With Memorial Day just around the corner, we asked one of Tampa Bay's own high-ranking military men at MacDill Air Force Base — Col. Barry D. Roeper, commander, 6th Maintenance Group, 6th Air Mobility Wing — to talk about his career and this important holiday. Col. Roeper, 52, oversees the generation, repair and sustainment of 16 KC-135 and three C-37 aircraft supporting worldwide aerial refueling, airlift, and special assignment missions for U.S. and allied forces.
Patti Ewald, LifeTimes editor
1 While attending Clearwater High School, you were a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Junior ROTC program. Did you think at the time you'd have a lifelong career in the military?
Yes, I always thought I'd make the military a career. My father was an Air Force pilot, and I have always been interested in military aviation. The U.S. Marine Corps JROTC program at Clearwater High School further instilled a sense of citizenship, community service, self -discipline, respect for authority, personal responsibility, leadership, self esteem, and service to the United States.
I met my wife, Barbara, at Keesler AFB, Miss., where she was going through training in ground radio repair. She served four years in the Air Force. My oldest daughter, Rachel, served six years in the Air National Guard as a munitions technician, and my youngest daughter, Alicia, is in the Air Force, going through training to be a linguist. So we've been a lifelong Air Force family.
2 After getting your associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College, you enlisted in the Air Force as an Inertial and Doppler Radar Navigation Systems Specialist. How did this early part of your career help prepare you for your current role managing all aircraft and munitions maintenance at MacDill?
My experience working aircraft on the flight line was invaluable to me. I know what it's like to sweat and bleed on these aircraft, to work in sweltering heat and freezing rain, to work all hours of the night, weekends and holidays, often with little recognition. It gave me an appreciation for how tough the work is, the sacrifices our airmen make every day, and the potential turmoil a senior leader's decision can create. So I'm cognizant that even a seemingly benign request can cause a significant burden on our airmen.
3 You have your master's degree in Aeronautical Science, Aviation/Aerospace Management, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. So are you a rocket scientist? Do you ever get teased about that?
I can honestly say I've never been mistaken for a rocket scientist! One of the benefits of being a colonel is you don't get teased a lot … except by other colonels. The most beneficial aspect of earning a master's degree is it forces you to think. There were no multiple-choice answers, and the professors weren't interested in hearing you regurgitate the opinions of others; they wanted to know what you thought and why. And, because my degree was in Aviation/Aerospace Management, it was relevant to what I do day to day.
4 What is the biggest challenge keeping the KC-135 Stratotankers airborne? It has been said that the last KC-135 pilot hasn't been born yet — meaning these aerial refueling military aircraft will be around for another 30 years. Do you think that's still true?
The average age of our KC-135 aircraft is more than 50 years, which is ancient compared to a commercial airliner, which is closer to 10 years. Yet the KC-135 continues to be a very reliable aircraft and remains the backbone of the aerial refueling fleet. Sometimes finding parts can be challenging, but we have a robust supply system that works in partnership with our U.S. industries to keep these aircraft flying safely and reliably. The aircraft have also been modified over the years to keep them up to date with the latest technologies. As the new KC-46 comes on board, we can expect to see fewer KC-135s; however, the latest word I've heard on the future of the KC-135 is we can expect to see this revered aircraft flying refueling missions up to the year 2048.
5 If people only remember one thing Monday on Memorial Day, what would it be?
That freedom comes at a cost; it was paid for by the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces, and is maintained by those who continue to put their lives on the line every day to keep it.