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Combat ready: 'The best way to avoid a war is to be ready for one'

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Palenske, renders his first salute during the 36th Wing change of command ceremony, June 30, at Andersen Air Force Base. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photos/Senior Airman Akeem K. Campbell

By Frank Whitman

On June 30, Brig. Gen. Thomas Palenske assumed command of the 36th Wing at Andersen Air Force Base. Since then, he has worked to ensure the base and its personnel are prepared for a conflict which, he noted, no one wants. In addition to upgraded training and operations, that has entailed overseeing the recovery of the base from the battering its facilities took from Typhoon Mawar in May.

“We’re shifting our focus,” he told the Pacific Island Times. “As opposed to just running an air base and putting gas in gray tails and normal operations, we’re focusing on training our Airmen to be ready for times of conflict. The best way to avoid a war is to be ready for one. So we’re going to make our airmen and these facilities as ready as they can possibly be with the time I’ve got here.”

A little more than a month before Palenske assumed command, Mawar pummeled Andersen along with the rest of northern Guam. Palenske said about 70 percent of the buildings on base sustained serious damage, mostly to roofs which then let rainwater in, causing damage to equipment.

The price tag for the base’s full recovery is estimated to be about $4.3 billion, of which the base received $138 million during fiscal 2023. The funding received so far is being used to seal the damaged buildings “to make sure that if another typhoon comes in, it doesn’t continue to pour water into our buildings,” he said.

“We’ve been given a challenge and an opportunity to harden our facilities to make sure that we can diversify some of the key nodes so that we become less vulnerable, both to natural phenomena like future typhoons or any other kinetic thing that may happen,” he said.

As a positive note, the base power system was placed underground about 10 years ago, he said. After Mawar, base power was restored in 24 to 48 hours - significantly less time than most of the island.

Shortly after arriving in Guam, Palenske determined the command’s priorities needed to be revised. Three weeks into his new position he set three one-word priorities: people, win and transform.

The people priority reflects Palenske’s background in the Special Operations Forces. The first of the five SOF truths is “Humans are more important than hardware.” He said, “That’s how I grew up and I believe it 100 percent.”

The win priority sums up the purpose of the Wing’s presence in the region - to “win the deterrence with the Communist Chinese Party” and - if necessary - to win a war.

The transform priority affirms the need to make the changes necessary to cope with natural disasters, such as Typhoon Mawar as well as “the changing operational environment vis a vis the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

Palenske has also set out to improve the overall conditions on the base. “Ultimately, I’ve got to get this base turned back into a proper Air Force base where Airmen walk into their buildings and are proud to work there,” he said.

“The base environment itself when I got here - and I don’t think it was fully due to Typhoon Mawar - wasn’t up to what I think the Air Force standard is.”

He has started tackling problems that are likely familiar to those outside the base fence. He directed the removal of 120 abandoned vehicles and the roundup of stray dogs. The vehicle removal has been completed; the stray dog roundup is ongoing, he said.

Palenske said he is appreciative of assistance from the Yigo Mayor’s Office and looks forward to strengthening that relationship.

He has turned his attention to stump removal and lawn care.

“I’ve got to have a base that when Airmen come onto this place it feels like they’re walking into a room,” he said. “A real Air Force Base looks nice. It makes you feel like you’re in a professional military installation, which then, in my mind directly affects the readiness of the Airmen. If they feel like they’re in the military and they’re working on a military base they will better be able to do their jobs.”

Palenske received his commission as an Air Force officer in 1995 and has spent most of his ensuing career as a special operations helicopter pilot. His assignments have included stints in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was in the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and assisted with the evacuation of a Navy service member before police prevented him from re-entering the building.

His most recent assignment before reporting to Guam was as assistant vice commander at the headquarters of the U.S. Special Operations Command at the Pentagon.

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