By Kristina E. Jones
It’s approximately 3:30 a.m., and Bob Christopher’s alarm is ringing loudly on his bedside table. Rather than hitting the snooze button, he turns it off and quietly slips out of bed as to not disturb his wife, Lu. He has an important mission in the next two hours, and he must hurry.
At a quarter past 4 a.m., Christopher is out the door. With his signature newsboy cap on, he pulls out of the driveway, Dyess Air Force Base Military Affairs Committee ID safely tucked in his coat pocket.
While most Abilenians are still in bed, Christopher is on the flight line at Dyess Air Force Base. He isn’t active military, yet the base commander and his vice-commander aren’t surprised to see him there. With a wave from the general, Christopher joins the long line of Dyess officers and chiefs to welcome home another batch of returning Dyess military personnel who have been away on temporary duty.
As the young men and women exit the plane, Christopher is third in line to shake their hands and welcome them home on behalf of the Abilene community. Several smile back in recognition. After all, he was in the same spot in line six-months ago, when they said goodbye to their families and carried their in-flight gear to the plane.
After he shakes the last hand, Christopher follows the line of airmen to one of the hangars close by. This is his favorite part – the emotions of family members and friends as they greet the men and women in uniform. With spouses dressed to the nines and children still in pajamas, time seems to stop and the world fills with joy.
Christopher watches for a while and takes it all in. He then quietly makes his way back to his car and heads home. His mission is accomplished.
As one of nearly 50 civic leaders who serve as honorary commanders, Christopher understood that by saying “yes” to the job, his volunteer job description included being an official liaison between Dyess Air Force Base and the Abilene area community. One of the roles of honorary commanders is to say farewell to and welcome home the deploying military personnel, particularly after their “OpsTempo” (military lingo for “operational tempo,” meaning combat-related deployments) increased after Sept. 11, 2001.
For more than two and a half decades, Christopher has served on the Abilene Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. His first role as honorary commander was for the 7th Maintenance Squadron on the base. When a position was added for the vice-wing commander to have an honorary commander, former Military Affairs Chairwoman Celia Davis moved Christopher into the position he currently holds. In 2002, he was honored as the first Honorary Commander of the Year by Dyess Air Force Base.
It was around 1990 that Jack “Cactus Jack” North, another long-time honorary commander and leader in the Abilene community as owner of North’s Funeral Home, recruited Christopher to the program. When Christopher asked what the job description entailed, Jack replied “be there.”
In the mid-1990’s, Christopher took the reins from Larry Sanders, known to many as the former face of Keaton Color and current owner of a missile silo and CEO of Missile Base Enterprises, to serve as the honorary commander chairman for several years.
“We developed a 2-3 page epistle and made sure everyone knew what was expected. And they fulfilled it. I think we only had to replace one person, due to a move, during my time as honorary commander chairman,” Christopher said.
One year, he spent the summer recruiting new folks to the program, and his favorite call was to Gray Bridwell.
“I asked him to think about an honorary commander position in the 317th Air Group [C-130s], and he bit big,” Christopher said. “I had a big hook, and I reeled him in.”
Bridwell now serves as the chair of the Military Affairs Committee of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce and is the honorary commander for the 7th Bomb Wing commander.
“Christopher has always been an iconic member of the civic leader/honorary commander group,” Bridwell said. “His sense of humor is well-known and loved among the Dyess leadership, but underneath the laughs there is a genuine care for the men and women of Dyess. How could you not catch the spirit?”
During his tenure, Christopher has had the good fortune of flying in a B-1 back in 1994, attending the 50th National Security Forum at Air War College hosted by the Secretary of the Air Force in 2003 and attending numerous civic leader educational trips via a C-130.
Christopher’s eyes twinkle as he remembers flying in a C-130 “E” model with former Military Affairs Chairman Fred Lee Hughes. On their very first trip, they were seated in the “comfort seats” installed for distinguished visitors. C-130s are people and equipment movers and not typically made for comfort. Upon take-off, the accumulated condensation from the plane drained in their laps. A bit wiser on the second trip, Christopher and Fred Lee had open umbrellas, much to the amusement of others on the plane.
According to Christopher, what the entire program really boils down to is relationships.
“We’re so lucky to have Dyess here, both the emotional impact and the financial impact to the community,” he says. “There are tremendous relationships that have developed over the years. People from Abilene know the mission, want to be involved, and sometimes families become so close, they even take vacations together.”
Gail and Joe Russey agree. Perhaps you’ve met the Russeys at one of many arts events or venues in Abilene, but when they aren’t admiring fine and emerging art, they are encouraging fine and emerging airmen.
Like Christopher, they know that Dyess is a great starting point for young airmen and their families.
One example both Christopher and the Russeys share is Maj. Gen. Garrett (Gary) Harencak, former Dyess Wing Commander who served the first of four assignments as a captain and aircraft commander in the 96th Bomb Wing in the late 1980s.
Harencak so fell in love with the people of Abilene (and the feeling is mutual among many Abilenians), that he and his wife, Tanya, personally invited a number of people to his promotion ceremony to general while he was assigned as commander at Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri.
“We do our best to get to know who we can while they are stationed here, whether they are first sergeants, first lieutenants or colonels,” Bridwell said. “Many reciprocate the friendship with Christmas cards and emails to let us know where the military takes them and how they are doing.”
Christopher experienced that connection even more when his family experienced some health issues. “Before I knew it, the news was literally around the globe. We had more cards and notes from people we had not seen in years.”
The Russeys joined the Military Affairs Committee for several reasons. Joe Russey’s father was a long-time member of the chamber since its founding. When the Military Affairs Committee gained momentum, they joined because it was the right thing to do and they wanted to support Dyess, he said.
Their first assignment as honorary commanders was to support the 7th Bomb Wing inspector general, Col. Jim Hammes. Hammes and his wife, Jody, became very involved in the Abilene community, in part due to the support of the Russeys.
When Hammes was promoted as commander to the 7th Mission Support Squadron, they requested the Russeys move with them.
Once the Hammes moved to their next assignment, the Russeys care and compassion were needed at the other end of the Base in the 317th Air Group. A new major had moved to town, and while his wife and kids remained to finish high school in Florida, his father who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s would be living with him in Abilene.
“We knew the challenges he would face as a new squadron commander, and we knew the Russeys would connect him to community resources and be a good match,” Bridwell said. “We asked if they would be willing to leave the B-1 side of the house and take on a new role in the C-130 side, and they didn’t even blink before saying yes.”
Joe Russey always recommends membership in the Military Affairs Committee to others, even if they don’t have time to be a full honorary commander.
“We should be proud of what we do as a community,” Gail Russey said. “Many other communities don’t participate quite like we do.”
The Russeys have since graduated from their roles as honorary commanders and are providing leadership to a newly created group called “Golden Eagles,” which contains past-honorary commanders such as Fred Lee Hughes and Raymond and Gloria McDaniel who continue to be involved in special events on base and in the community. It’s their chance to pass the torch to a new group of civic leaders who they hope love the airmen like they do.
To join the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, contact Deb Morotini at 325-677-7241 or email@example.com. Group tours of Dyess and the honorary commander program are coordinated through Dyess Air Force Base Public Affairs at 325-696-2863.