MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE — It's 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and down a long, winding road, the wing commander waits alone in the empty headquarters. Wearing a flight suit and cradling a Diet Coke, he introduces himself by his first name. And then he apologizes, because he's locked out of his office. His wife grabbed the keys this morning to take the minivan. ¶ For two years, Col. Lenny Richoux has led MacDill Air Force Base. Two days after a July 27 change-of-command ceremony, he departs for a new assignment in Belgium with his wife, Michele, and their trio of musical children: Claudia, 14, Lena, 10, and Emile, 7. ¶ Tampa Bay Times staff writer Stephanie Wang snagged Richoux, 45, for a farewell interview on his "whirlwind tour" of Tampa.
After two years here, what's your impression of Tampa Bay?
Tampa is a city that's unique in that you can come here and automatically, instantly be welcomed into the community and hit the ground running. You don't have to prove yourself or belong to a certain organization. In some cities, if you're not born there, it's kind of hard to be a local. But we were able to get started right away, and we were part of the community right away.
What were your greatest accomplishments here?
Last year, the U.S. helped NATO in Libya when there was an insurrection (against Moammar Gadhafi). Well, our KC-135s were the airplanes that refueled the B-2 bombers that went into Libya on the first night. And then our KC-135s helped recover our F-15 that went down over there. For that, the crew was given a really high honor — they were given the Jimmy Doolittle trophy. We also helped man the air base in Morón, Spain. We led that part of the operation. I'm really proud of that.
I'm very proud of the way that we have interacted with the city of Tampa. I started a program called the Friends of MacDill, and we have about 900 people in that program right now. I've got it to a point where I allow five a month into the program. That's a unique program that not many bases have adopted yet, but they may. Here in Tampa, I just thought it was a no-brainer.
How do you see the relationship between Tampa and MacDill, and how can we continue to strengthen that?
Communicate. It starts with elected officials. I've been able to establish relationships with all of the elected officials, especially Congresswoman (Kathy) Castor and Mayor (Bob) Buckhorn. We have very open, communicative relationships, so if there's ever an issue or a question, it's just a phone call or email and we work it out. Then the relationship grows from there.
For anyone who has ever wondered about what the base does, engage us. Take us up on our public venues, like our air show in April. The base belongs to the people of Tampa.
Why do wing commanders and other military people change jobs so often?
It's a philosophy of career progression. The military likes us to be very broad, and they want us to understand the whole Department of Defense enterprise, not just the Air Force. This in itself is a test. Hopefully on July 27, my boss will say that I did a good job. Then I'm going off to Belgium doing a staff job, working directly for Adm. James Stavridis, the U.S. European Command commander, who is the equivalent of (CentCom commander Gen. James) Mattis. I'm going to be working at his NATO headquarters. I'll travel with him, and be an adviser for him.
What advice would you give to people looking to advance their careers?
Whatever job you're doing right now is the most important job that you'll ever have in your whole life. No matter how insignificant you think that job may be, someone is relying upon you to do that job very well.
Last night, there was a big promotion party for my officers. We were standing around having some beers and they asked me that very question. Some of them were kind of complaining. I told them, Do you know what my first job in the Air Force was? I was a co-pilot on a KC-135, and my job was to make sure the squadron snack bar had Pop-Tarts and Snickers bars and Diet Cokes. The newest officer is the "Snacko," and you do it for three to six months. It's kind of a trial. People are checking you out. Are you reliable? Do you know what you're doing? It's a real simple job, but you can fail.
And you know what? I was a really good snack bar officer. I made sure that nobody stole from the snack bar, it was always stocked and people got what they wanted. They gave me another job after that, and I got a little bit more responsibility. And here I am: 21 years later, I'm your wing commander.
What's the hardest part about moving?
The hardest part is getting the dog over there, believe it or not. We have a 35-pound soft coated wheaten terrier (named Prissy). Every country has its own pet import laws, so she's been microchipped twice now.
All kidding aside, it's getting the family ready to go. It takes two months to get your furniture over there, so for the last month we've been living in a temporary efficiency apartment on the base while our stuff is on a ship somewhere going to a port in Belgium. Then the kids have to be reregistered for another school, so you have to prove they have their immunizations and they graduated from eighth, fifth and second grades.
For my 14-year-old daughter, she's just made the best friends of her whole life here. She's having to leave her friends. You make sure she knows one day she'll see them again, but for now we're going to Belgium and she'll make a new set of friends as she starts high school. That's tough for a kid. This is not her choice. She's following Dad around. That weighs heavily on my mind as a father. But she's very well-rounded, she's very adaptable and I think she'll be a better person — a citizen of the world.
How does your family feel about Belgium?
My wife and I actually honeymooned in Belgium, 21 years ago in Bruges. We took our kids last summer back there for our 20th wedding anniversary. We were thinking, Wow, wouldn't it be cool to get a military assignment here? Six months later, we did.
We're very excited. We love to travel. We've already decided we're going to Rome for Christmas and going to Christmas Mass at the Vatican. I'm going to take my wife to Scotland and Ireland — she's Scotch-Irish. My college best friend lives in Amsterdam. We're going to do lots of day trips to Paris; that's kind of our favorite city. I want to take my family to Greece — that's some place we've never been. And we've been told that Croatia is amazing.
So you've taken in all the sights around Tampa?
Yeah, we've done Busch Gardens. We've seen a couple of plays at the Straz. I've been to a bunch of Bucs games, Rays games, Lightning games. Been to all the Disney parks a couple of times, the Space Center, Tarpon Springs and Sarasota. And done all the Boy Scout camps here with my son.
Even got a tour of the Sykes building last week. I said, what do you want to do before we leave Tampa? My middle daughter said, I wanna tour the Sykes building. Okay!
Mr. Chuck Sykes has become a friend of mine. I contacted him, and he said, absolutely, come on up. It's actually quite fascinating, the design of the building and how it was built. I didn't go on the tour — my wife took the kids — but that's what they wanted to do. You never know. (Laughs.)
Any parting words for the local folks?
I never burn bridges, and I'll be back one day. I just want to say thank you for taking such good care of this base. For me and my wife, Michele, it's been the experience of a lifetime. There's nothing like wing command. I'm gonna miss it, but I'll be in touch.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.