by Anna Ferraro
There are individuals. And then there are extraordinary individuals who have values that encompass things like, “stay focused on the job and don’t quit.” And such is the case of Colonel John C. Walker, former Jacksonville High School (JHS) student, and today, the commander of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Graduating from Jacksonville High School in 1989, Walker headed off to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he received his commission in 1993. The following two+ decades were full for him as he logged over 2,600 flight hours, 200 of which were in combat as he served in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
His most recent tour took him to southeast Turkey where he commanded approximately 5,000 U.S. military, civilian and contractor personnel. In addition to commanding a vast array of personnel, Walker oversaw the combat readiness of U.S. Air Force units at Incirlik and five geographically separated units in Turkey. In sharing with us about his life and work there, he began by saying that a “normal day” is a little hard to define. Walker explained, “When you’re running a big airbase with a slew of combat aircraft from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, [and with those], you’re conducting 24/7 combat operations over Iraq and Syria … [you’re] really, really busy running a machine that never stops!” That’s his normal.
But to answer the question we poised to him, he did describe what a “normal” day could look like for him, saying, “My ‘normal’ day consists of Skyping with my wife Stacey over a cup of coffee, putting in an honest 11-12 hours in the office and around the base, going to the gym for a workout, and then another quick Skype session before going to bed.”
He explained further, “My main efforts are simply solving day-to-day issues that pop up and keeping my bosses aware of how things are going (as an example, today I have a video conference with the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and another with the Vice Commander of United States Air Forces Europe). Recent situations that we’ve had to deal with include cleaning up after an aircraft mishap, planning an aircraft parking ramp expansion project, correcting an aviation fuel contamination problem, and ‘working the system’ to ensure that we don’t run low on munitions for our combat missions. I also spend a lot of time working the personnel system and engaging with our squadron commanders and the troops working on the base. Every day I try to fit about 20 hours of work into 12 hours … some days I’m more successful than others!”
As one may imagine, a job that carries as much weight and responsibility as Colonel Walker’s also has some deep challenges. For these, Walker reaches back to his upbringing, “stay focused on the job and don’t quit.”
He’s had plenty of opportunity to implement that strategy as he’s countered the challenge of living and working all over the world – Afghanistan, South Korea and Turkey. Walker commented, “If you let it happen, cultural differences can get in the way of common sense and getting the job done, and I try really hard to prevent that from being the case – I put all of my effort into the mission and getting the job done, and that has brought me great success.”
In addressing the challenge of entering a culture where the natives may not welcome a Western or American presence, Walker had an interesting perspective. He shared, “What you see back home in the news and what’s actually happening on the ground in forward areas are often two different things. When I was in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, there was a consistent sentiment in the U.S. that, ‘They don’t even want our help.’ [However], at the unit and base commander levels, I never found that to be the case, but no matter how hard we tried to counter that story, we couldn’t. I think it’s important to remember that sometimes, national leaders make statements that get twisted or used out of context, and that’s when the mismatched stories begin. I’m not saying that there’s false reporting or intentional misleading going on, but for a story to be newsworthy, it often has to be somewhat dramatic or flashy. Simply put, the vast majority of what we do isn’t dramatic or flashy; it’s just hard work. And just like husbands and wives argue, so do international partners and allies … it doesn’t mean that the marriage is over!”
While his connection to Morgan County is limited these days, in his past days as a high school student, he was known as “Red” – a nickname inspired by his striking red hair. Hoping to make a return trip this summer, Walker is crossing his fingers to spend a day or two in Jacksonville during a leisurely summer road trip following the completion of his tour in Turkey. It’ll be a chance to reconnect with his younger days in rural Illinois where he sat in JHS classrooms, bailed hay in open fields, and built Chevy block engines under the mentorship of his friend Roger True. Described by Walker as a “cornerstone of my upbringing and Air Force career, Roger True is now a retired Brigadier General from the U.S. Air Force. But more than teaching him how to build engines, True wrote the letters of recommendation for Walker to enter the Air Force. Walker described him as a “great American and a patriot!”
Looking into his future, with his wife Stacey by his side, Walker chuckled, “I’d like to get back to farming, actually. I miss the smell of freshly turned dirt or freshly mown hay, the sound and feel of a diesel tractor working, and the societal values and way of life in the country.” He continued, “I probably have a few more years ahead of me in the Air Force, so I’m not to the stage of building a detailed plan yet. That being said, our family still has some land down by Nortonville, and there are a couple of great building sites on it!”
But for today, he’s still Colonel Walker, an extraordinary individual who’s served his country in outstanding ways. Day by day, he holds to the words of his upbringing, “stay focused on the job and don’t quit.”