This is Blog #4 in our series about the Special Air Warfare Symposium in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. See all of the blogs in this series here.
A Note from the Global SOF Foundation Leadership:
First and foremost, we must, of course, recognize the Russian assault on Ukraine this week. As you all know, under a false pretense of “self-defense”, Russian forces began bombing Ukrainian military installations across the country early Thursday morning. No doubt that our partners in Eastern Europe will face this threat head-on, and that our community’s thoughts and prayers are with the Ukrainian people. It is a stark reminder of the criticality of special operations and honestly, we are grateful to have events like this that strengthen our bonds with each other.
We spoke a lot during the Symposium (and in many calls and emails since) about the very serious and dynamic security threats we must face together, and last week’s events are an unfortunate reminder of just how real these challenges are.
A Connected Community to Fight Tyranny
The final day of our Symposiums are usually the most subdued and laid back–our attendees transition out of reunion / networking mode into “serious meetings” mode. This Day 2, however, was different.
With the news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fresh on our minds, it was certainly THE topic of conversation during the morning coffee and networking breakfast.
Conveniently, the first official event on the Thursday schedule was a government-only roundtable, a session that was led by AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife. As the name suggests, attendance at this event was limited to our Active Duty Military and Government attendees. That allows those folks to have more opportunity for frank conversation and to discuss shared issues and successes in a smaller-group environment.
We at the Foundation don’t even get to attend that session, but we’re told that things were very productive and Lt. Gen. Slife was really happy with the discussions and interaction.
Back in the expo, the other early birds had an opportunity to strike up conversations with the exhibitors, get some of the All Day Coffee, sponsored by Phoenix Global Support, or have the breakfast sandwiches and fruit sponsored by Hypori. Some of us may have even done all of the above!
We kicked off Day 2 programming with the return of our now-expert Master of Ceremonies, CMSgt (Ret) Matt Caruso! Matt started us off on a somber note, with some poignant remarks about the situation in Ukraine and the importance of gathering and connecting our community through our events to help us and our Partners fight against tyranny.
We Can’t Keep Up With The Demand
Matt then introduced the first two speakers of the day for an important Senior Leader Conversation: Ms. Catherine Herridge, Senior Correspondent at CBS News, and His Excellency Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Ambassador of Colombia to the United States.
The Ambassador has previously served in his role from 2015 to 2017, where he oversaw Plan Colombia 2 and helped establish the CEO US-Colombia Business Council. Prior to that, Ambassador Pinzon served as the Minister of Defense for Colombia for nearly 4 years, dealing the most severe blows in history to terrorist organizations the FARC and ELN.
Ms. Catherine Herridge has had an impressive career herself; she’s currently a CBS News senior investigative correspondent based in Washington D.C., and she has also been awarded the Tex McCrary Award for Journalism from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for her enterprise reporting at Fox News.
Ambassador Pinzon spoke about the strong bond between the U.S. and Colombia, and that with that bond “comes shared adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran.”
In a theme that we are all seeing worldwide, Ambassador Pinzon discussed how those adversaries are “leveraging our freedoms to exploit weakness, and pulling people into echo chambers that create more and more divisiveness.”
The conversation about partnerships carried into the next panel: “Aiming for Interoperability: Partner Capabilities and Comparative Advantage.” The speakers who dove into that subject included:
- Moderator: CCM Greg Smith, Senior Enlisted Leader – U.S. Special Operations Command
- BG Philip J. Ryan, Commander – U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command
- COL Chris Cook, Director of the Special Operations Aviation Advisor Directorate (SOAAD) – 160 SOAR (Abn)
- LTC Marius Kristiansen, Norwegian Exchange Officer – USSOCOM, J3-I
Chief Smith expertly navigated the discussion, allowing each officer an opportunity to discuss the capabilities and opportunities within their respective commands and units, from arctic aviation to the growth of the famed 160th, and the successes and challenges of working together. “Consistency is key with Partner Nation engagements!”
