By Staff Sgt. Erica Picariello
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — On a rainy Friday afternoon, Chief Master Sgt. Jacob Simmons, 21st Space Wing command chief had a 30 minute break in his schedule to discuss his journey, how he views our mission, what we can expect of him, and what he expects from the men and women of the 21 SW.
Please tell us about your background:
I enlisted into the military because I wanted to do something that mattered; something I could be proud doing until I figured out which way was up for my life. Growing up at Fort Hood, Texas, I actually had every intention of joining the Army and would have been a soldier had I not listened to a still small voice during one life-changing event.
While getting set to sign my very final piece of Army enlistment paperwork at MEPs, an Airman walked by in service dress. I stopped just shy of the Oath when I realized that in my eagerness to get “life” started I didn’t research all of my options – and I owed myself that. It wasn’t cold feet, I just knew the magnitude of what I was doing. So I turned to my recruiter and told him I needed to learn something about the Air Force before I’d be ready to swear in to the Army. One conversation with the Air Force recruiter back home and a good look at the career catalog, and I was sold! I came in “open-general” believing that any specialty the Air Force assigned me to could offer a future in or out of the military. Of course, like most Airmen, I didn’t think about serving down the road past my initial enlistment; I just needed to get the ball rolling faster in my life.
As a brand new Airman Basic, I was accessed into the Aerospace Control and Warning Systems Operations (1C5) career field. It’s very similar to being a Space Operator (1C6) – they just operate in the air domain. In fact, the two career fields were so closely aligned at one time, you could hop between their jobs, tasks and locations. If you go to the North American Aerospace Defense Command/United States Northern Command command center today … they still have 1C5s and 1C6s on the floor blurring the operational lines between air and space.
I really enjoyed my first two assignments. The missions were amazing and the locations weren’t too bad either, but it was the caliber of the Airmen around me that locked me into reenlisting. I’ve always been very selective with whom I surround myself with. I’m all about quality over quantity.
When I reached the first-term retraining/reenlistment “fork in the road,” I was fortunate to have noncommissioned officers around me that poured their perspectives into me – unsolicited. I am so thankful to my supervisors who took the time to help me navigate through the options, shared their experiences, and positively influenced my decision to pursue a career in space operations – at least for the next four years. Their engaged and intrusive mentorship gave me the confidence to take that second leap of faith into the unknown. I realized then and benefited from the enormous trust placed in the counsel of NCOs. Our Airmen, just as I did, still look to NCOs for direction – life altering direction. When asked, I don’t take it lightly.
As my “spacewalk” began, so did our family. My beautiful bride of nearly 24 years (Ana) and I were married and we started down a parallel path of parenthood. Unintentionally, space operations afforded us eighteen consecutive years in Colorado…eighteen straight. It’s not that we tried to stay or wanted to leave, it was just the nature of the career field and how the assignments fell over the years. Although space didn’t orbit us around the world like many other Airmen get to experience, it did give our family stability and the opportunity to build strong relationships both in and out of the uniform. We took full advantage of entrenching into the community and our church home. We are thrilled to have the chance to pick back up where we left off. The timing couldn’t be better either with our oldest entering his final year as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy and our youngest entering her junior year of high school with old friends. Our middle son has just started his 4-year cadet crucible at the Coast Guard Academy.
Because space operations is so dynamic and always evolving, staying in one geographic location in no way stagnated my Air Force career. Every squadron had a different mission and was new start, but still offered supervisory roles and leadership responsibilities that groomed me as an NCO and senior NCO. From missile warning to satellite command and control to space control to joint operations to staff positions, my space operations career has been full of diversity and development. No two assignments were the same and I’ve been fortunate to experience them at the tactical, operational and strategic level. I would put the breadth of exposures in space operations up against any Air Force Space Command because space really is that big!
Culminating my time as a space professional, I jumped at the invitation to spend a few years on the Headquarters Air Force Space Command staff, and then a few more at the Pentagon; listening and learning from some of our most preeminent military leaders. There’s nothing quite so humbling as knowing you are sitting in the place where the buck stops and the blame goes. That said, those two duties were where I felt the most empowered and prepared to give back to the part of the Air Force that had invested so much into shaping me. I think we need to push that feeling of ownership way down to our newest Airmen so that the best new ideas can start rising up.
My last assignment was at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, as the 461 Air Control Wing command chief. It was my first real reunion with the “Air” Force since retraining in 1996. It was there, working with Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System maintainers and operators, and our deployable Air Traffic Control teams, that I witnessed first-hand the reliance in space effects into every corner of our enterprise – we touch everything, everywhere. I also gained a much clearer appreciation for what Airmen and their families outside of my stove-piped perspective were going through and bringing to the fight each and every day. Space is big, but the Air Force is bigger.
