CMSgt Eric W. Benken

CMSgt Eric W. Benken

USAFE Senior Enlisted Advisor

Oct '94 - Oct '96
Selected as CMSAF #12

Brief Overview

Chief Benken became the USAFE Senior Enlisted Advisor (Command Chief), Ramstein AB, Germany, in October 1994. Chief Benken served with three USAFE Commanders during his tenure as USAFE Senior Enlisted Advisor - General James L. Jamerson, General Richard Hawley and General Michael Ryan. All three of them would eventually receive the Order of the Sword, Jamerson and Ryan from USAFE and Hawley from Air Combat Command. The Numbered Air Force Command Chiefs who also served with Chief Benken included CMSgt Dave Roark (16th Air Force), succeeded by CMSgt Kenneth Casey; CMSgt Paul Ayres (3rd Air Force), succeeded by CMSgt Les Dellamaestra; CMSgt John Ganguzza (17th Air Force), succeeded by CMSgt Bill Jennings. Their superb leadership was instrumental in making USAFE the premier major air command in the Air Force. An outstanding office staff included MSgt April Rhodes and SSgt Shelina Frey.

Major Issues Addressed as USAFE Command Chief

1) Improve the quality of life for USAFE Airmen and families
2) Bedding down and presenting forces for contingency operations at Tuzla, Bosnia
3) Advocating professional development by formalizing Professional Development Seminars

Improving Quality of Life

Beginning in 1990, a tremendous drawdown effort began in Europe and the vast majority of Air Force installations were closed. Six main operating bases remained, along with an assortment of geographically separated units. USAFE was underfunded, and much of the infrastructure was in decline, particularly base housing and single airman dormitories. Many of the dorms were in an atrocious state of repair. USAFE had 33% of the gang latrines that remained in the Air Force. Additionally, geographically separated units and remote locations, such as Munitions Storage sites, had been ignored from a morale, welfare and recreation perspective. Of particular concern were installations in the Southern Region - Araxos, Greece; Balikasir, Akinci, and Pirinclik, Turkey. NATO dormitories were in a declining state at several of these locations as well. To attack these issues, a USAFE Dormitory Council was formed which included the Senior Enlisted Advisors from each of the Numbered Air Forces (NAFs), USAFE Senior Enlisted Advisor and the Vice Commander, USAFE. Working in concert with and aggressive Civil Engineer (Col Dean Fox) and Comptroller (Col Frank Faykes), a plan was established to have the troops out of gang latrines and into renovated or new dorms within five years. That goal was achieved by courting congressional delegations visiting Europe to obtain additional quality of life funding and convincing those in the United States not to forget the quality of life for families serving overseas by General Hawley. Aviano AB, Italy was becoming our most robust installation in southern Europe and required major renovations. An influx of over 1300 personnel and their families created an immediate shortfall in facilities and services. The Aviano 2000 plan was put in place in 1995 and construction projects included Child Development Centers, new Exchange facility, dorms, MWR facilities, etc and were completed as planned. This made Aviano one of the most desired PCS locations in the Air Force. To improve quality of life at remote locations, the USAFE Director of Services traveled with the USAFE SEA to each location and determine what MWR improvements could be made. Funding was obtained and morale, welfare and recreation dramatically improved throughout the command. The Quality of Life efforts broadened to include all of Europe, and the Commanders and Senior Enlisted Advisors from all services were empanelled to work issues under the direction of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Issues included infrastructure repair, medical and dental care for family members, Department of Defense Schools, commissary and exchange services, deployment impact supporting no-fly zones in Iraq and Space-A travel.

