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0 Comments | Dec 10, 2021

Leading by Example . . . Brig. Gen. Caroline Miller

USAF Brigadier General Caroline Miller
Commander, Joint Base San Antonio/502nd Air Base Wing

Caroline Miller Cover PhotoIn past articles, I’ve mentioned that my very first trip from my Maine home was to Lackland Air Force Base for USAF basic training way back in . . . well, a long time ago. And now, after decades of traveling the globe for work and leisure, I’ve found myself right back here, calling San Antonio my home. Turns out, though, that I’m not the only person with that sort of circular life story. USAF Brigadier General Caroline Miller tells a similar story, except that in her case it was her parents who got married back in the mid-sixties at the Lackland AFB chapel. Now, all these years later, she is back in the Alamo City in command of the 502nd Air Base Wing and Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA), an aggregation of formerly independent installations that includes Lackland AFB, Randolph AFB, and Fort Sam Houston, representing eight geographically separate operating locations and more than 250 mission partners. It’s the largest joint base in the DoD portfolio, comprising nearly 75,000 active duty personnel; more than half a million veterans, retirees, and dependents; and about $16 billion worth of facilities and infrastructure. It’s easily the largest responsibility yet for Brig. Gen. Miller, who took over the role in June of last year.

Gen. Miller is one of four sisters (she’s second oldest) and she had the itinerant upbringing typical of someone who grew up with a career USAF father (twenty-four years).

“We didn’t really have a home growing up,” she says. “We moved pretty much every two-three years. Fortunately now the military makes more of an effort to provide some measure of stability for its career families.”

Her mother is from Minnesota and her father is from Oklahoma, and the Lackland chapel nuptials came about because her father was working at the base. One of the menwho worked for him happened to be the husband of the sister of his future bride. The couple met as a result of the two sisters visiting at the base, following which Gen. Miller’s mother stayed on there as a teacher. All these years later, the parents are still together and living in California.

“My biggest mentor was for sure my mother,” she recalls. “She was a special education teacher and was really good with all four of us. She has the kindest soul and a unique sense of serenity. I remember playing volleyball in the living room once with my sisters and the Christmas tree getting knocked over. Instead of becoming upset, she just calmly asked if someone would pick it up.”

These days the family takes every opportunity to get together, whether for a birthday celebration or simply to spend time at their house on the lake in Minnesota.

“My sisters still give me a hard time because they’re convinced I’m our dad’s favorite (which of course I am!)”

Though it may, at this point, sound inevitable that the young Caroline would follow in her father’s footsteps and seek her fortune in the military, this was by no means a foregone conclusion.

“I was, for a long time, against going into the service,” she says. “All the moving around was just too much. I really missed having roots in one place.”

That said, the constant relocating was made at least somewhat easier on Caroline and her sisters by the fact that they were all active in team sports (swimming, tennis, and volleyball). Once settled into a new location, joining one or more sports teams helped the sisters to settle into their new communities. Still, military service was not at all on her radar when she graduated from high school.

“Growing up I was interested in math, science, and medicine. I even thought for a while that I’d go to college and then medical school. In the end, I went to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California and got my undergraduate degree in experimental psychology. Then I worked for a couple years at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, but quickly decided I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I was in the gastroenterology department and we did studies for the Army to find delivery systems that could stop bacterial infections. We used the same protocols over and over and it got pretty boring after a while. I’m not an introvert at all, so spending my days locked away in a lab wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I realized that I just didn’t have a passion for the work. That’s when I decided to join the Air Force.”

By the time the future flag officer got to Officer Training School she was twenty-six and believed that her stint in the service would be limited to just four years before moving on to her next challenge. It’s now been twenty-eight years and she’s still going strong. And how long will she stay with it?

“I have three criteria that determine my time in the service,” she says. “As long as I’m making a difference, having fun, and my family is still willing to come along on the journey with me, I’ll stay with it.”

The military is definitely a family affair though. Her husband also served for twenty-seven years before retiring from his role as a USAF communications officer. Her dad, of course, was ecstatic when he learned that his daughter was joining up, if a bit belatedly. He wished that all four of his daughters had joined, though in the end only Caroline would. One of the highlights of his life was administering the reaffirmation of her service oath when she received her general star in 2019.

Lacking the qualifications for a medical position in the USAF, her initial position was in personnel. It wasn’t the greatest fit with her educational background, but in the end she was able to make it work. As with any multi-decade military career, Gen. Miller has seen more than her share of duty locations and assignments, ranging from Alaska to Qatar and everyplace in between.

