This article originally appeared in the Air Commando Journal; Vol 4, Issue 3 ; pg 34-36; 2015
Recently, the Air Commando Journal (ACJ) sat down with Dennis Barnett, Col, USAF (Ret) and president of the Air Commando Association (ACA). In the course of the interview, Col Barnett shared his thoughts on the ACA, membership, and the Air Commando Foundation. In the past, Col Barnett has volunteered as Air Commando Hall of Fame Committee Chairman, he served as vice-president of the ACA for four years, and is currently the president of the ACA. He retired from active duty after 30 years in the service. He flew the MC-130P Combat Shadow and served in several command and staff positions in AFSOC. He completed his career as the Director of Staff.
ACJ: You have been a life member of the ACA for a long time, you have seen a lot of changes in the organization over the years. You have spent countless hours building a stronger bond between the ACA and today’s current Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), you were instrumental in creating a foundation to support Air Commandos in need, and you continue recruiting members. Would you share your thoughts on why someone should join the ACA?
Col Barnett: There are a number of reasons, and I think they fall into intangible and tangible categories. First, an intangible. If you are a member of the Air Commando fraternity because you serve with or have served in an Air Commando unit, the statement “once an Air Commando, always an Air Commando” applies to you. All Air Commandos have a tribe (or association) they are a part of by the nature of their service in a particular weapon system or career field. I like to refer to ACA as a “Tribe of Tribes.” It represents and recognizes that we all have our biases toward a subordinate tribe, but we ALL went to or are going to the fight as one team…organized as a joint “Tribe of Tribes.” If you accept and embrace this premise, join the Air Commando Association and become a part of the only organization where members of all the tribes continue to support Air Commandos past, present, and future.
ACJ: It sounds like although membership is intangible, it provides an opportunity to support fellow Air Commandos long after someone separates or retires from the service. What are some tangible benefits or reasons for joining?
Col Barnett: If you are reading this, you have one of those tangibles in your hand—all members receive this journal free of charge. It is also distributed free of charge to every AFSOC unit. The ACJ delivers articles about Air Commandos: our heritage, our predecessors and—of course—our aircraft, which you can’t find anywhere else.
Additionally, the Commando Store offers a wide variety of great SWAG that members can purchase at great prices, which shows the pride we all retain as Air Commandos. One of our most popular items is the Air Commando Bush Hat (Heritage Hat) that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
We also provide an excellent venue during our annual convention to gather together with Air Commandos who span the spectrum of service chronologically and across different career fields. Members also have the opportunity to listen to exceptional leaders who have influenced all Air Commandos. Recent guests of honor include a former CSAF, SECAF, USSOCOM Commanders and a Chief of Staff of the Army. Not only do you get their insights at our Annual Awards Banquet, but members interact directly with these leaders at our Professional Development Heritage Seminars.
You also become a part of an organization which provides the means and the opportunity to recognize our heroes. Annual Hall of Fame inductions highlight the contributions these Airmen made to the Air Commando legacy. Plus, the ACA sponsors a host of active duty AFSOC-level awards throughout the year.
Additionally, there are local chapters at most AFSOC locations, as well as the Tampa area, the Colorado region and Washington, DC. Each chapter engages in local charity projects and supports base functions, such as Airman Leadership School graduations.
ACJ: It sounds like the ACA is an organization one would be proud to join and continue as a lifelong member. What about the other component of the association, the Air Commando Foundation (ACF)?
Col Barnett: The foundation has made quite an impact in the last few years. ACF is the philanthropic/charity arm of ACA and, depending on your present status, the foundation allows members to either “pay it forward” or “pay it back.” To gain a complete understanding of what ACF is about, I think it is important to provide a little background on how we arrived at this point in the development of the association.
The ACA was founded in 1969, at the height of the conflict in Southeast Asia, by some amazing Air Commandos led by then Col Harry C. “Heinie” Aderholt. Not to oversimplify it, the primary purpose of the organization was to ensure the preservation of the Air Commando heritage and legacy. It also served as a fraternal organization, which provided a venue for members to gather and celebrate their heritage. Scholarships were awarded to children of members. The association formed the McCoskrie Threshold Foundation (MTF) which supported various out-of-country communities and the people where Air Commandos recently served. The MTF is still a viable organization today and continues to support schools and children in Central America. The journal published an article highlighting the John Grove Memorial Fund in Vol 1, Issue 3, page 50. These were the primary roles the ACA performed until six years ago.
