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Proud to Serve

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command
Maj. Gen. Stayce Harris is the first female numbered air force commander in the history of Air Force Reserve Command, but it's not that easy to get her to talk about her groundbreaking career or how she made it to the top of 22nd Air Force. She would much rather talk about the 15,000 Air Force Reservists who keep the organization flying and fighting every day.

"I am so impressed by what these Reservists are doing at home and around the world," Harris said during a recent interview from her new office at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga. "I can't wait to get out and visit our units and get an up-close look at the missions they are performing."

She's not kidding about not wanting to wait. Harris officially assumed command in late July. On Aug. 3, she was in Pittsburgh, home of the 911th Airlift Wing. She was back at Dobbins for her promotion and assumption of command ceremony on Aug 9. A few days after that, she was checking out the Airmen of the 440th AW at Pope Field in North Carolina. At this rate, it won't be long before Harris will have visited all 23 locations where the 22nd Air Force operates.

"The 22nd has some amazing missions," Harris said. "And I am so proud to serve as its commander."

In her new position, Harris has command over the Reserve's tactical air mobility operations and other vital mission sets like undergraduate pilot training, flight test operations and a highly mobile civil engineering response force. Reserve aircrews within the 22nd Air Force fly a variety of missions to include aerial spray, fire suppression, hurricane hunting and troop transport utilizing the C-130 Hercules.

Harris, a command pilot with more than 2,500 hours in military aircraft like the KC-135R, C-141B/C, T-38 and T-37, is excited about getting the chance to learn to fly the venerable C-130 while at Dobbins. Piloting the Herc will broaden the general's already-extensive flying experience and help her stay current during the two-year leave of absence she is taking from United Airlines to serve as 22nd Air Force commander.

With United, Harris flies the Boeing 747-400 aircraft with international routes to Asia and Europe. She said she will miss flying for the commercial airline and exploring other parts of the planet half a world away but is looking forward to "settling down" for the next couple of years.

Harris hasn't settled down in any one place for very long during a distinguished Air Force career that began soon after she received her commission through the University of Southern California's Air Force ROTC program in 1981. It was at USC that Harris discovered her passion for flying.

The general said she had never even considered a career as a pilot until her ROTC instructor suggested it to her. Harris decided to give it a shot, and the first time she sat down in a cockpit, she was hooked.

"I knew right away this is what I was meant to do," she said.

Harris served on active duty until 1990 when she began working for United and the following year made the transition to the Air Force Reserve. As a Reservist, she has broken down a lot of barriers and served as a trailblazer for women of color. She was the first African-American woman to command a flying squadron, the 729th Airlift Squadron at March ARB, California, and the first to command a flying wing, the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Harris was also the first black female aviator to attain the rank of general in the Air Force and the first to command an air expeditionary group, the 494th AEG at Moron Air Base, Spain.

The general also has a wealth of experience in the individual mobilization augmentee world. Among her numerous individual assignments, she has served as the individual mobilization augmentee to the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and the mobilization assistant to the commander of U.S. Africa Command and commander of Air Mobility Command.

It was her wealth of experience and ability to lead that prompted Lt. Gen. James F. Jackson, AFRC commander, to select Harris as 22nd Air Force commander.

"You represent the finest of our Citizen Airmen," Jackson said to Harris during her assumption of command and promotion ceremony. "It's not because of broken barriers or statistics that you were chosen for this position, but it was because of your leadership."

Gen. Darren W. McDew, AMC commander, described Harris as a "pioneer" while presiding over her promotion ceremony.

"We promote based on potential," McDew said. "Harris entered active duty among 8,929 officers in 1982 and is one of 18 in her year group to be promoted to major general. I am convinced there is no limit for her. The America we live in ultimately allows us to achieve the things we are qualified, competent and willing to do. Challenge Harris and she will deliver every time."

Challenged to lead the men and women of the 22nd Air Force, Harris said she will look to her personal heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen -- famed black aviators who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, and helped assure U.S. victory during World War II -- for inspiration.

"These were Airmen who were set up to fail," she said. "But they refused to do so. They were told that they couldn't do the job, but they responded with a drive and determination to succeed, and they ended up performing their mission better than anyone else had ever done it."

She took the example set by these American heroes to heart and has made a career of perseverance by demonstrating calm and steady leadership when faced with adversity.

"One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given was to 'just fly your airplane,'" she said. "Stay on course. Don't get distracted by the turbulence of the day - it's only temporary. Stay focused on where you are going, and you'll get there."

Harris' ability to create an environment where members focus on shared goals and objectives has paid dividends for the Air Force Reserve wherever she has served.

"I never wanted to be one of the guys," she said. "But I always knew I could be part of the team, so that's what I strived to do -- to be part of the team."

It's her knack for team building, in part, that has helped Harris become the leader she is today.

"Stayce started traveling the world early in her childhood with her father (an Air Force technical sergeant) and her mother," Jackson said. "And traveling has always been a passion of hers. Traveling the world has allowed her to meet numerous people and understand various cultures, and that has helped her become the team builder she is today. She has a great team here in 22nd Air Force, and I know she'll bring it even closer together."

Harris said her main objectives are to "continue to provide combat-ready forces that are responsive to our nation, to remain relevant in our missions and to look for emerging mission opportunities." She'll have to do all of this at a time when budgets are shrinking and the numbered air forces are having to operate with a smaller footprint.

Still, Harris is confident the units that are a part of 22nd Air Force will continue to excel.

"I was so impressed with the Airmen at both Pittsburgh and Pope and the attitude that they bring to the job," Harris said, noting that both the 911th and 440th AWs have gone through some tough times recently.

In February 2012, the Air Force announced that the 911th would be closing, only to reverse its decision in 2013. Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to deactivate the 440th.

"Facing deactivation, it would be easy for the Airmen of the 440th to be bitter, but that's not what I witnessed at all," she said. "I witnessed Airmen who were proud to serve and dedicated to the mission."

"Proud to serve" is a phrase Harris uses a lot.

"I'm an American Airman and as an Airman, I am humbled and honored to serve as the 22nd Air Force commander," she said.