35th Combat Communications Squadron marches on with own legacy

Staff Sgts. Bobby Speaker, left, and Dean Pickrodt, both radio frequency transmissions craftsmen, test tactical radio advanced repeater network functionality in a simulated deployed environment during their annual tour earlier this summer at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida.

Staff Sgts. Bobby Speaker, left, and Dean Pickrodt, both radio frequency transmissions craftsmen, test tactical radio advanced repeater network functionality in a simulated deployed environment during their annual tour earlier this summer at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida. The tactical radio capability brought by combat communication units like the 35th Combat Communications Squadron not only provides air-to-ground command and control for the deployed commander, but also ensures seamless integration of Air Force assets into any joint contingency operation. (Air Force photo by Maj. Timothy Spink)

Rain and wind pelts the annual tour worksite of the 35th Combat Communications Squadron at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, during south Florida’s wettest week in 26 years.

Rain and wind pelts the annual tour worksite of the 35th Combat Communications Squadron at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, during south Florida’s wettest week in 26 years. Squadron members battled the elements to ensure tactical command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) capabilities were exercised thoroughly, no matter the environment, in preparation for real-world taskings. (Air Force photo by Maj. Timothy Spink)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

Members of the storied “3rd Herd” and the 35th Combat Communications Squadron were longtime brothers-in-arms — training and sometimes deploying together — before the 3rd Combat Communications Group stood down after 49 years at Tinker Air Force Base.

Today, only the Air Force Reserve’s 35th CBCS remains, still occupying parts of the 3rd Herd’s Tinker AFB compound and performing the same combat communications work as their former active-duty counterpart that stood down in 2013.

Although the 35th CBCS was never a formal associate unit of the Herd, the squadron absolutely honors the 3rd Herd’s legacy, said Major Timothy Spink, the squadron’s director of operations. The 3,400-pound statue of the group’s mascot, Buford the Bull, still stands vigil outside the squadron’s headquarters building.

“We have taken guardianship over the 3rd Herd legacy — like Buford, for example,” Spink said. “We feel that we are keepers of that legacy, even though we were never officially in that organization.”

The more than 90 squadron members deploy worldwide to set up communications from the ground up for operations as big as a combat theater air base to a two-man team providing communications for a stateside Army exercise. The 35th CBCS is part of the 960th Cyberspace Operations Group based at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

The squadron’s sophisticated electronics gear and software connects to satellites, telephone switching equipment and Defense Department computer networks to transmit voice and data through radios, telephones, computers and other communication devices. Airmen can even set up video feeds from independent news networks and Air Force unmanned aerial vehicles.

“In short, what we can do is in about 30 seconds I can have you talking on the phone, and then per our inspection guidelines, in short order I can have you connected to the Internet,” Spink said.

Squadron members emphasize combat training because they can be called upon to install and maintain communications in situations such as setting up a new air base in a combat zone.

“We’re not the first wave, but we come in right after to help establish the base,” Spink said. “Our mission is to provide command and control to all those who are operating on the air base. From the time of our execute order, we only have a limited amount of time to be anywhere in the world.”

Although a Reserve unit of mostly part-time citizen Airmen, “they have a full-time commitment to mission accomplishment,” said Senior Master Sgt. Brent Slattery, the squadron’s cyber systems superintendent.

In the last 18 months, 35th CBCS members have volunteered to participate in seven exercises and two deployments that required 159 squadron personnel and 31 pallets of cargo. Twenty-five members are scheduled to deploy to Germany for six months next year for the European Reassurance Initiative readiness and deterrence exercise.

The squadron, which stood up in 2001, carries its equipment and supplies on pallets designed to fit in aircraft such as C-5 and C-17 transport planes. Each pallet load is tailored to fit the deployment, which includes humanitarian missions.

Squadron teams flew out of Tinker AFB last summer to participate in the multinational Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in South Korea. The annual training included more than 22,000 personnel. Spink said feedback from units benefiting from their communications expertise was highly positive.

“Almost every single one of our guys either got coined, a letter or a medal,” the major said.

Spink said the squadron benefits greatly from its members’ wide-ranging civilian jobs, mostly in information technology.

“Our focus is on constantly changing technology, which helps us keep up with the latest software and hardware developments,” he said. “That’s really the main way that we all keep abreast. We’re constantly in the IT stream, and then we come here and we apply lessons that we get from the outside to the gear that we have.”

The squadron’s quality was made clear when both the 3rd Herd and the squadron underwent separate operational readiness inspections in the same year. Inspectors awarded the Reserve unit an overall excellent rating while their active-duty counterparts were rated satisfactory.

Slattery served in the 3rd Herd and credits his fellow squadron members’ can-do attitude for their success.

“I think the greatest thing about the 35th is its people,” he said. “We have such a diverse group of people from all different backgrounds. Even though I’ve been in it from the beginning, they still surprise me every time. You may think, ‘we’re going to fail this mission, we’re not going to be able to get it done,’ and then they just come out and they knock it out of the ballpark.”

Slattery is the oldest-serving squadron member and helped to stand up the unit from scratch. He said he’ll be retiring next year from the Reserve and the squadron.

“I consider the 35th like my child,” he said. “I feel like it’s grown up, and I can end my time here.”