In 2010, ACA took on a new direction. We recognized that if the ACA was going to thrive as an organization, we needed to be more relevant to younger Air Commandos and encourage them to join. We began that effort by teaming with AFSOC to provide sponsorship for the Commander’s Leadership Awards (Annual coverage of these awards is on page 38). Then, the ACA began to sponsor other awards including the Squadron of the Year, the Commando Medic of the Year, and several others. Through this team effort, it came to our attention that there were Air Commandos whose needs were outside the scope of the government’s ability to pay. ACA thus developed a relationship with the USSOCOM Care Coalition, which alerted us to opportunities to assist in meeting some of those needs.
In late 2011, it became apparent to the ACA Board of Directors that the number of requests for assistance was not decreasing, but rather increasing. It was obvious we needed to set up an element of the ACA designated solely to raising and providing funds necessary to meet these ongoing and ever-increasing requests. We were fortunate to have Pete DiMaggio as a member who had experience setting up charitable organizations. He led us through the various bureaucracies and the legal paperwork to establish the Air Commando Foundation as a certified 501(c)(3) organization, which allows donations to be fully tax-deductible. Unfortunately, Pete passed away suddenly, but not before we had successfully established the ACF. We will always be in his debt. The Board deliberately set up the ACF under the umbrella of the ACA, so the association would cover the administrative costs the foundation needed to function.
The official stand up of the ACF was in January 2012. In the subsequent four-year period, the foundation has given back over $130,000 to Air Commandos, past and present, in times of unmet needs. Because the ACA covers all the overhead administrative costs, the foundation can declare unequivocally that “every cent of every dollar given - gives back.” There are a lot of great charities out there which operate with very low administrative costs; our friends in the Special Operations Warrior Foundation come to mind. But none can match the 100 percent give back.
ACJ: Can you highlight a few examples of the unique ways ACF has assisted Air Commandos and their families?
Col Barnett: When a young Air Commando suffered serious injuries, which resulted in the loss of three limbs, his wife went to be at his side at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC). Their situation was further complicated, because their first child was on the way. To provide comfort and boost morale, five fellow airmen’s spouses from his unit wanted to fly to DC and give the mother-to-be a surprise baby shower. That was outside the government’s capability, so ACF sprung into action and paid for their flights to DC. The foundation received the request on a Friday and the ladies left on Monday.
Fast forward a few years. After outpatient rehab, the family was ready to move back to the Fort Walton Beach area, but another need arose. Even though they had been in Washington, DC for two years, the government could not pay to move two years’ worth of baby and necessary household items (the injured airman had not officially PCSd to Washington, DC). Again, ACF was notified and we provided a U-Haul truck and paid expenses for two squadron airmen who donated their time to assist in the move by traveling to DC and back. These requests were not for large amounts of money in either case, but not something the wounded airman, nor his family, should have to pay for.
Another example involving a family and their baby is when a young Special Tactics member suffered severe injuries at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was stationed in Washington state, but was transferred to WRNMMC where his pregnant wife met him. ACF initially assisted the young family by funding travel for a non-immediate family member who the injured airman wanted at his side when he was moved to DC. The government can only pay for immediate family members. After several months in WRNMMC, it was determined that the airman would be transferred to the Tampa area for rehabilitation. The problem was, all the acquired baby items and the family vehicle were still in Washington State and the baby would be born in Tampa. The foundation paid for the transport of the family van, loaded with the baby equipment, from Washington State to Tampa. Again, not something the government was obligated to pay. Our chapter concept also came to the fore as the Tampa area ACA Chapter helped the family find an apartment, provided food, presented checks for $1,500 from the Air Commando Foundation, and conducted several morale visits while the young man was rehabbing and after their beautiful daughter was born.
Recently, during a training exercise to take the fight to our enemies, tragedy struck two great Americans when they collided during free-fall. One of these young men was married with five children. The day after the accident, ACF delivered a check for $5,000 to his widow to assist her with the immediate needs that would arise in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Unfortunately, that was not the first time ACF responded to a similar scenario. The foundation was there for the family of another great warrior who was killed and left a widow and six children.
ACJ: Based on the current Special Operations tempo, do you think there will be future requests for the foundation to provide assistance where the government or other charities with more specific charters are not able to provide help? How do the ACA and the Air Commando Foundation plan to meet future challenges?
Col Barnett: To paraphrase Lt Gen Heithold, the AFSOC Commander, “If you want to know what the next 15 years will look like, just look back at the last 15.” In that regard, the requests for assistance to help Air Commandos will probably remain the same, and perhaps be even greater.
In order for ACA to continue supporting our Air Commandos, we need to expand our membership and continue our growth in order to meet the increasing requirements. I would like all Air Commandos to join; as a team, we will be here when the needs arise. We need more individuals and companies who want to “pay it back or pay it forward.” Join now, if you haven’t already, and donate at www.aircommando.org or call 850-581-0099. 1,500 new members in the last 6 years can’t be wrong. Go for it!