WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – As Col. Michael Phillips, departing vice commander of the 88th Air Base Wing, gathered plaques and picture frames from his desk, the leader finished his two-year term as one who spent as much time supporting his team and Airmen outside the office as possible, all the while redirecting credit to the community he said kept him flying.
Despite his selection as vice commander in June 2019 and subsequent creation of a more cohesive Wright-Patterson Air Force Base amidst a pandemic, the Air Force Academy grad never claims self-made success. Instead, Phillips channels accolades again and again to Airmen by name, from the entry controller who saluted him his first time through the gate to vice commanders across base who consistently encouraged and collaborated with him.
When Phillips looks back on his work, he sees a community whose work empowered him.
“I always start with ‘thank you’ because we realize you’re all here willingly,” he said. “I truly appreciate the team that makes up this wing and installation. Thank you to the mission partners and families and the community as well. No matter what we’ve asked of them, they’ve been there on the best days and the worst days.”
The colonel will remain at WPAFB. He becomes new deputy director for air, space and cyberspace operations and chief information officer at Air Force Materiel Command headquarters.
Phillips leaves his 88 ABW position having bonded and held together a community of 33,000 Airmen and civilian employees, both formally through his mission and informally through relationships on and off duty.
In the undertaking Phillips calls his passion project over the past two years, he was able to unify the wing’s base support agencies that enable Airmen to accomplish their missions, despite the mandatory physical distance between personnel.
He organized what took on the title “The Vice Squad,” a team for agency leaders to share ideas and develop mission partnerships on a foundation of face-to-face friendships, even over video calls when meeting in-person wasn’t an option. As part of that effort, Phillips also helped organize “The Wright Path” Facebook page to promote consistent, proactive messaging and connectivity between the agencies.
“I challenge you to look across our helping agencies and find somebody that’s not here because they want to help people. There’s nobody here for a paycheck. It’s a passion of theirs as well,” he said.
“When you get folks into helping agencies that are truly there sometimes on our Airman’s worst day, that’s a special-quality individual that is selfless, that is focused on being that guidepost, that helper, that confidant, that person that’s going to help build you back up again. And for me to be surrounded by the folks that are just as passionate about helping Airmen and their families is a privilege. I can never take credit for everything they did.”
The project further proves his respect for helpers, connecting agencies that hadn’t traditionally worked together to promote more cohesive and high-quality assistance.
Beyond the support agencies, Phillips learned and related personally in a way that drew together the wing’s 115 mission partners professionally, too.
“I’ve got some amazing mission partners across this base,” he said. “Some of my closest cohorts and advisers are the vices from other units.”
Phillips also keyed in on COVID-19 from a leadership perspective. He provided stability when the pandemic and arrival of Col. Patrick Miller as new wing commander intersected.
“I was the new guy for pretty much that entire year, and then, bam, it hits, and it’s time for you to stand up and be that continuity,” Phillips recalled. “It wasn’t just the commander changing out; it was also the command chief and the civilian vice director, and suddenly I was the last man standing.
“So you try to help him understand the decision matrix that we use and the rationale behind it. And then training up the chief and a new civilian director at the same time — I loved that they trusted me, and I loved that they challenged me, and it was a lot of good late-night conversations after the staff had all left.”
True to character, Phillips pulls Miller, “the boss,” into his success.
“I need to give all the credit to him,” he added. “You talk about the right leader at the right time, and we’re blessed and fortunate to have somebody like Pat Miller coming in when he did — calm, collected, deliberate.”
Carrying the base through COVID-19 restrictions also became the charismatic and friendly colonel’s biggest frustration, barring him from spending as much traditional face time with Airmen as he wanted.
“COVID-19 became a thorn in our side. I came out of a joint assignment, and I was so excited to come back to the tactical mission of running a base and being with Airmen,” Phillips said. “I love getting out there with Airmen, checking IDs and watching a dog when they’re doing their demo and working with technicians in finance or military personnel offices.
“The next thing you know, it’s a global pandemic and we’re sending everybody home. So I didn’t get the time with our Airmen and non-uniformed Airmen that I really hoped for in this position.”
Phillips reflects on times and wingmen he cherishes despite the constraints. From meeting the Air Force chief of staff at a muggy Air Force Marathon in 2019 to getting to know Greater Dayton-area residents at Memorial and Veterans Day tributes, serving the community has highlighted his assignment.
Ultimately, Phillips says that standing at a bird’s-eye view of such a uniquely large and diverse base expanded him as a leader and prepared him to step up to his next assignment at the major command staff level.
“As a leader, I think being able to grasp and put to use that there’s more than just what you have inside your own area of operations has been an awesome undertaking that I’m going to take with me for the rest of my career,” he added.
Phillips isn’t moving far to apply his new vision. Airmen are bound to see the colonel lending a hand around base as he takes on his new role at AFMC.
“I’m a career cyberspace officer by trade, so this gets me back into cyberspace operations, which is awesome,” Phillips said. “But what it also does is enables me to take the base-level perspective that I’ve learned here in AFMC and now carry that to the major command staff. The most effective staffs are the ones that understand from an organize, train and equip perspective how their decisions are affecting the tactical level at the base.”
Ultimately, Phillips always refers back to his wife, Kerry, as the foundation for his successful service, sanity and inspiration.
“I married way up,” he said. “I’m a product of a 22-year-marriage to a young lady out of Mississippi. She enabled me as a brand new captain. When I was a young flight commander, she’d come out with me to the flight. She’s helped me with the barbecues and baked goods and birthday cakes. You take care of the people, and the people take care of the mission, and she’s always helped me do that.”
Phillips finishes his stint by recognizing the way his service at Wright-Patt has expanded not only his career but his family. Instead of saying “goodbye,” the departing vice commander seeks to strengthen those base relationships.
“I’m not going anywhere, so please reach out to me,” he added. “I truly have 33,000 new friends after coming into this base. My family grew, and I’m super appreciative.”