Published: May 19, 2013
BILOXI, Miss. - Winning $1 million and a 2013 Commander-in-Chief Award declaring Keesler America's best Air Force base is a reflection on the entire coast, said Brig. Gen. Brad Spacy, commander of the base and the 81st Training Wing.
In winning the distinction, Keesler was judged on how well it works with the community.
"That's why I keep telling people it's not just our award," Spacy said. "It's an award for the whole Gulf Coast community."
Considered the top base, Keesler is now competing with the other branches of service for the best in the Department of Defense - the best of the best.
Spacy said they could know as early as this month how Keesler ranks at that level.
"They didn't give us a firm time line, but we think we'll know in the next couple of weeks," he said. "We try not to think about it. But I hope we win."
What would that mean?
"No more money. We got the money," he said. "It's only bragging rights. But it's nice bragging rights."
Spacy said the average citizen may not know the significance of the recent award, "but to us, it's the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl. It doesn't get any better than this."
The money will be spent on projects that benefit the whole base, Spacy said, because it's an award for the whole base.
He got the commanders together, along with public input, and decided to use the money to rubberize the running track around the base. Airmen are running more and more and this will help with joint health.
The base will add a splash pad for children at the marina and much-needed equipment at its three gyms.
"It's funny, because some people had no idea what $1 million could buy," Spacy said.
Someone suggested $1 million would buy a new gym.
"Well, we can't get a parking lot for that," he said with a smile.
The team that judged the base spent three long days talking to airmen and community leaders, looking at buildings and comparing reports.
The head civil engineer for the Air Force, a two-star general, leads it with three wing commanders from bases not involved in the competition.
Keesler was judged on whether it is a good steward of the government's money, how well it is maintained as well as community work.
It didn't hurt that Mississippi announced Keesler AFB won the Recycler of the Year Award during the three days of judging.
Innovation was another criteria, and a program in which Keesler captures the energy coming off building generators to heat water, earned points.
Winning the national distinction is a first for Keesler, but the base came in third last year.
It has many points that made it strong for the top spot, including having one of the five biggest medical centers in the Air Force with a state-of-the-art emergency room, being home to the Hurricane Hunters, and being one of four main technical training bases offering more than 400 courses.
It also didn't hurt that so much of the base underwent restoration and rebuilding after Katrina.
In the competition, there were eight squads singled out for unit-level awards and 17 individuals for special recognition.
The 17 get an award ribbon to include in their decorations, a lapel pin to wear on their suits.
There is nothing left for Keesler to do but await the secretary of defense's decision.
In the meantime, the solid win among the nation's Air Force bases is already resonating.
The great thing about this award, Spacy said: "A lot of bases have hard-working airmen. And we tell them how good they're doing all the time.
"But to get an award that tells you, makes a difference."