World-class communicators keep military leaders connected

  • Published
  • By Abigail Meyer
  • Air Force District of Washington
Department of Defense leaders must be able to connect via phone, video, or internet with anyone anywhere, anytime. An elite group of Airmen assigned to the 844th Communications Squadron executive travel team are tasked with the critical mission of ensuring senior leaders can respond in any situation.
The executive travel team consists of communication specialists whose expertise lies in ensuring the Secretary of Defense, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and members of their delegation can communicate at all times, whether that is from a rowboat in Alaska or at an international summit. Additional teams are dedicated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of the Air Force senior leaders.
Around the clock, and throughout the year, these highly-trained Airmen make critical communications happen.
“They are experts at what they do, and we truly embrace the concept of mission command,” said Kristopher Johnson, executive director, 844th Communications Squadron. “They’re given the training, and we trust and empower them to go forward and make those critical decisions on their own because they understand the importance of what they do.”
Typically, the Secretary of Defense communications team has about 55 members assigned, and the team can run seven different communication sites at any given time, if necessary. Members of the team can expect to travel between 90-120 nonconsecutive days a year. And no matter how far and long they travel, when on the job, these experts are always close by to make sure comms are up.
“Within the executive travel communications team for the secretary, we maintain a close distance at all times, so you have Airmen that travel with the defense secretary at all times, basically from the door of his office to the hotel,” Johnson said. “When you see the Secretary of Defense traveling, the reason they can communicate is because we have Airmen from the 844th traveling with them.”
The team plans for trips, heads out on the road with gear, and sets up in advance of the leader, or principal’s, arrival. There are also team members assigned to travel directly with the principal. At times, the Airmen have just hours to get on the road but must be prepared at any time with the right equipment and expertise.
“When we come home, we definitely have to make sure our gear is ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Cecil, mission lead. “I’ve been out the door within four hours of having a phone call.”
This 24/7 mission does not stop when the trip ends; there is always work to be done training new members, while keeping gear maintained and ready to go. The team must be thoroughly trained to operate and maintain the more than six million dollars in state-of-the-art technology it uses to ensure the mission is complete.
“We have a very structured and mature training team, and everyone goes through the training,” Johnson said. “We enable the next communicators to be even better; we encourage innovation. We have a feedback loop, so we make the training better and more efficient.”
Airmen on the team are vetted and interviewed due to the mission and the level of leadership they support, and they take pride in knowing their mission has global impact.
“We get to be involved in the top and see the coordination that happens with other nations firsthand because we’re supporting those missions and making them happen,” said Senior Airman Shyanne Kiekenapp, cyber systems operator. “At a [installation] communications unit, I didn’t get to see that big picture. Here I’m more exposed to the effects of the things we do and how it’s portrayed in the news.”
The 844th Communications Squadron has three primary missions, the executive travel teams, information technology service provider for the Department of the Air Force Pentagon customers, and the executive agent for the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. As the information technology service provider for more than 9,000 Department of the Air Force customers at the Pentagon, they provide all things communication, from classified and unclassified data connectivity, voice, and video teleconferencing. As the executive agent for the National Military Command Center, they maintain and staff the 275,000 square foot command and communications building.
“The team truly is phenomenal; everyone operates at a very high level and that’s by design. We pick the best of the best,” said Maj. Justin Valentine, director of operations, 844th Communications Squadron. “We seek out the best communicators we can find, and train them up to that level, so that they can go on the road and provide communication support and be able to troubleshoot and translate ‘comm speak’ for their executive team. We’re strategically placed as the tip of the communication spear for these senior leaders in the Department of Defense.”