By Scott Prater
When Randy LaCombe climbed up his first telephone pole during basic training, he did something totally out of his comfort zone.
As it turned out, climbing to extreme heights proved to be too far out of his comfort zone. As he prepares to retire after 28 years of service, 50th Space Wing Command Chief, Chief Master Sgt. Randy LaCombe recognizes that stretching beyond comfort is a theme that has defined his Air Force career.
Back in 1984, fresh out of high school, LaCombe enlisted and signed up to be a telephone-pole linesman. During the first week of basic training he was asked to take a test. He put on a safety harness, climbed to the top of a telephone pole and was told to let go with one hand.
“That was enough for me,” he said. “I scaled back down, promptly walked to the personnel office and signed up to be a dental assistant.”
This was no civilian dental assistant job, however. Working as a dental assistant in the Air Force meant deploying overseas, an aspect the young LaCombe enjoyed immensely.
“It was different,” he said. “There was no routine in day-to-day operations. I got to do dental work on people in the field — and it was a great time.”
As a dental assistant, he recovered the bodies of an Air Force pilot and a weapons officer of a crashed F-111. He saw and did things he would never see or do in a dental clinic.
“It wasn’t pleasant, but you know you’ve helped put families at ease,” he said.
While stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. several years later, LaCombe considered separating from the AF. He even had an approved Palace Chase package in place.
“Thank God the Air Force was short on dental assistants at the time,” he said. “I had a buddy who had separated and he made it sound so good. At that point I had convinced myself that I had never let my hair grow, but looking back, I don’t think I was mature enough. It was, perhaps, the best thing for me to stay in.”
Six years later, the AF did have enough dental assistants, too many in fact, so LaCombe took another uncomfortable leap and retrained into space systems operations.
“If you think about it, the mouth is a very small space,” he said. “I went from dental assistant to the vastness of space. Retraining was the best thing I ever did.”
Space proved to be very good for LaCombe’s career. The switch provided a different perspective and also helped him understand the importance of every job in the AF.
After flying satellites for the 3rd Space Operations Squadron, he went on to serve as a crew chief and later as a crew evaluator.
Ironically, when he began his duties as the 50 SW command chief, he recognized that he was about to start something else out of his comfort zone.
“I’m an introverted person,” he said. “I like to do my own thing; work for myself so to speak.”
A month into his time here at Schriever, an old friend called to check up on him.
“During our time as chiefs together, Randy would always get fired up about something,” said Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Trottier, 21st SW command chief. “You’re not going to find a more painfully honest guy. He’s that guy who, ultimately, is not afraid to tell you what you need to hear.”
Communicating obviously wasn’t a problem for LaCombe, but he said he had to work to get past a block.
“I had to force myself out of that comfort zone so I could get to know people,” he said. “Being a command chief has actually helped me be a better chief because I got to know all of the Airmen here and make a difference in their careers. That’s my job right? To be here to mentor all these enlisted folks and to make sure the wing commander knows what’s going on with them.”
LaCombe will say good bye to Schriever and the Air Force for good this week. Soon, he’ll move to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., where he’ll work as a civilian and spend much of his off-duty time hunting and fishing.
He departs with a few words of advice for those following in his footsteps as chiefs, non-commissioned officers and Airmen, “Know the priorities of the AF, take care of your people, be good mentors and wingmen, train your replacements, work hard and take care of yourself.”