Childhood dream takes flight: 911th AW vice commander brings diverse experience to wing

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Marjorie A. Schurr
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

It’s summer in the 1970s. A young boy speeds his bicycle next to the flight line at Beale Air Force Base, California, tires whirring against sun-baked concrete. He’s on his way to see his father, who works in the maintenance shop as an enlisted SR-71 jet-engine mechanic. The Blackbird aircraft fascinates him; everything about it, from the way it looks to the science behind its flight, makes him imagine working with planes for the rest of his life.


The boy’s name is Jay D. Miller, and though he doesn’t know it yet, he will later become an Air Force colonel and vice commander of the 911th Airlift Wing. The opportunity to observe his father at work shaped how Miller imagined his life would become, and that diverse experience has given him a unique outlook on leadership in the Air Force.


“Back then, you could do that as a kid. It wasn’t like it is now… it was more accessible if you were a dependent to go see your folks while they were working,” Miller said. “Watching my dad work was amazing, and I quickly learned how unique that experience was as I got older. Seeing my dad do that got me interested in the Air Force really early.”


That influence, however, would take some time to push him into the blue. Directly after high school, Miller attended a local community college to study auto mechanics and worked several jobs.


“Initially, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said. “I became an auto mechanic for a while and waited a lot of tables before finally deciding I wanted to go to a university.”


He decided to pursue an education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. He rode south on his motorcycle with nothing but a tent, a sleeping bag, and a suitcase and applied as soon as he arrived.


Though he had only been accepted on a “probationary basis” pending completion of his application at first, he said that he set up camp near campus to attend classes. Once he was formally accepted, he moved in to an apartment with several roommates, all of whom were Air Force ROTC cadets.


“My dad always really encouraged me to try the officer route. He said if I loved the airplanes so much, I’d love flying them,” Miller said. “But it was my roommates who talked me into becoming an ROTC cadet to go into the Air Force.”


Miller went on to become one of about 150 ROTC cadets who were selected to become pilots in 1994, he said. Competition was steep; with the military spinning down after the completion of Operation Desert Storm, new pilots weren’t as much in demand, and seats were limited to the best of the best.


He soared through pilot training and moved on to his first assignment as an evaluator aircraft commander in Stuttgart, Germany. The duty title may seem complicated, but the work could be even more so; a large part of his job was to serve as a pilot for diplomatic missions and ambassadors during the conflicts in Yugoslavia in the late 1990s.


During these flights, he said that diplomats and ambassadors would often speak to him as an equal, expressing their thoughts on negotiations and predictions of what may happen. Most of the time, if the diplomat said they feared that the next day would be a bad one, they were right; Miller would be able to watch news coverage the following day and see their predictions of violence unfold.


Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Miller said that this was one of the most rewarding assignments of his career.


“I think that was a very rewarding experience to see how things work at the diplomatic level and how the military level can follow shortly thereafter,” he said. “Being able to see it early on in my career helped me to understand it as I got older.”


He moved on to a few assignments before deciding to transition from the active duty force into the Air Force Reserve with the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. This, he said, was the greatest challenge he ever had to face in his military career.


“I think one of the biggest stressors was converting my active duty life into civilian life and becoming a reservist shortly thereafter at the same time,” he said. “It was a huge transition for me and my family.”


During his time in the Air Force Reserve, he had very positive experiences with the 911th AW. When a lack of upgrade training opportunities became evident at the contingency response squadron at Dover, he called several other reserve wings to see if they could receive training at other locations. Lt. Col. Michael Allen and Senior Master Sgt. Kenneth Merryman of the command post here were the first to respond back and say that they could give the necessary training.


“You guys at Pittsburgh always had open arms,” Miller said. “We sent them here, got them trained up, and when they came back, they were absolutely excellent.”


When the controllers returned to their home squadron and eventually deployed, they were lauded by many who were impacted by their efficient work, from fellow controllers to joint task force commanders, he said.


From Dover, Miller served two years as an ROTC detachment commander at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He then chose to separate from the Air Force entirely and pursue a civilian career as an airline pilot. However, he continued to receive email advertisements for open colonel positions in the Air Force Reserve. When he saw the email about the open vice commander position here, he jumped at the chance to apply.


Now that he’s here, he intends to support the wing commander, Col. Douglas Strawbridge, in fostering a community of respect and comprehensive Airman fitness.


“My job is to support the boss,” he said. “I listen really closely to what Col. Strawbridge has to say, even in passing, and I listen for the commander’s intent. When he says something to people, he doesn’t necessarily say it in the form of an order. But to me, that says if it fits the mission and it’s what he wants to do, then I have an obligation to see if it can be done.”


A leader can’t ask something of an Airman without being able to do it themselves, he said; whether it be pursuing strong physical health or becoming good wingmen, Miller plans to lead from the front by embodying the concepts himself.


Though he has an important job, he approaches it with humility, emphasizing that he worked his way through the ranks like every other Airman and sees everyone as equals.


“I didn’t just show up in the Air Force as a colonel,” he said. “I want Airmen to know that I’m a cog in the wheel just like they are.”


Miller also wanted Airmen to know that they have a plethora of resources available to them that they can’t find anywhere else.


“As a [civilian airline pilot], no one’s looking out for me when I leave the cockpit,” he said. “But here, I can call anybody that I work with and they’d give me the shirt off their back to help me. And young Airmen need to know that, they may not be used to that yet. The people are here for them, they just need to know it.”