Local military advocate receives Air Force's highest civilian honor
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 7, 2009 2:00 AM
Pate's office in his Goldsboro home is full of patches, pictures, coins and other keepsakes collected during his decades of service to Seymour Johnson and Wayne County. He also has a model of each airplane he has flown in as an Air Force civic leader -- the F-4, F-15E and T-6.
It would take days for Troy Pate Jr. to tell the stories behind each of the 100-plus keepsakes that grace nearly every inch of the office inside his Goldsboro home.
They go back more than 40 years -- to the day he first made a commitment to serve as an advocate for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the communities outside its gates.
But it only takes him a few moments to recount just how he came across the latest addition to his collection.
Even if he won't admit he is worthy of it.
Pate received the Distinguished Public Service Award from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. William Fraser at a ceremony inside the Pentagon on May 29, while his wife, Joyce, and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz looked on.
The honor, the highest given to a civilian, comes at the tail end of Pate's long tenure as a highly visible presence in the day-to day nurturing of the relationship between Seymour Johnson, Wayne County and Washington.
The 10-time Military Affairs Commission chairman will step down as president of the Seymour Support Council -- a group he co-founded in 2000 as a preemptive strike against the most recent Base Realignment and Closure Commission -- at the end of the month.
"It's not like I'm not going to be involved. I'm just giving up the day-to-day activities," he said. "But (the award) coming at a time when I'm beginning to phase out, it's a fitting climax to a great ride. I came sliding into home."
Pate was a much younger man when that ride began.
It was the late 1970s, shortly after he joined what he called the county's "perfunctory" MAC.
"The Chamber had a military affairs committee for years, going back to when the base was reactivated," he said. "We attended functions and we did a new member briefing, but that's about all we did."
Then-4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Peter Kempf wasn't satisfied.
"He very bluntly told us that our committee wasn't worth a toot," Pate said. "Of course, it shocked us all."
They reached out to civic leaders from other military communities to find out just where Wayne's MAC was lacking.
"And we found out, quite frankly, that we weren't worth a darn," Pate said.
So in 1980, they started over.
"They asked 50 people to give $50 a year so the new MAC would have a functioning budget," Pate said. "That, today, is 100 members at $300 a year."
Those dues funded activities designed to bring airmen and local residents together -- trips to college sporting events and the beach, industry tours and military appreciation picnics.
"We just did a plethora of things to cement the relationship," Pate said.
And they still do -- only now, far more often.
"The MAC is basically charged with maintaining relationships between the city and the base," he said. "I don't mean to say we're a better business bureau, but if we can stop something (between a civilian and the base) from becoming an issue, we're always ahead of the game. We get in at the grassroots level."
It didn't take long for officials in Washington to notice the drastic improvements Pate and his colleagues had made.
And within a few years, 'Depending on who you talked to, when it came down to which town had the best MAC, we were No. 1 or No. 2 every time," he said. "That probably still prevails today."
Pate's role in building that reputation is one of the reasons the Air Force saw fit to honor him.
His leadership as president of the Seymour Support Council is another.
It was the late 1990s and another BRAC was on the horizon.
Seymour Johnson was in danger of being shut down.
"We starting talking about how we were going to handle this," Pate said. "The story we were getting from Washington was every time there was a BRAC in the past, about a year before, all these communities would come flying up there, wanting to see their congressional delegation and people in the Pentagon. You know, 'Don't close our base.'"
But the local MAC -- despite its "nearly impeccable" reputation and commitment to the base -- was in no position to handle the time and travel associated with such an undertaking.
"So we decided to form the Seymour Support Council. We interact with the base, but we basically leave the inner-workings of everything on the base to the MAC," Pate said. "We stay in touch with the base. We know what's going on at the base. We know what the issues are and we work issues for them, but our primary purpose is to work for the base in Washington -- both with the congressional delegation and the folks at the Pentagon."
That work paid off in 2005 when it was announced that Seymour Johnson had survived BRAC.
"We felt real good," Pate said. "Not that we made them keep the base open, but just the fact that we studied everything they had and tried to make sure if there was inaccurate information that we cleared it up, I'm sure helped. We are not lobbyists, but we make sure the people in Washington know Seymour Johnson."
They certainly know Pate.
When he walked through the Pentagon for a visit with Schwartz earlier this year, he was stopped no less than a dozen times along the way by service members he has a history with.
And back at Seymour Johnson, hundreds of airmen consider the Pates a second set of parents.
Maybe that is why Pate has fought so many battles on behalf of the base.
"The people part of it is very rewarding," he said. "The people part gets close to your heart."
He remembers a particular class of pilots-in-training.
"Joyce and I kind of adopted them. They were in and out of our house the whole time they were here," Pate said. "And as they come back through Seymour, we get to see them quite often."
He can still feel the first hug he got from Spencer Rollins -- the son of a fighter pilot who Pate spearheaded a fundraiser for when he was struggling to recover from open heart surgery at Duke Hospital.
"That kind of stuff really gets to you," he said.
But what will stick with him, perhaps, the most, were the moments he spent with young men and women working in the back shops on Air Force bases across the country.
He can see their faces -- working feverishly no matter what the task -- when he looks across the countless coins he has received from the particular squadrons they were assigned to.
"(The coins) have come from everywhere -- from some sergeant who was just so proud of his outfit, from a civilian I met in Las Vegas, from squadrons across the country. They are all special," he said. "I have met so many wonderful people, both in the military and out. Everywhere we go, we are just amazed at the young people we see -- the ingenuity they have."
So even when it seems he has earned the right to relax, to step away from the day-to-day, don't expect Pate to stop fighting for Seymour Johnson.
He will remain chairman of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs -- a state task force created by the governor's office he was first asked to serve on in the late 1970s -- until he is asked to step down.
And he will still represent the county and base via the Air Combat Command Commander's Group and Air Force Chief of Staff's Civic Leader Group.
He knows too well just how much airmen can mean to a community -- and just how fortunate Wayne County is to have a seamless relationship with those inside the Seymour Johnson gates who fight for its freedom.
"Another BRAC is coming. A popular date is 2015, but it's anyone's guess," Pate said. "So I don't feel like we can let up, whether it be me or my successor. I don't feel like we can ever let up in our effort to protect that base."
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