“I’ve enjoyed all of my assignments, but not necessarily all my leadership. I spent a year in Qatar in the desert, where it was about 100 million degrees much of the time,” she says. “The team and leadership were phenomenal—the fact that there was no one trying to take all the credit. We were operating in surge mode for the entire year I was there, but we all just worked together to get the job done. The other great example is my team here now at JBSA. Everyone works well together, we socialize together, and everyone is trying to do the right thing. We’ve definitely had some challenges though—Covid, of course, preparing to bed down Afghan refugees, and processing unaccompanied minors from the border, just to pick a few. But whatever arises, the whole team does whatever’s necessary to get the job done.”

And what does the general recall as her greatest leadership challenge?

“Dealing with Storm Uri back in February certainly qualifies,” she says, referring to the weeklong sub-freezing period earlier this year that saw countless Texans without power or fresh water. “We really underestimated the impact of that event. We didn’t pull the team together fast enough to deal with all of the infrastructure problems—power outages, frozen pipes, all of that. When I was stationed at Langley in Virginia we had hurricanes all the time. The difference, though, was that everyone knew what to do in those circumstances. The freeze we had this past winter was unprecedented for south Texas, and it caught us a bit unawares. You can bet we’ve changed our processes as a result of that experience.”

The military community in San Antonio is immense, as anyone knows who’s lived here for more than a couple of days. Not only does JBSA encompass numerous huge installations and mission partners, there are also more than half a million military-affiliated individuals (veterans, retirees, dependents, contractors, etc.) living in the surrounding area, most of whom have some level of recurring relations with one or more organizations that fall under Gen. Miller’s control. Making that all work seamlessly in a city of over a million people is nothing short of daunting.

“Honestly, I thought when I was up at Langley that our relationship with the community there was wonderful,” she says. “But our relationship with the city/county government and business community here in San Antonio is even better. We are constantly working with city leaders on emergency preparation, infrastructure planning, and countless other initiatives. We also have a two-year ‘Honorary Commanders’ program in which city leaders (government, corporate, nonprofit) get together regularly with representatives from one of our bases to learn about all of our operations, from flying to infrastructure preparedness to military working dogs and everything in between. We take about fifteen to twenty city leaders at a time and really let them dig down into the nuts and bolts of what we’re doing at JBSA.”

And how has our nearly-two-year pandemic affected her ability to effectively lead such an immense and ever-changing organization?

“It’s left up to local commanders to set a ‘health condition,’ (rather like the old DEFCON 1-5 system),” she says. “Initially there’s high-level policy handed down from DoD and that gets propagated through all the individual services. We then look at our hospital space, vaccination rates, positivity rates, and available medical personnel. During the height of Covid we were holding crisis action meetings every day. Now we’re down to once a week, and getting ready to go less frequent. Putting together a staffing strategy is complicated. Our organization has so many folks who just can’t work from home, e.g., security force members, engineers, customer support, etc. A lot of our mission simply doesn’t allow it, so we’re in a hybrid situation for now.”

With the sheer immensity of the organization and the ever-changing conditions, how does the general assess how good of a job she and her team are doing?

“It’s mainly through formal performance reviews,” she says. “My boss doesn’t know the details of what I do from day to day. But we have plenty of inspections, climate assessments, etc. My people are very frank about this. I ask my immediate team for honest feedback all the time. The best feedback I get is from my chiefs (Chief Master Sergeants). They have no further career promotion opportunities, so they have nothing to lose from not being candid with me. They give great feedback. I also work hard to be super transparent. Someone will say to me ‘Did you realize how you came across in that meeting yesterday?’ People have walked into my office and said ‘Wow, you really blew that one.’ My husband was a trainer and he was incredibly direct with me. I remember one time I had to brief a four-star general and I clearly wasn’t as ready as I needed to be. He told me as much . . . but I married him anyway.”

Recent years and several rounds of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiatives have seen the creation of numerous joint bases across the U.S., with JBSA being the largest. What’s Gen. Miller’s take on the effectiveness of the consolidation efforts thus far?

“The original goal of creating the joint base structure was to create operational cost savings for the military. What they’ve found here in San Antonio is that we’re so geographically separated there isn’t all that much opportunity for savings or synergies, even on missions, except perhaps that we’re able to handle all the medical training in one place. Of course at this point no one has the appetite for trying to break apart the joint base structure, so we’re doing all we can to make the most of it.

