In the five months since he took command at MacDill Air Force Base, Col. Scott DeThomas has had a lot on his plate. • In addition to his usual responsibilities as leader of the 10,000 airmen at the base, their families and a large community of veterans, DeThomas took the helm right before one of the largest inspections in the base's history. • He settled his wife and two children in a new home in a new city, and he has been preparing to help his airmen adjust after the end of the war in Afghanistan. • And his base was plunged into the media spotlight when it made national headlines after it was discovered that one of the base's community liaisons was abusing her access. In November, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley's complaint to an FBI friend about emails accusing her of flirting with then-CIA director David Petraeus ultimately exposed his extramarital affair. It also led to revelations that she traded personal emails with Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of military forces in Afghanistan. Those exchanges are now under government scrutiny. • DeThomas sat down with Tampa Bay Times reporter Elizabeth Behrman this month to talk for the first time about the base's community relations plans in light of the recent scrutiny and what's in store for the base in 2013.
How are you settling in to your new home and new role in Tampa?
It's a great place to live and call home. We really enjoyed the transition to the base at MacDill and also the great community support we've received since we arrived back in July. (My family) is truly enjoying the Florida life and the many, many activities you can partake in in the area. Everywhere we go folks just embrace the military. The fact that it's such a supportive town makes it really easy on us, especially since we move a lot. It's great to be received so well.
What are some areas that you've been able to put your fingerprint on right away since you've been here, in terms of changes you've made or plans you've already carried out?
First of all, I've got to thank my predecessor for setting me up for success. The base was really running extremely well, so the desire and the need to do any fixing and changing was really not there. Some of the things we have tried to accomplish is trying to organize our thoughts on taking care of our airmen and their families, taking care of our mission out at MacDill and continuing our mission to build and strengthen our great community. Also, really focusing on the education opportunities for our children. I'll continue to use those three things as our beacon for what we do.
The area and the base have gotten lots of media attention in recent weeks with the news about Jill Kelley's role in the Petraeus scandal. How have you handled and dealt with that?
We have this incredible military community here in Tampa and the strength of that tends to come through in times of crisis. I think the community has handled it extremely well. We've had some folks who have been very outspoken to highlight the value of our Friends of MacDill program, and they told the story for the military to ensure that people don't get sidetracked by a small percentage of bad press, when we really need to focus on that 99.9 percent of our Friends of MacDill that really do support the base. A perfect example is last week we had a beautiful dinner for 100 airmen at one of our local organizations. We had a company out delivering about 600 Christmas trees on base. It seems like every day there's something going on that is a direct result of the support we have from the community. So, big picture, we'll continue to have our Friends of MacDill program. We're going to look at it, we're in the middle of a scrub, we want to make sure we're executing in accordance with the guidance from above. The program was relatively new, so it made sense and it was probably a good time to do a review. I think what you'll see in 2013 is maybe some slight tweaking and adjustments to how we coordinate with the multiple agencies on base, how we ensure that folks aren't taking advantage of access to the base for personal gain. We'll continue to make it better. At the end of the day, the key is we've got this great community and we don't want to allow something like bad press to take away from that.
How do you plan to move the base's community outreach forward into 2013?
We have five chambers of commerce that support the base, and we'll continue to reach out and integrate those efforts a little bit more. We'll continue to grow the number of folks that are out speaking and telling our story so folks understand what it is that we do out there. We'll also continue to invite folks out and share the base. This is your Air Force base, we work for you, and we want to make sure that message continues.
We're coming up on a transition time, with the end of the war in Afghanistan and sequestration. What sort of things are you doing to prepare for those?
The Air Force specifically is trying very hard to get our folks some better tools, some better skill sets that will help improve their ability to deal with the stress of transitioning. It's what we call "resiliency," and it's based on four pillars: social, economic, spiritual and fitness. It's an attempt to — especially for our younger folks who have no other experience other than being at war — prepare them and give them the tools for what life is like when you're not constantly in the heat of battle. In terms of sequestration, we are at the very end of that web in terms of how that will directly impact MacDill. We're obviously taking steps to ensure we're prepared for whatever comes down, and we'll execute the guidance that comes down from above. We typically are on the receiving end. Whatever happens in January may or may not affect us immediately. It's probably going to spread out over a five- to 10-year period, and we'll make adjustments accordingly.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.