By Darrell Todd Maurina
Meeting with local media for a press conference on his last full day commanding Cannon Air Force Base, Col. Robert “Rowdy” Yates said the last two years have been the best of his life.
That ends at 3 p.m. today with a change of command ceremony at Cannon, after which Yates will leave for Langley Air Force Base in Virginia where he is scheduled for promotion to brigadier general in a headquarters staff job.
Yates said he will miss flying fighter jets on a regular basis and isn’t looking forward to wearing a dress uniform each day. More than that, however, Yates said he will miss a level of community support at Cannon far greater than what he’s seen at some other bases.
“I can start from my first base — I’m not going to mention names because it would be wrong — but when you went into town, as I was a lieutenant then, trying to cash a check, they were very, very rude for lack of a better term. They had very little faith in you, they were not kind. You were there but you weren’t one of them,” Yates said. “I guess what’s unique about community support here is that people are warm, the people are embracing, they reach out to you, they treat you like family, and that is what is different about Clovis and Portales.”
“The economic impact, we understand, is fairly substantial on a small community, but that is not why we are supported,” Yates said. “We are supported because the people of New Mexico are patriotic. People of New Mexico understand that we have a vital mission and they are happy to contribute and be part of that.”
Cannon’s next commander will be in charge during the federal process known as “Base Realignment and Closure,” or BRAC, that could lead to the closure of a quarter of America’s stateside military installations. Yates said Cannon officials won’t have much say in that process.
“What I see for BRAC is that bases like Cannon Air Force Base will answer the questions that were asked, and most of those will be how much square footage do you have, how much runway space do you have. That will go through the decision process by way of Langley to Washington, D.C., and they will make their decision in 2005,” Yates said. “The wing will have almost nothing to do with it except to provide data.”
Yates said the highlights of his time at Cannon were deploying almost a quarter of the 27th Fighter Wing personnel to Operation Iraqi Freedom and seeing Cannon’s personnel back home go through a detailed inspection and still win a long list of awards for peak performance.
“We had to play in a ‘superbowl’ (of inspections) with 25 percent of our team deployed,” Yates said. “We were very depleted but we still got through that with a lot of outstanding marks.”
Many of those improvements were in Cannon’s safety record.
“Shortly after I got here, we had a tragic accident; we lost a young man and an airplane,” Yates said. “Since then we have really redoubled our efforts in the area of safety. If you take a look at our safety record, we won the Colombian trophy for 2003. That goes to the number one flying safety unit in the Air Force.”
Yates credited his wife Barbara with volunteering to help improve morale and quality of life for Cannon’s personnel.
“She has worked in a lot of programs that reach out to young people, young enlisted wives, 18- or 19-year-old ladies who show up on this base because they decided to marry a young airman, who know nothing about the Air Force when they get here,” Yates said. “We have programs here through family support that are designed to reach out to those people and brief them and inform them on what the Air Force is all about, but unless you get the word out and unless they know that it is going to be a warm and embracing environment, they won’t show up.”
Yates said he believes Cannon will continue to improve.
“Once you get the momentum going, and I think we have the momentum going big-time on the right vector, it is self-sustaining,” Yates said. “I think 2004 will be another banner year, probably better than any other year Cannon has ever experienced.”