Wright-Patt commander looks back at 2 years in charge

Col. Cassie Barlow leaves command of the base this week

Col. Cassie B. Barlow confronted the furlough of thousands of Wright-Patterson civilian workers — twice — a government shutdown, darkened hallways and broken pipes.

Barlow departs Thursday after serving two years as Wright-Patterson Air Force Base commander and leader of the 5,000 airmen within the 88th Air Base Wing.

“They were unprecedented times that we’ve never seen before in the history of the Air Force to have to deal with a government shutdown and then to have to do two different furloughs,” she said. “They were really tough times.”

Barlow, 47, became a familiar face to thousands in the Dayton region with frequent press conferences at the height of the sequestration budget crisis, shutdown and furloughs. She plans to retire from military service.

Now, she’ll have a new challenge: What to do next after leading the largest U.S. Air Force base and the largest single-site employer in Ohio with more than 27,000 military and civilian personnel.

One thing is certain: She’s staying in Dayton. The outgoing colonel has multiple job opportunities from academia, businesses and non-profits. And with a 17-year-old daughter preparing for her senior year in high school, a husband who grew up in the Dayton area, and a new house, she has no plans to leave.

Shutdown, furloughs

The budget ax of sequestration, and a temporary federal government shutdown, had a major impact at Wright-Patterson last year. Thousands of civilian workers were sent packing off the job while waiting out the financial turmoil and political showdown in Washington, D.C.

The 88th Air Base Wing had its budget cut 40 percent in 2013, or a loss of about $30 million, Barlow said.

“The 40 percent reduction was very, very difficult and it made us really dig deep to have some tough conversations about what is really important and what we can stop doing for a while because I think it was really important for the people at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to recognize that the leaders on base didn’t expect them to continue to operate as usual,” she said. “With less money, and with less people, there has to be the expectation that you’re not going to be able to do the same amount of work.

“Sequestration hits us again in 2016 and I would say the lasting impact of what we went through was that there’s a new normal,” she said.

Employee trust hasn’t been fully restored, she said.

“We’re still trying to build that trust back, and that’s really hard and that’s a long-term process,” she said. “It takes a lifetime to build trust, but it takes a day to kill it and unfortunately that’s what we did through the furloughs. We’re still working on that piece.”

Wright-Patterson continues to recover from a hiring freeze that left an untold number of jobs vacant, she said.

“When you put a halt on hiring, you get behind, and we’re still trying to fix that,” she said.

On the eve of sequestration, calls of concern poured in. “The day before sequestration hit, I can’t tell you how many phone calls I received because I lost track. But I received telephone calls from our federal legislators and our state legislators and some of the local councilmen and women, and local businesses, for-profit and not-for-profit, to just reach out and say, ‘What can we do? How can we help?’”

With reduced budgets now reality, the Air Force launched a community partnership initiative to look at how to share costs and government services with neighboring communities. The base was one of about a dozen throughout the Air Force that began an “enhanced-use lease” program of selected sites near the fence line and just off site. Private firms and public agencies can develop the sites in shared-use or lease arrangements with the Air Force.

“I think we’ve come to the point where we realize we are not an island,” Barlow said. “We have so much in common with municipalities and other organizations outside the fence line and that we should and could rely on each other.”

‘A day that I will never forget’

Despite the government shutdown, the furloughs and all the issues Barlow faced, two days stand out as the most memorable for her in a 26-year Air Force career.

On March 5, 2011, two U.S. airmen were killed and two others critically wounded on a military bus shuttling them at the Frankfurt airport in Germany. At the time, she was the commander of the 48th Mission Support Group at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, where a group of airmen on the bus were based in England.

“That’s a day that I will never forget,” she said. “I put 13 airmen on a bus first thing in the morning to go to Afghanistan. It was five-o’clock in the morning, and at 10 o’clock in the morning I got a telephone call that someone had stepped onto their bus at the Frankfurt airport and started shooting. …

“But what came out of that day (was) the team pulling together and wingmen helping each other, and the fact that those two airmen that were critically injured survived, and one of our airman actually ended up helping chase down the suspect and capture the suspect with the help of German police.”

The second day she remembers most: Senior Airman Jhosselin P. Alonzo at Wright-Patterson, who told a room filled with every four-star general in the Air Force in June 2013 about a “grass-roots” program that brought young airmen together to talk about issues like sexual assault and suicide awareness.

“That was just a really proud day just to see our young airman, a two-striper at the time, to stand in front of all the generals, and they actually gave her a standing ovation at the end of her talk,” Barlow said.

For Barlow, the daughter of two school teachers, education has been a big part of her travels. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, she has three master’s degrees — one in clinical psychology, and two in national security-related studies — and a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology. “I’m one of those people that really likes going to school,” she said.

She took her first steps into the military on a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native’s husband, Tim, grew up in Dayton and is a patent attorney. Barlow, who has moved frequently in the last three decades, did not want to cause her teen-age daughter, Emma, to attend a third high school and opted to retire in one of the highest profile base commander posts in the military.

”All of those points sort of converged all together and it just sort of made sense at this point to go do something else,” she said.

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