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HISTORY: First AFCEE director looks back at the organization's beginnings

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

 

 

"Currently the AFRCE-BMS's main mission is to execute all the environmental actions associated with base closures and NEPA requirements. The CMO mission is to accomplish the design efforts of all MCP associated with small MAJCOMs. The HSD/YAQ mission is to execute a portion of the Installation Restoration Program tasks assigned to the HSD. The purpose of this PAD is to consolidate AFRCE-BMS, and CMO and the mission of HSD/YAQ into the new Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence."
--PAD 91-01 (June 13, 1991)

Design and construction, and environmental management -- two seemingly distinct business lines -- melded together when the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence (now Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment) took root in July 1991.

This diversity of the organization's mission and its people have always been the cornerstone of its success, said AFCEE's first director J.B. Cole.

"AFCEE is a very, very unique organization," Mr. Cole said. "It is the only organization that I know of in the services where you have architects, engineers, environmental experts in all fields. All of the fields are covered in AFCEE. That doesn't exist anyplace in any other service."

When AFCEE was still a twinkle in the eye of Washington officials, Mr. Cole was working at the Pentagon, serving as deputy director of engineering and services for construction in the office of the Air Force Civil Engineer.

He said he initially came up with the idea to create a centralized design and construction agency in Dallas, where the Air Force Regional Civil Engineer office was located, and did not have plans to include environmental capabilities as part of the new organization.

Brig. Gen. James McCarthy, deputy Air Force Civil Engineer at the time, had other thoughts.

"He (General McCarthy) said, 'You have the right idea, but the wrong location,'" Mr. Cole said. "The agency should be at Brooks AFB (Texas).

The general also introduced his desire to include environmental management as part of the center's mission.

To centralize these two capabilities, Mr. Cole and other officials planned to build the new organization by piecing together several existing resources throughout the Air Force.

The new agency started with the design and construction capabilities of the three AFRCEs located in Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco, which currently serve as AFCEE's regional environmental offices. The AFRCE at Norton AFB, Calif., known as AFRCE-Ballistic Missile Support was pulled into the mix, providing talent in the areas of National Environmental Policy Act compliance and environmental impact analysis associated with installations falling under the Base Realignment and Closure Act.
 
In addition to these four AFRCEs, bioenvironmental engineering capabilities were brought on board with the inclusion of the Brooks AFB Human Systems Division, Human Systems Center.

As the organization stood up, Mr. Cole said he was told by Gen. Joseph Ahearn, Air Force Civil Engineer at the time, that he had been selected to serve as the first director of the fledgling organization, an announcement that took Mr. Cole by surprise.

From Washington, Mr. Cole worked on putting a staff together and getting the organization off the ground. The work continued to be intense after he made his way to Texas, with long hours being the norm during those formative years.

"It was a tremendous amount of work," he said. "Twelve and 14-hour days were common during the first year. The drive in people to succeed, when you're setting up something new, is so different from when you walk into an organization that is already running.

People that were there for the startup deserve a lot of credit for their hard work."

Mr. Cole said he relied heavily on the front office staff during the two-and-a-half years he was director.

"Marge (Salvatierra) was my secretary," he said. "More than once, I would be sitting there at seven o'clock in the evening and I would hear her out in the front office and ask her if she was still there. She'd say, 'Yes,' and I'd say, 'Well, go home.' She'd say 'No, you might need something.'"

That level of dedication was common throughout the organization, he said.

"Selection of the front office staff was critical," he said. "I was very fortunate to have good people."

Mr. Cole said other key players in the front office during that time, including Ms. Salvatierra, were 1st Lt. Becky Bartine who was AFCEE's first executive officer, Bob Moriarty and Terry Edwards, who was an Air Force captain at the time.

Contracting support also played a major role, Mr. Cole said. Contracting support was provided by the Human Systems Center, which created the Environmental Contracting Division specifically to provide service to AFCEE.

All of the hard work and long hours soon began to pay off as the organization began to gain credibility with major commands and senior Air Force leadership. Mr. Cole said the small field operating agency even received a visit from Gen. Merrill McPeak on Oct. 22, 1992. General McPeak was the Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, the most senior uniformed officer in the Air Force.

"I had put together a briefing for him," Mr. Cole said. "It was supposed to last one hour. My time was up and I was only about halfway through, so I told him I had run out of time. He said, 'I like this. This is good stuff. Keep going.' So I went on for another hour."

When the general returned to Washington, he let it be known that the AFCEE staff was "doing a great job" and deserved the support of the Air Force, Mr. Cole said.

"After that, I got several calls from the three-stars (generals) asking if we needed anything," he said.

AFCEE has continued to gain respect for its services over the years, Mr. Cole said.

"What AFCEE has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is really outstanding and I think Paul Parker (AFCEE's fourth director) deserves a lot of credit for his leadership at that time," he said. "I think if we had not had the types of people we had, and the types of disciplines that were there, we wouldn't have been able to have taken on that mission which has been really successful in supporting the troops in those locations. I think that was a major milestone in the evolvement of AFCEE."

Mr. Cole said he was particularly pleased when Terry Edwards was chosen as AFCEE's sixth director last year.

"They (AFCEE) have a director that has grown up with AFCEE, knows the AFCEE mission and fully understands how critical the organization is to the success of the Air Force," he said. "Our (AFCEE's) mission is to support the major commands and the Air Force. We don't have a mission of our own. Our mission was, and is, in support of theirs. AFCEE has been lucky in selecting directors that have maintained that same philosophy that AFCEE is there only to serve."

AFCEE's support mission, which continues to expand, is a marker of success and an acknowledgement of the agency's reputation for excellence, Mr. Cole said.

"I think a lot of people in the Air Force have discovered that AFCEE is a critical function," he said. "It has tremendous talent and great flexibility in being able to respond to different mission requirements. The fact that it has lasted 20 years shows that the foundation that was set up was the right one. The attitudes were the right ones. And those have been carried forward in such a way that the organization still exists, it's still growing and is taking on new Air Force missions."

Mr. Cole retired from AFCEE and federal service in 1993 and moved to Huntsville, Texas, where he still resides. True to his entrepreneurial spirit, in retirement he took on a start-up project with the state of Texas to increase the size of the Texas prison system. He said they doubled it in just over two years, and were "written up in about every design and construction magazine that existed at that time."
 
After completing the prison system work, he began a consulting business which he continues today.

He said he also keeps himself busy as an avid golfer playing 18-holes of golf four days per week. Additionally, he plays in a bowling league and is a substitute Sunday school teacher. He said he keeps in touch with AFCEE friends he has made over the years.

"I lost the love of my life, my wife of 54 years ... it will be two years in October," he said. "Life has been different since I lost Nedra, but life is still good."