At Robins AFB, our wing was a mission partner to a host base. This meant the commander and I had to build relationships across the base with peers in order to get the support for our missions prioritized and the needs of our Airmen met. Partnering was at the center of everything; it fueled innovation and propelled community relations.
I believe all of my opportunities have built up to this – the chance to be the command chief at the 21st Space Wing – the premier wing in the Air Force! To be honest, I wanted to be here earlier, but I needed to do and go through other things first so that when I got here I would have enough in my tool box to reach into. It’s easy to come here and fail fast. This wing can be overwhelmingly demanding of each of us. There is so much going on here with multiple mission sets across the world — you can’t show up here without bringing your “A” game. There’s no room for people that want to just be here and glide or draft … this is a place for powered flight; we all have to work together to add momentum. We all lift the wing.
This is your fourth tour at Peterson AFB — how has the mission changed and how has it stayed the same?
It depends on how you look at it. Without a doubt, the posture of space operations and presentation of space forces has been continually evolving, mostly along a predictive path because of technology but sometimes it surged jarringly forward due to events that were out of our control. Over the past decade or so, other nations have begun to cast votes with regards to what goes on in the space domain. As a space community, we’ve gone from focusing narrowly on our capabilities and effects to acknowledging that we’re not the only player on the field to openly regarding space as an extension of the AOR in escalated conflict. That affects all of the war fighters. That changes everything – how we fight wars and how we live life here at home. That wasn’t the case when I came into space operations in 1996. It was quiet then. Now there’s noise in space.
Another thing that I know has changed since I’ve been out of space command is me, specifically how I view the command. It got bigger. We still have outstanding Airmen and the base is about the same as I left it in 2014, however how I see our outstanding Airmen and how I see what they bring to the fight has changed. I had grown accustomed to looking at things through a very functional lens, from a mission-oriented standpoint, and in an enterprise sort of way. Now I get to see space from a different (more unobstructed) vantage point, where it’s clear that space DOES NOT operate in a functional vacuum … it takes defenders, firefighters, comptrollers, personnel specialists, network communicators, training managers, civil engineers, comptrollers, and every other AFSC that comprises the space team. Coming back to Peterson AFB, I had to open my aperture to see the bigger picture; the things that were not in my old familiar job jar. Everyone contributes – everyone fights – everyone is at the tip of our space spear.
What are you excited about impacting as the command chief?
It would be easier to say, “What’s not to be excited about.” There is no better or more important wing in the Air Force, especially right now. I hope to contribute to advancing our collective ability to accomplish the mission and be value added to the lives of all of our Airmen.
What is the biggest challenge today’s Airmen face?
I think the biggest challenge all of our Airmen face today is believing that they are truly empowered enough to be innovative. That we value and will invest in their ideas. We’ve got to build trust into our Airmen that we genuinely need their input because things are changing so rapidly; that we’re willing to fail if we’re moving forward and that they won’t get into trouble for failing. I think the Air Force is opening tent doors, and we all need to seize upon the opportunity of the day. Every Airman now has a seat at the table. Every Airman needs to exercise their voice if they see something they think can be done better and especially if they see something that is being done wrong. The follow up to that challenge is time. We need to act now. We can no longer afford to admire the problem.
What can the men and women of the 21 SW expect from you?
First and foremost, they can expect a lot of questions. Not to question them, but questions because I don’t know. In order for me to be effective, I need to understand what’s going on in my surroundings. I’m a firm believer that I will fail in my job as the command chief if I’m not constantly being revectored by Airmen. I hope to learn something new each day from them and then apply that knowledge the next day.
They should also expect me to be transparent with what I’ve learned. I think the bottom line is that you can’t do anything in this wing by yourself. You can’t undertake everything this wing needs solo — you have to rely on the Airmen beside you to do their part; after all, they are the experts — not me. We have to trust each other. I think micromanaging tells our Airmen two things: we don’t trust them and we don’t have enough work of our own to do. Once I’m settled, I may ask a different type of question … but they’ll be more informed and coherent questions because the Airmen would have set me up for success.
What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure as command chief?
I do not have an agenda and the vision belongs to the commander, but he has certainly encouraged me to jump into any area I believe I can add value with both feet. I believe the two things he will look most to me to do is build bridges and strengthen relationships across the base and the Front Range, and make sure our Airmen and families are taken care of. I intend to focus on the development of all of our Airmen and at the end of the day ensure that everyone has more of what they need to accomplish the part of the mission. I won’t be naive to say we can accomplish everything, but we should move the ball forward. I’m not about going backwards and I’m not about standing still.