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Academy officer looks back on challenges, rewards of deployment

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) -- When Lt. Col. Howard Gentry deployed to Afghanistan in May 2012, he knew he'd be stepping out of his comfort zone -- living and working in a different country, absorbing its culture, learning a new language and, for the next 12 months, watching his one-year-old daughter grow up and say her first sentences via Skype.

Gentry, a 1992 Air Force Academy graduate and region director in admissions here, volunteered for the deployment during which he served as deputy group commander for the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Wing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The deployment teamed Gentry with five NATO countries, taking care of 341 coalition troops and advising Afghan airmen.

He said he knew there would be pressure, that he'd miss his family. But Gentry chose to deploy for the first time in his career, he said, because he believes in the Air Force mission and wanted to make a difference.

"I jumped into the unknown, learning how to deal with a different group of people who didn't look like me and didn't necessarily think like me," Gentry said. "I learned how to use an interpreter; I learned Dari (a Persian language spoken in Afghanistan) and the biggest thing I took away was being able to make a decision, even if it's not the best or most popular one. As a leader, it's important to make a decision and follow through on it."

Keeping his fellow service member's morale and motivation up was an everyday challenge downrange, Gentry said.

"They missed their families," he said. "I was regularly making sure they were being taken care of, especially around the holidays. They were working long hours, seven days a week. Some would head back to their room after a 12-hour day, make a phone call home and not like what they heard -- and have a bad day. We'd check on them two or three times a day to make sure they were really good."

Gentry said he also helped revamp the relationship between the Afghan operations and maintenance squadrons in Kabul.

"When I arrived, the operations crew seemed to do whatever they wanted and the maintenance crew did whatever they wanted," he said. "That doesn't work, they had to work together. We scheduled daily meetings for the crews, and they began sharing more information and reaping the benefits from it. They began working closely together and it improved their system."

A year prior to Gentry's deployment, eight Airmen and a U.S. contractor from the 438th AEW were killed  during an attack in Kabul, impacting the units' operations center.

"We were there every day, determined to bring (the operations center) back up," he said. "We restored the system so if Air Force headquarters said 'I need a mission done,' operations would be informed and maintenance would have the aircraft ready. It wasn't perfect when I left but it was in much better shape."

Even the Afghans could see the difference the team made, Gentry said.

"They realized they could launch more aircraft, complete more missions and do things more efficiently," he said. "We weren't scrambling every day to make things happen because we'd planned things out and knew what was going to happen."

Gentry said his six-week training at advisory school was beneficial before deploying.

"It allowed me to get a realistic feel for what my first deployment would be like," he said. "Most of the apprehension I had was that I'd be embedded in another culture and responsible for advising Afghans on how their air force should work. I had questions like, 'How do I do that? How does that work? How are they going to perceive me?' Air Advisory training helped answer most of them."

Military families need support while their loved ones are deployed, Gentry said.

"It's not only difficult for the service member who goes away, but also for their family left behind," he said. "Deployed Airmen have camaraderie with the people they're with overseas. It's just as vital that their family members are looked after by friends, family and leadership during that time."

A triumph for the team included getting Afghan airmen to snowplow their own airfield, Gentry said.

"The year prior we did all the snowplowing but we didn't have the manpower, we weren't equipped and able to do that again," he said. "We held meetings and trained them on the procedure. The fact that we didn't have to do any snowplowing that winter, transitioning the entire program over to them, made me really happy. Something that simple was a big achievement."

Gentry was presented with an Air Medal Nov. 20 by Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson for his deployment service, training Afghan pilots on the Mi-17 Russian Helicopter.

"I've been a helicopter pilot throughout my 22 years in the Air Force," Gentry said. "We learned how to fly the Russian helicopters and had 17 (aircraft) in the wing in Kabul. We taught pilots fresh out of flight school basic flying skills and advanced training for some of their senior pilots."

Gentry was also presented the Bronze Star for his meritorious achievements.
 
"It was a team effort," he said. "We were there helping each other and working together. Things were accomplished because of our bond and efforts."

Without any hesitation, the lieutenant colonel said he'd volunteer for another deployment.

"The work is challenging but it's rewarding," he said. "There were days you thought you weren't making any progress and then something would happen and you'd jump 20 steps forward. There were also days you'd take 10 steps back, but you could still see the progress over time."

Lt. Col. Chad Clementz, the Academy Liaison and Outreach Division chief and Gentry's supervisor here, said Gentry quickly adapted to the Academy environment after his deployment. He said Gentry stepped into a dynamic leadership role that demands focus and creativity, leading three Academy company grade officers and more than 250 admissions liaison officers throughout the Southwest region.

"The result of his leadership has led to a more focused and precise outreach program, which has significantly improved the exposure of the Academy to areas previously untapped by the institution," Clementz said. "His charisma and passion for developing the future officer corps has made waves throughout the organization and has inspired others to not be afraid of changing the way we do business, in an effort to tackle our workload more efficiently."
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