Bosnia

In October 1995, a meeting was held in the Tunner Conference Room at USAFE Headquarters to discuss the bedding down of USAF troops at Tuzla AB, Bosnia in support of Operation Joint Endeavor. Other deployed locations would include Tzar, Hungary and Zagreb, Croatia. Tuzla was an abandoned Soviet Air Base with deteriorating infrastructure. It was also laden with land mines and fighting among the warring factions was occurring in the local area. Tuzla was to be a delivery and staging point for supplies and hardware destined for supporting Army controlled checkpoints along the Zone of Separation. Chief Benken was tasked with ensuring enlisted personnel were adequately prepared for deployment and supporting quality of life efforts during the operation. To ensure success, he handpicked a First Sergeant from 1st Combat Communications Sq, MSgt Timothy Gaines. Prior to departure, he was briefed by Chief Benken to collaborate with the Command Sergeant Major of the 1st Armored Division, CSM Jack Tilley (eventually became Sergeant Major of the Army). All troops would be armed, sleeping in abandoned buildings with little to no running water or latrine facilities, eating MREs every day and avoiding hostile fire and land mines. Additionally, it would be December and the effects of cold weather during round the clock operations were a concern. Several trips to Bosnia by Chief Benken were made to address operational and support concerns and to ensure troops were safe, secure and performing as expected. MSgt Gaines and succeeding First Sergeants did a tremendous job in supporting the contingency. Our Air Force performed magnificently throughout the entire operation. USAFE's participation in Bosnia serves as an example for well executed contingency planning and execution. The collaborative efforts of active, guard and reserve forces were superb.

Professional Development Seminars

Recognizing the Air Force had a tremendous gap between Airman Leadership School (ALS) and NCO Academy attendance (10 years or more in some cases), USAFE developed Professional Development Seminars in an attempt to fill that void. The effort focused on Staff Sergeants who had completed ALS but were not eligible for NCOA attendance until promotion to Technical Sergeant. The seminar lasted a minimum of three days, and included briefings on a variety of topics and interaction with senior leadership. Senior noncommissioned officers from throughout the Ramstein area volunteered and participated in the seminars, which insured NCOs were living up to their responsibility as mentors and leaders. NCO Academy instructors were purposely avoided in the process to ensure other SNCOs stepped up to the challenge. The effort was very well received, and spread to all installations throughout Europe at the direction of Chief Benken. Later, as CMSAF, he mandated Professional Development Seminars for the entire Air Force and they continue today.

Other Facts

Unfortunately, there were tragedies during Chief Benken's tenure that had a lasting impact on the Air Force. Shortly before his arrival, the 1994 Black Hawk shootdown incident occurred. It was a friendly fire incident over Northern Iraq that occurred during Opeation Provide Comfort. The pilots of two USAF F-15 fighter aircraft misidentified two US Army Blackhawk helicopters as Iraqi "Hind" helicopters and fired on them. Both helicopters were destroyed, killing 26 military service members and civilians from the US, UK, France, Turkey and Kurdish community. Leadership decisions following the incident would lead to the focus on "Leadership Accountability" by General Ron Fogleman, Air Force Chief of Staff.

On May 30, 1995 an F-15 fighter at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany crashed on takeoff, destroying the aircraft and killing the pilot. Subsequent to the crash, two maintenance crewmen were charged with negligent homicide for faulty work on the aircraft. The case was aggressively pursued by prosecutors. Just prior to the court-martial, one of the maintainers took his own life. The charges were dropped against the other maintainer in exchange for a discharge from the Air Force. Controversy would persist, with many feeling the pendulum for "accountability" had swung too far.

On April 3, 1996, A CT-43 aircraft operated by the 86th Airlift Wing, Ramstein AB, crashed into a mountainside in Dubrovnik, Croatia. On board were Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and 34 others, including Air Force officer and enlisted crewmembers. There were no survivors. The findings indicated a "failure of command", "aircrew error" and an "improperly designed instrument approach" as the primary reasons for the crash. Once again, "accountability" would be pursued and several senior leaders were either fired or received administrative punishment.

Much has been written about these three incidents and "accountability" would be exhaustively debated for many years. Leadership accountability would become a topic of discussion in all corners of professional military education including the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy and Air War College.