“Instead, with our resilience programs we’re working hard to identify and implement best practices across all the services and provide one-stop shopping for all military and ex-military members here in the San Antonio area. We have airmen working with soldiers, coast guard, etc. The days of turf wars between the services are behind us. We’re all working really effectively together now, trying to pool resources to make a difference across the entire installation. We’re in a resource limited environment here, so it’s critically important that we leverage those resources as effectively as we can.”

And what are the sorts of character traits that have allowed Gen. Miller to accomplish her goals to this point?

“First and foremost, I’m big on team building; that’s incredibly important. With an organization this large and spread out, you have to build cohesive teams, have to be able to delegate where it’s needed. Culture, of course, is also really critical. When I first arrived here, I’d ask what it’s like to be in the 502nd Air Base Wing and no one could tell me in a clear coherent way. So we put together a contest and developed a mission statement and a “beast” mascot to personalize what the 502nd means. Now if I ask someone what we stand for, they’ll talk about ‘the beast.’”

She also believes strongly in the importance of resilience, both organizationally and personally. And it’s a topic she knows a thing or two about, having survived a recent diagnosis of brain cancer, which resulted in surgery and subsequent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She credits not only the quality and professionalism of her medical team, but also her physical conditioning for enabling her to make it through the arduous treatment regimen and subsequently continue in command roles with the Air Force.

“My leadership, my team, everyone was phenomenal,” she recalls. “Their priority was making sure that I was okay. That leadership made a huge difference. They demonstrated what we talk about in leadership training. The support throughout the process was awesome, from airmen up through the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. When my boss asked me if I wanted to command again, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes, absolutely.”

I noted that she and her predecessor Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman were standouts in a historically male-dominated U.S. military. How does she think about the role of gender in the modern services?

“Things have evolved in that there are more female leaders now than ever before. Major General Susan Pamerleau was the first and only female general in the fourteen years from when I was a Second Lieutenant to when I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Now you can’t be in a meeting without there almost being 50/50 male/female mix, and it’s just that we’re growing and are more present than ever. It’s not a gender thing, just an airman thing. You promote the best and you’ll get the best people. But it takes a while to grow them. The first females at the Air Force Academy were about thirty years ago and now they’re all three- and four-star generals. There are seven female general officers just here in the San Antonio area. The real challenge is being fair and equitable when rating soldiers and airmen. Someone once commented to me that we were doing quarterly award packages with built-in personal/gender identifiers included, e.g., a name that might indicate a type of person a reviewer doesn’t like. So we switched to a number-only system and instantly eliminated a potential source of implicit/unconscious bias. We’re just looking for the best candidates. I’m a big proponent of fairness, but also diversity of thought.”

As demanding as a military leadership position can be, even a Brigadier General has at least a little time for leisure and reflection. How does Gen. Miller spend that precious time?

“I’ve always been pretty athletic, so I golf and swim when I can. Once in a while I’ll break out my son’s archery equipment and try to hit a haystack with his bow. And I travel up to Minnesota at least once a year to visit my sisters and parents. We’re also a pretty musical family. I played saxophone in the high school band, though I can’t really say I’ve kept that up. Now I play guitar and piano, and my husband sings and plays theguitar too.”

And so, with twenty-eight years of service behind her, how would Gen. Miller sum up her career, her life choices, and whatever is waiting around the next corner?

“Joining the Air Force was the best decision I ever made. I originally did it for selfish reasons—just needed something to do—but it’s worked out wonderfully. I greatly value the opportunity and the ability to develop people, to see them build confidence, go to school, and get the education that maybe no one in their family ever had. I feel like I’m making a difference in helping people along. I tell people every day, ‘Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and try things,’ and I try to live my life that way too. It’s okay to fail or to be told no. We are making progress with leadership. Sometimes if we want to accelerate change we have to take more chances. Our competitors like China and Russia are outpacing us in many ways. We come from a culture of not tolerating failure along the way. We need to get over that, and I feel like it is getting better. We have to allow soldiers and airmen at all levels to take appropriate risks and then help them out and not crucify them because they made a mistake. I think the culture is changing but it’s too slow. We have to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I remember a quote I heard from someone a long time ago—‘I’m 100% sure I don’t have this 100% right, but we’re moving ahead anyway.’ Culturally we’ve grown to be risk averse and a successful future demands that we change that.”

 

 

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