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Two years after Hurricane Michael, Tyndall is poised to become the 'base of the future'

Major Zachary Nash, deputy wing chaplain for Joint Base Langley, Va., helps carry religious items from a church Oct. 22, 2018 on Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

SEAN CARNES/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TONY MIXON | The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. | Published: October 23, 2020

TYNDALL AFB, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Tyndall Air Force Base has done a complete 180 degrees from talks of closing down the base two years ago to becoming the base of the future.

On Oct. 10, 2018, the lives of those in Bay County changed forever because of Hurricane Michael, but so did the future of Tyndall AFB. For some veterans, they can't help but think about another Air Force base that suffered the same fate as Tyndall.

"The first thing I thought of was hearing about Homestead in the '90s, when (Hurricane Andrew) destroyed it and it never came back," said Darin Williams, who works as a contractor at Tyndall, but also served two years there in the Air Force. "You think 'Alright, what am I going to do next?' Am I going to take another civil service job or stay with the Air Force."

Homestead AFB was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, much as how Tyndall was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. While it was initially on the Realignment and Closure Commission list, it was converted from an active duty base to a reserve base.

Tyndall went above that and set the stage for it to become an innovative base. The phrase "base of the future" has been the theme for the rebuild.

Gen. Patrice Melançon, executive director of the Tyndall Program Management Office, said at the recent groundbreaking of the Air Battle Manager Simulator — the first of 44 projects at Tyndall during the next five to seven years — that officials could have rebuilt Tyndall the way it was before Michael. Instead, they wanted to make it better and set the tone for what the Air Force could be in the future.

Other veterans like Michael Thompson, who served at Tyndall from 1995 to 2003 and retired as a technical sergeant, said he remembers seeing all of the destruction of Tyndall and wondering the same thing as Williams — would Tyndall end up like Homestead? He said he also remembered the rumors of Tyndall closing down before, but he didn't think it would happen.

"It is too valuable. Where I worked at, the 82nd (Aerial Targets Squadron), they did a lot of stuff with aerial drones and other units would come in and do their weapons evaluations," Thompson said. "They had all that Gulf range to do their firings, so I figured they weren't going to close it."

Thompson shared feelings that some veterans had about demolishing hangars on the base, especially Hangar 5 where he worked. Many veterans have fond memories of them, but Thompson said he is fine with Tyndall looking to improve for the future.

Plans to expand on what Tyndall already has should help the economy by bringing in more jobs, officials said, especially with three squadrons of F-35s and one squadron of MQ-9s expected to land at the base in October 2023.

For two years, Tyndall has been demolishing hundreds of structures and three days after the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael, the base started the rebuilding process.

Williams said he believes Tyndall is heading in the right direction.

"I think they have to, everything at Tyndall was so dated and they needed to upgrade all the facilities because we were so behind," Williams said. "If you go over to Eglin and look at some of the facilities they have over there compared to what we had over here, it just seemed dated compared to the technology we have now."

Williams said he hopes the many projects Tyndall will undertake in the next five to seven years go smoothly. While recognizing the challenge, Williams said everyone at Tyndall is working hard to get the base back and better than ever.

Tyndall is viewed as a major asset within the community. With the rebuild estimated to cost more than $4 billion, the project will require thousands of workers.

With housing still an issue in Bay County after Hurricane Michael, a village for visiting workers has been in the plans.

The village is a way to keep the workers in a place where they could be staying for a few years working on Tyndall's rebuild. Thousands of workers moving here temporarily could help the local economy, officials said.

"If you're here for one project and you're here for six months, you're probably not bringing your family, but if you're going to be here three to five years, you're probably going to relocate your wife and your kids," said Robert Carroll, vice chairman of the Bay County Commission. "They'll be in our school system, shopping at our stores, buying cars and being part of the economy."

The relationship between the Bay County community and Tyndall is something that is very important for Carroll. He said his wife wouldn't be in Bay County without it because her father was stationed at Tyndall years ago. So, he recognizes the importance of having the relationship between the two.

It's something both sides have been cultivating for years, especially after Michael. One of the ways is by creating a good quality of life for airmen when they land at Tyndall.

In 2023, when the F-35s land and subsequently the MQ-9 Reapers, they'll bring hundreds of airmen. The influx will include wives, husbands, children and pets, so Bay County officials have been working to make the quality of life exceptional for them.

For instance, Tyndall and the other local municipalities have strengthened the partnership through the Community Partnership Program, including the Military Spousal Employment Program and the Skill Bridge Program.

The Military Spousal Employment Program is designed to help spouses find employment quickly. Former 325th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Brian Laidlaw said the program is a necessity.

William Cramer, who is an honorary member of Tyndall AFB and CFO of Bill Cramer Chevrolet, said the relationship between Bay County and Tyndall is nothing new, but it came in handy when Hurricane Michael made landfall. He said it can seem odd because some military bases don't have the relationship with the community the way Tyndall does.

"Things like being able to find housing for leadership, that was something we were able to help them with," Cramer said. "Having to relocate, Brian Laidlaw for example, to Pensacola where he would have to commute every day and that would've been terrible for him."

Cramer said the community also can talk with member of Congress on subjects that are off limits to Air Force personnel.

While the rebuilding task is a marathon, Tyndall officials said the progress made so far is putting the base on track to becoming the true base of the future.

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