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Academy colonel reflects on Afghanistan tour

By: amber baillie Air Force Academy
January 5, 2014
photo - Lt. Col. Howard Gentry stands on the 438th Expeditionary Wing airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012. (Air Force Photo)
Lt. Col. Howard Gentry stands on the 438th Expeditionary Wing airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012. (Air Force Photo) 

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 his1-year-old daughter grow up and say her first sentences via Skype.

Gentry, a 1992 Air Force Academy graduate and regional director in admissions here, volunteered for the deployment and served as deputy group commander for the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Wing in Kabul, Afghanistan.

There, he teamed with five NATO countries, took care of 341 coalition troops and advised Afghan airmen.

Gentry knew there would be pressure. He knew he'd miss his family - but he chose to deploy for the first time in his career 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 morale and motivation up was an everyday challenge down range, 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 to three times a day to make sure they were really good."

Gentry said he helped revamp the relationship between the 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 before Gentry's deployment, eight U.S. Air Force airmen and a U.S. contractor from the 438th wing were killed in Kabul during a random attack, leaving the operations center at a standstill.

"The center stood-down for nine months," he said. "We were there every day, determined to bring it back up. 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."

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.

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 overseas with. 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 plow snow in 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 on 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 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 Medal for his meritorious achievements.

"It was a team effort," he said.

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