationships and connections. I believe it was because of the relationships we built in the weeks, months and years before the event that helped us weather the storm. 

We all face personal and professional challenges. The relationships, connections, trust, personal and professional bonds, and commitment to one another will help us navigate rough waters. Spend time and effort now – as part of your mental, spiritual and social well-being – to build the relationships that will give you strength and purpose when you need it most