Howard Altman: New base commander at sultry MacDill helped run South Pole airlifts

Air Force Col. April Vogel was the first Air National Guard leader to command MacDill Air Force Base. Now, she's off to Maryland. [HOWARD ALTMAN   |   Times]
Air Force Col. April Vogel was the first Air National Guard leader to command MacDill Air Force Base. Now, she's off to Maryland. [HOWARD ALTMAN | Times]
Published May 30, 2018

One of the most frustrating aspects of covering the military is how often change takes place.

Just when you start to get to someone, boom, they move on.

The latest case in point is Air Force Col. April Vogel, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base and the installation commander. Sometime toward the end of June, there will be a change of command ceremony at MacDill and Vogel will leave, to be replaced by another Air Force colonel.

Now, I will have to break in Air Force Col. Stephen P. Snelson.

For Snelson, MacDill will mark quite a change from his current job, in both aircraft and climate.

Currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, Snelson is vice commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing, which flies the C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets. In addition to moving troops and cargo around the world, the wing works with Operation Deep Freeze, providing airlift support for the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program.

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Given that this is hot and humid Tampa, the closest Snelson will get to Operation Deep Freeze may be filling his cup at the base dining hall's ice machine. Or watching the Tampa Bay Lightning play.

And instead of overseeing 48 of the huge Globemasters, Snelson will be in charge of 24 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, shared with the 927th Air Refueling Wing.

But the biggest change will be the job of base commander, essentially the mayor of a small town with some very important residents.

MacDill is the only base in the continental United States serving as home to two of the major operations known as combatant commands. There are only 10 in the world.

U.S. Central Command, lead by Army Gen. Joseph Votel, oversees the nation's military efforts in the world's most dangerous neighborhood, including much of the Middle East. U.S. Special Operations Command, led by Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, is responsible for providing fully trained and equipped commandos to top leaders like Votel.

So Snelson will oversee the wings that refuel nearly all other wings while ensuring that CentCom and SOCom have the goods and services, and often the flights, to operate their headquarters.

Votel and Thomas, both of whom also will move on eventually, aren't the only brass at MacDill, either. About two dozen of the nation's more than 800 general and flag officers serve at MacDill, home to several dozen mission partners like Marine Forces Central Command and the Joint Communications Support Element. And that doesn't include the high-ranking officers who come to MacDill from around the world to serve with the international coalition at CentCom and the J3I directorate at SOCom.

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Then there's all the people on base, who need food, housing and medical services.

Snelson will have to oversee services for the more than 21,000 military and civilians working at the base, as well as the 12,400 family members living there and the more than 133,000 retirees who visit to use the base exchange, golf courses, marina, family camp and other available amenities.

Based on just personnel and family members, MacDill would be the 116th largest city in Florida, sandwiched between Navarre and Ferry City. Add in the retirees and MacDill would rocket to No. 11, behind Cape Coral.

For Snelson, as with any other commander, that means seven miles of shoreline to care for, along with a maritime patrol, as well as miles of roads, electricity, water and every thing else a city needs.

It's one of the more demanding and rewarding jobs an Air Force colonel can have.

During a quick chat at the 2018 Tampa Bay AirFest, Vogel told me she is returning to her native Maryland, where her duties will include working at the Pentagon.

"My family is thrilled to join Team MacDill and the incredible Tampa Bay community," Snelson said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "Leading the Air Force's greatest Air Mobility Wing and the world's greatest Airmen is the opportunity of a lifetime. We are truly honored and humbled."


The Department of Defense last week announced the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Joint Guardian.

Staff Sgt. Conrad A. Robinson, 36, of Los Angeles, California, died May 24 at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, from a non-combat related incident. The incident is under investigation.

Robinson was assigned to the 155th Medical Detachment, 261st Medical Battalion, 44th Medical Brigade, Fort Bragg, N.C.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.