Taking command of a major U.S. Air Force base with 11,000 personnel in the middle of a global pandemic sounds tricky.
The latest updates related to COVID-19 in Tucson and Southern Arizona.
But Col. Joseph Turnham, who was installed in June as commander of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, says the base is still operating at the high level that earned it the service’s top honors twice since 2012.
“Everything we’ve done as a country for the last six to nine months has been influenced by COVID, and we’re no different — we’re a microcosm of the country,” Turnham said in his first local media interview since assuming command of D-M and its host 355th Wing.
“We have had cases, we continue to have cases, we’ve had people quarantined, and we continue to do that,” he said.
Despite the upheaval, Turnham said, D-M has been able to fulfill its many missions, which includes the three A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack jet squadrons and the 563rd Rescue Group under the 355th Wing.
The base, which won the Commander in Chief’s Installation Excellence Award in 2012 and 2018, also hosts separate units like the 55th Electronic Combat Group, the 12th Air Force and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, as well as supporting Border Patrol aviation and Air National Guard drone, homeland security and training missions.
“We are pretty much operating back at full steam right now. It comes in waves as a unit may get some folks who are sick and have to adjust but on the whole, we’ve met every tasking that we’ve had to do,” said Turnham, noting that D-M passed a major, base-wide inspection by the Air Combat Command in September.
D-M publicly reported its first COVID-19 case — a civilian worker at the 309th AMARG — in late March.
The Pentagon has instructed base commanders to share data on COVID-19 cases on military bases with local public-health agencies but does not report the number of cases on each base or by unit.
Turnham said base officials have learned much since the pandemic broke out in the spring.
Like other air bases, D-M is taking steps recommended by CDC to stem the spread of COVID-19, including limiting in-person meetings, increased sanitation, mask-wearing and social distancing.
“The public health measures that everybody’s touting are exactly what we’re pushing here, and that’s what we think has been effective at helping us go manage this so we can continue our readiness,” Turnham said.
“We have not stopped sending people out the door on deployments. We have airmen deployed all around the globe right now, and we’ll continue to do that,” he said, crediting unit leaders and airmen for showing the flexibility and resilience to keep operations going.
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No stranger to Tucson
Like several D-M commanders before him, Turnham — whose pilot call sign is “Burn’em” — had trained and served at the Tucson base before assuming command a few months ago.
Turnham, 47, trained on the A-10 at D-M in 2002 and, after a series of posts as a pilot and instructor that took him to bases in Alaska, Germany, South Korea, and Colorado, he returned to D-M in 2015 to command the 357th Fighter Squadron, which trains A-10 pilots.
In 2017, Turnham spent five months as deputy commander of the 355th Operations Group at D-M before attending a yearlong fellowship at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
After serving as director of joint training and exercises for the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina from mid-2018 to mid-2019, Turnham was named vice wing commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing in Kabul, Afghanistan. Before his recent appointment at D-M, he was commander of NATO’s effort to train, advise and assist the Afghan air forces.
A decorated, command-rated pilot, Turnham has logged 1,149 combat flight hours mainly in the A-10 and was promoted to colonel in 2018.
A self-described “military brat” who was born in Michigan and moved around before his family settled in North Carolina during his high school years, Turnham said he was excited to return to the Old Pueblo.
“It’s really great because coming back to Tucson feels like coming back home, as much in the military as you can, as you know we move around a lot,” he said. “When you have a place where you’ve been before and you know what the community is like, that’s a wonderful feeling for the nomadic existence we tend to have in uniform.”
Turnham, who is unmarried, said he’s looking forward to taking in some of the local sights and food as the pandemic recedes, after seeing the revitalization of downtown taking shape during periodic visits to D-M in recent years.
The last time I came through, I saw that revitalization downtown. … Unfortunately there’s a not a lot going on downtown now with the pandemic, but I look forward eventually to being able to go down there and enjoy the great restaurants, the culture, the arts scene that’s down there.”
Turnham said he puts a high value on the support of the Tucson community which he said is a “Goldilocks fit” for the base’s airmen — not so big as they feel lost but big enough to offer an array of things to do off-duty.
“It’s a phenomenal relationship we have with our local community here, all the way from the civic leaders, the elected officials, the nonprofits and just the population in general,” he said. “It is a warm and welcoming relationship we have, and of course we’re going to try and strengthen that, because we are part of the fabric of Tucson.”
Future of D-M
Davis-Monthan faces major changes to its mission mix over the next decade, as the Air Force plans to retire the A-10 fleet by 2030.
D-M has been passed over so far as a base for the F-35 Lightning II fighter, a multi-service, multi-mission plane that is expected to be the workhorse of the nation’s air arsenal for years to come.
Most recently, D-M was among four bases considered as reasonable alternatives to host the first Air Force Reserve F-35 squadron, but an environmental study showed that the much higher noise level of the F-35 would make some residential areas near D-M, as well as two of the other bases, potentially incompatible for residential use.
The Air Force Reserve has picked Joint Air Base-Fort Worth in Texas as its preferred location, with a final decision expected by year’s end.
Turnham said he can’t speculate on the potential arrival of F-35 units at D-M but said he sees a great future for the base.
“I really do think regardless of whatever missions are on this base, and there are a bunch, it’s not going anywhere,” he said.
Turnham said he sees D-M’s missions expanding in the future.
“I see folks lined up who want to come to D-M because of all the great things here. It’s just a function of we need to make sure they have the facilities that they need to be successful in their mission, and that takes time on the construction budget,” he said.
D-M hopes to push a least one major budget item through in the near future — roughly $13 million for improvements of the base’s Wilmot South gate on South Wilmot Road to alleviate frequent traffic backups at D-M’s gates off East Golf Links Road at South Craycroft and South Swan roads.
Pima County is spending about $1.8 million to improve South Wilmot Road from East Valencia Road to the D-M gate, which is open part-time now ahead of plans to enlarge the facility and add a special lane for inspecting commercial vehicles.
“We definitely want to get that, from a force protection standpoint, with not just the wing here but all the mission partners we have on base, but also for the community,” he said, citing the frequent traffic backups at the gates along Golf Links.