Col. Zabel reflects on the past year

Col. Sarah Zabel, 75th Air Base Wing commander, discusses challenges the Air Force and the base face in an exit interview granted to the Hilltop Times and Standard-Examiner journalists. The interview was conducted Jan 3 and the colonel addressed several topics of interest for those who work in Hill AFB.
By Mary Lou Gorny
Hilltop Times Editor
January 10, 2013

The Hilltop Times and the Standard-Examiner sat down with Col. Sarah Zabel, 75th Air Base Wing commander, for a series of questions Jan. 3, before the Change of Command ceremony to be held next week (Jan. 11).

You are moving on?

I am moving on. The change of command is Jan. 11.

Will you be around after that?

Not for long. The timing of this change of command is because I'm going on to a class that all new generals go to. About the time it winds up I'm expecting to move into another job.

That other job hasn't been announced yet, it is not expected to be here or Tinker, so I can't do any active planning until it is actually announced.

As you approach your new role, how do you look back on the previous year here at Hill Air Force Base?

We've been through so much. If you think about when we started this time last year, we had just found out about some personnel reductions, we had just found out about the AFMC reorganization, and we spent the whole spring preparing for that. That actually happened in the summertime.

In the meantime, there was an F-16 crash.

There is always just so much going on, and we had to find new jobs for the people who had lost their jobs displaced through the reorganization.

Right after that we had a very intense inspection. In fact they did 6 inspections at once. They called it a consolidated unit inspection.

Immediately after that there was so much going on in the fall to make the gains that the AFMC was trying to make by doing this reorganization, making sure that we end up in a better place. So it just has been such a busy year.

What strikes you most about the challenges that Hill Air Force Base and the Air Force face and what excites you most about those challenges?

The biggest challenges we're looking at mostly revolve around the budget, the very sharply diminishing budget, and we don't even know how much it's going to diminish as a result of the fiscal cliff or sequestration. So we are definitely dealing with reductions in our budget but we don't see any reduction in our workload at this point, so that's a big challenge.

What excites me is whenever there is plenty, it is so easy to get complacent and just get used to having a lot. This budget challenge forces us to take a look at what we are doing, how we do things and it forces us to be more efficient. It forces us to prioritize and make some tough choices.

So it is a pretty ugly process, it's a rigorous process. In the end we will make some efficiency gains, we will stop doing some things that we really don't need to do.

And I am sure we are going to have some restrictions and losses that we wouldn't want to take on.

While the Air Force is going through these challenges how do you think an Airman can prepare himself for the Air Force of the future and as the current challenges are ongoing?

The Air Force still has a lot of opportunities and it's always been the case that Airmen needed to learn how to do their job well and that hasn't changed.

We just see the results more intensely. So Airmen still need to be the technical experts in their field, they still need to be leaders and followers and practice good teamwork. That really hasn't changed.

Do you think that the time Airmen must spend on their education is well justified in this climate? For Airmen and civilians as well?

Oh, yes, it always is.

We are the most respected air and space force in the world and it's not because of our equipment, it's because of our people. And part of that is the self-improvement that we expect, we make it a requirement of a person's career, that they continually improve.

What are you going to miss the most about your job at Hill Air Force Base the most and the area in general?

(In regards to) the area I've enjoyed the skiing, I've enjoyed the outdoor life. I've been to visit the national parks. That has been absolutely great. I will definitely miss that.

(In regards to) the community, I have made some close bonds with some of our community members and I am just going to miss them terribly. We have such a wonderful group of people right outside our gates. The council of governments -- that's been a continuing joy. The Top of Utah Military Affairs Committee, I've been involved with them and that has also been a great deal of fun.

So, I'm really going to miss our community. Everywhere you go, if you're in uniform, there's someone thanking you for your service. It's such a supportive community, I'm very much going to miss that. And then the people in the air base wing who work so hard every day, I'm just going to miss them so much.

What will you take with you from your experiences at Hill Air Force Base? What did you learn?

From my own personal growth, I think it has been a job of working with peers to get a job done. In the military, we always work in a hierarchy, we always know where we are in the hierarchy. But here, especially since the reorganization, it really has been a case of building a coalition, of teamwork with people who don't work for you, or you don't work for them, it really is working with peers and that has been a new experience.

I've always been told that your position here is similar to like mayor of the community. What are some of the things that you are most proud of that you accomplished during your time here at Hill?

I think taking us through the reorganization is one of the largest ones, especially with the reductions that were going on at the same time. So not only were we downsizing but we were substantially reformatting how we interacted on base. And that was something that I found very challenging.

Of course, like I said, toward the ending of summer we had that massive inspection with six different areas inspected at the same time. It was a compliance inspection so basically people were making sure that we are in compliance with all the laws and regulations that affect us. So getting through that very successfully was also a proud accomplishment.

Have you seen changes in how the Air Force has supported its families as the service has moved through its high operations tempo and other challenges?

Yes, what we are seeing is the fruits of changes that happened a couple of years ago. We have more resources in our Airman and Family Readiness Center. We have some new facilities so the families have been seeing some good improvements.

What I am worried about is that since in these last few years, we haven't been able to make those continuing investments, so I think the support is really going to level out at this point.

So the challenge is to continue to consolidate those efforts?


Speaking of the challenges, you've probably already touched on this, but when the new commander comes in, what do you see as the particular challenges she will face? Is it the same kind of things that you have currently faced?

Initially at least yes. You know with sequestration they've really delayed the decision for about two months so as (Col. Kathryn Kolbe) is getting her feet under her, unless they kick the can down the road again, we will presumedly see some results of sequestration. So, yes, budget restrictions are going to continue to be a challenge, at least in the first year that she is here.

Any additional thoughts for Team Hill?

I just want them to continue to pull through and as a team.

I think we are going to see some tough times ahead so teamwork really does matter.

Had you ever been in Utah before this assignment?

I drove through going from Virginia to California and then drove back through.

I had not been up through this area, I remember going through and thinking man there is an awful lot of desert area, and then I drove here ... I ended up in this part of Utah, and I was like, 'Wow, where did all these mountains come from.' It was beautiful. It was a surprise.

Anything else?

If I were to have a last word it would be to thank the community. Like I said, I really appreciate all their support to me personally. But, I really appreciate all the support they give to Hill AFB. It really is amazing.

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