During the annual State of the Military program at the Goldsboro Event Center on Aug. 24, Col. Kurt C. Helphinstine, 4th Fighter Wing commander at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, talked about where the military, as well as America, is headed.
“This past year has been a time of struggle with the pandemic, economic insecurity for many people, and it’s also been a time where we’ve had some political strife in America,” he said. “So when we think about the last year and where we’re going as a nation, in America we’ve been self-looking inward and self-centered slightly.
“But the rest of the world hasn’t been.”
Helphinstine said the world right now is seeing a rewriting of the world order, and there are several directions in which it could go.
“One can be the Chinese way where there’s one party, a significant economic power,” he said. “They go to undeveloped countries, develop ports, soccer fields, transportation systems, airports, with loans these countries in Africa and Asia can never pay back, South America.
“When they can’t pay the loan back, they take control of commerce in and out of countries and essentially enslave this country for perpetuity. The Chinese communist party and their one-party policy has no protection for minority rights. This is our threat, not only militarily, but politically and a world view threat that puts the free world at risk.”
Then there’s Russia, he said.
“Russia’s more of an informational threat,” Helphinstine said. “I will acknowledge that they’re the only country in the last several decades that have actually taken over parts of the country of Georgia and part of the country of Ukraine with Crimea.
“But their economic powerhouse is not that of China and definitely not near that of America. But Russia has an informational warfare campaign that I believe we’re actually starting to see in this area.”
Helphinstine said that’s hard to counter. He talked about part of that informational warfare being fake news and social media manipulation, and thinks some of that has been seen lately, specifically when it comes to moving military personnel in and out of the base.
He said Department of Defense personnel from Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson are moved all over the nation from the base.
“We do that with the civil reserve airfleet, but also with Delta, Southwest, FedEx and UPS,” Helphinstine said. “You’re going to see those aircraft flow in and out. But when it happens at the same time there’s a crisis on the border or there’s situations in Afghanistan, rumors start because of discourse and lack of trust in our community and our airmen.
“I can assure you, we’ve only moved official DoD personnel in and out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. But it’s a federal installation. If that changes at all I’ll make sure we message appropriately and it will be very clear.”
Helphinstine said in the meantime people in the community need to trust him and what the base is doing with its missions in and out of the base.
“We will not only protect our base and our families, but also the community,” he said. “It’s actually causing an issue operational-securitywise when I have people questioning aircraft landing at my base and we’re moving special forces groups all over the world, real world missions. So I need you to please just let me run my base.”
Helphinstine also said he believes America’s military is going to be involved in conflicts in more places around the world, just not on a large-scale basis.
“I think automation is going to drive much change,” he said. “The world is going to change. And as the developed world rapidly changes, the undeveloped world is going to be more and more left behind. And when people get left behind, they’re going to lash out and it will probably cause more issues with violent extreme organizations.”
Helphinstine talked about the evacuations in Afghanistan and showed photos of Afghans so desperate to leave their country that they cling to Boeing C-17 Globemasters. They rushed one C-17 and about 640 people got on board before it took off.
Changes in the military itself include new hair regulations for female airmen.
“Since 1947, ladies have been required to pull their hair up,” Helphinstine said. “They couldn’t have ponytails, braids. It had to be essentially at their collar. It took four years, but we finally have it to where ladies can let their hair down on active duty and wear their hair the way that they want.”
Helphinstine said the base is also focusing more on community engagement, including helping students at Carver Heights Elementary School. He said none of them have military connections and that airmen are going to the school to tell the students about the military and specifically their job.
A new partnership will bring a Wayne County public school to the base, with a target opening date of August 2022.
Helphinstine said it will be for students in sixth through 12th grades, and three years after opening will have a total of 420 students, half of which will be military-affiliated and the other half nonmilitary youths.
“I think if we can get this right, it’s something that can be replicated state and nationwide,” he said.
Helphinstine said he always wants to be truthful with the Goldsboro community, and revealed that the base had its highest number of new COVID-19 cases during the entire pandemic Aug. 23.
“COVID and the delta variant, which is what it is right now, it is a serious problem,” he said. “We’re taking safeguards to protect our people. For us, it is not only protection of our airmen and families, it’s a mission assurance.
“The DoD does not yet require mandatory vaccinations. Though with the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, we’re expecting to come out in the next few days, that will lead to mandatory vaccinations for all of our personnel. It’s been a choice so far.”
Col. Christopher C. Holland, Operations Group commander with the 916th Air Refueling Wing at the base, gave a short presentation about his unit.
He said the 916th is diverse in that it has both military and civilian members.
The unit has been transitioning from the KC-135 Stratotanker to the newer KC-46 Pegasus. The 916th took possession of its first Pegasus in June 2020.
Holland highlighted the 916th’s progress during 2021.
The fifth Pegasus arrived in February, and the unit also took part in a Razor Talon exercise with the 4th Fighter Wing.
In May, it got its sixth KC-46, and also participated in a Checkered Flag exercise at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
The seventh KC-46 arrived in June, and last month, the 916th took two loaner planes back to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, that it had borrowed until it received more KC-46s in its fleet.
This month, the unit is supposed to receive three more Pegasuses to put it up to 10 of its total fleet of 12.
The final two aircraft are due to arrive in October.
And in November, the new two-bay aircraft hangar, the largest building at Seymour Johnson AFB, will be completed.
“As we have learned the new 46 through the challenges of COVID, for both of those reasons, we really cut back on our engagement and ability for folks to come out and see the airplane,” Holland said. But he hopes that visits can resume soon.
“We’re very excited to be part of Team Seymour,” he said.
During the event, Rick Sumner, chairman of the Wayne County Military Affairs Committee, gave an update on what MAC has been doing.
First, he explained that MAC started in the 1960s with about 50 community members. Today that’s grown to about 130 members.
“MAC is dedicated to supporting the efforts of Seymour Johnson, which, in essence, supports our whole community,” Sumner said. “Our main areas of focus are removing barriers between the base and the community, increasing overall awareness of MAC and how it supports the base and promoting all the positive things being done on base.”
Sumner said the community and base must continue to work together to be the best defense community in America with the best fighter wing on the planet.
“Seymour Johnson is a tremendous asset, and we’re so fortunate to have these individuals with the base live in our community, work in our businesses, go to our churches, attend our schools and volunteer to help the community,” he said.
“When we’re helping the base, we’re also helping our whole community.”