A ‘strategic’ command: Maj. Gen. Balskus reflects on successes and future of the Florida Air National Guard
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (Dec. 17, 2012) – When Maj. Gen. Balskus speaks to you, he looks you directly in the eyes. When he greets you, it is with a steady, purposeful handshake.
Airmen meeting the commander of the Florida Air National Guard during the past eight years may have looked back into his eyes and known instantly they were looking at a strategist; like a chess player, Balskus has been setting the Florida Air National Guard up for a long, successful future.
Now, after almost a decade of leading nearly 2,000 Citizen-Airmen through one of the most militarily turbulent periods in recent history, Balskus is leaving his mark on the Florida Air National Guard (FLANG) and turning over his command.
On Nov. 30 Balskus relinquished command to Brig. Gen. Robert Branyon. He will serve in a new position at the Pentagon, as Military Assistant to Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Programs. In this capacity he will be working in the inner-most circle of strategic planning for the Air Force.
He will also be stepping down as the Florida National Guard’s Assistant Adjutant General for Air, a position he has held since 2006.
“It has been an amazing ride,” Balskus said during an interview in mid-November, speaking of his tenure at the helm of the FLANG.
‘Cohesive and transparent’
He said he hopes one of his most lasting contributions will be helping the FLANG see itself as one cohesive organization, rather than just a collection of geographically separated units (GSUs). One of his first steps as commander was to revamp the 125th Fighter Wing’s Eagle’s Eye publication into a statewide journal that includes all of the FLANG units’ news. He also oversaw the establishment of the Financial Management and Facilities Utilization Boards, which allowed the GSU commanders to have a greater voice at the headquarters-level.
“When I first took over there was a division between the state headquarters and the Wing, and the state and units,” he explained. “There were multiple voices out there and independent entities.”
The idea of “cohesiveness” extended not just to the other Air units, but also into the FLANG’s interaction with its Army brethren. With FLANG Airmen making up about one-sixth of the total personnel in the Florida National Guard, it was strategically important that “blue and green” were communicating with each other.
“I think this joint force headquarters really plowed some new ground, particularly in this administration with Maj. Gen. Titshaw’s strategic communications plan,” Balskus said. “Without good strong communications you are not going to be ‘joint.’ We took those many voices across the Army and the Air and we started centralizing the messages…We really broke new ground in getting everyone to understand that we are really one team here.”
Because communications were such an integral part of Balskus’ command initiatives, informal “townhall meetings” at the GSUs were the norm; Balskus and other FLANG leaders would meet with Airmen around the state to not only talk about Air Guard directives, but most importantly listen to feedback from the force.
“We always created an environment that was open and where people weren’t afraid to approach me,” he said.
Whether it was a policy or mobilization question, or even a recommendation about FLANG procedures, the Airmen were listened to and treated with respect. Balskus said he expected this attitude of transparency and respect to permeate through the ranks.
“(It is important) to reach out and let people talk together as equals…to care about people, to always shake hands, to always be accessible,” he added. “I think that impacted all the commanders; in any organization now if someone comes in your office – whatever their rank – you’re going to show respect. You’re going to give professional courtesy.
“By building that attitude within our organization I think it has made a difference,” the general said.
Investment in suicide prevention
When suicide rates among reservists climbed in 2009-2010, the National Guard took steps to ensure the trend changed. National attention and resiliency training – including the Air National Guard’s Wingman Project – were stressed among the force, but the Florida Air National Guard was already addressing the issue, according to Balskus.
He said that promotion of chaplaincy and psychological health programs really paid off for the FLANG, and he is proud of that accomplishment.
“I’m really excited because these things have worked,” Balskus said. “The proof of that is we haven’t had a suicide in the Florida Air National Guard in about six years.”
He said that’s currently better than suicide rates for the Air Force or Air National Guard as a whole, and credits a suicide-prevention emphasis by FLANG unit leaders.
“We have worked hard in Florida and have been successful with programs of intervention,” Balskus explained. “We’ve encouraged commanders to get out from behind their desk to meet their personnel, and we have invested heavily in advertising our psychological health and chaplain programs. People need to know it’s okay to reach out for help.”
The Florida Air National Guard always played key roles during hurricane and domestic emergency responses, but Balskus felt his Airmen really defined the FLANG’s position on that front during his watch.
“We created a Joint ‘Air’ Operations Center within the Joint Operations Center,” he said. “We did that because we said that our core-competency is managing airspace and managing airflow. We created our air operations center with some very smart people on staff.”
A Joint Air Operations Center (JAOC) was established in St. Augustine, and the Air Guard’s emergency response experts worked with the Army Guard to show how the Air could better fit in to the state’s domestic response capabilities.
According to Balskus, this was much more than just passing out ice and water after a hurricane.
“We can help by managing the airspace in and out of Florida, and working with other entities to get evacuations done or build air-bridges,” he said. “That Joint Air Operations Center really solidified us in the domestic operations world with the Army, and helped up to build one of the strongest disaster response teams in the world. Florida is known for that because we are working together.”
Vibrant future for FLANG
During the past two years Balskus has served as the Chairman of the Air National Guard (ANG) Strategic Planning System. Working on the strategic roadmap for the ANG’s future gave him unique insight on how Florida will fare in the coming decades.
He calls the future of the Florida Air National Guard “vibrant and strategically planned.”
After studying the Florida GSUs, he believes they are all primed to grow along with their missions. Whether it is the 114th Range Operations Squadron taking on a new mission, or the 101st Air Operations Group expanding, he said he is excited about the FLANG’s future.
“We worked so hard to strategically plan our new initiatives to poise us for our future.” Balskus said. “For the new Airmen coming in I would tell them ‘You couldn’t be joining at a better time. You are going to see total force at its best. You’re going to see the Air Force come together at a time unlike any since 1947.’”