Bringing Brain Treatment to SOF Veterans
The final sessions of the morning: The SOF Slams!
SOF Slams are shorter sessions focused on more specific, SOF-relevant topics ranging from EOD to canine units to the impact of resource scarcity. For this event our SOF Slams were focused on “Neuro-Optimization and Human Performance” and “Human-Centered Design Thinking.”
Dr. Erik Won first spoke at one of our Symposiums in 2017, and we’ve been following his important work on brain health and treatments for Veterans ever since. We were thrilled he agreed to come speak this week, and he brought along Brandon Soleau, the Executive Director of Wave Neuroscience.
The SOF Slammers discussed “polytrauma” and how it is so very common in the SOF Community. The unique magnet-based treatments used by Dr. Won and his team to help treat the brain problems created by the trauma are now in a SECOND phase of trials at USSOCOM, which could be huge for our SOF Vets with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and PTSD.
The life-changing improvements these treatments can bring to our Veterans is more and more documented, and the cherry on top–SOF can get this treatment for free!
Next up, Ms. Lyla Kohistany and Ms. Ashley Sogge, both senior leaders at PROMOTE, presented a really fascinating and interactive SOF Slam on Human-Centered Design Thinking. They presented some unique ways of looking at problems, and when they’re “really wicked,” recommended that you don’t try to solve it with your most senior leaders–you need a bunch of different people in the room.
Our BEST Event Ever
Lunch came next–our final networking break in the Expo Hall of the entire event! At 1.5 hours long, we gave our attendees plenty of time to grab food, keep up with the Ukraine news, and make those final connections or introductions.
We also had one final interactive treat plugged into the end of the lunch–a demo from BRINC Drones! We all headed out to “HLZ North” to watch the drone navigate to and search an SUV to many shouts of “don’t worry, it’s a rental!”
The drone also had breach capabilities, but BRINC decided they did care (at least a little) about the rental and brought in some car doors to showcase that skillset.
With all of our attendees a safe distance away, the drone made quick work of both of the door windows with impressive efficiency! Huge thanks to BRINC for stepping in to show us what they do with a hands-on demo.
Our second-to-last presentation of the event was by one of our favorite new friends of this week: Maj Christophe Deroubaix, from the Air Development Program (ADP) at the NSHQ and a member of Belgium Special Operations Forces.
He gave a great talk on the evolution of NSHQ, including a review of its structure and organization, as well as the role, mission, and organization of the ADP. We’re excited by what he and his team are doing there in the NSHQ and are happy they took the opportunity to come here to the hub of U.S. SOF Aviation and provide an overview.
We ended the Symposium with a panel on “The Health of the Enlisted Force.” Our speakers included:
- Moderator: CMSgt Cory M. Olson, Senior Enlisted Leader – U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command
- CCM Christopher B. Grove, Command Chief – 24th Special Operations Wing
- CMSgt Courtney C. Freeman, Command Chief Master Sergeant – 1st Special Operations Wing
- CMSgt Tiffany S. Sargent, Chief Enlisted Manager, Manpower Personnel and Services Directorate – Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command
Plus, USSOCOM’s Senior Enlisted Leader, CCM Smith, was still in the crowd after his morning session and provided a great sounding board in the audience, as well!
You can tell it was a thought-provoking and important conversation–at the end of a long day, we still went over on time because the Q&A kept coming! But we don’t mind, especially when the speakers seemed eager to have this opportunity to speak to the force and answer these questions.
CMSgt Sargent said, “I hope we continue doing this event each year; this is important and it’s not an opportunity we get often!”
We agree, Chief!
After some final thank yous to our team, MC, and Sponsors, we closed out the inaugural Special Air Warfare Symposium!
As both Stu and Meaghan said separately, “I think that was the best event we’ve ever done?!”
The positive comments, emails, texts, and calls are making us consider removing the “question mark” from that statement. 🙂
Thank you all for your attendance, support, sponsorships, exhibits, speaking roles, hard work, and much more! It was a great Symposium in Ft. Walton Beach, and we can’t wait to do it again next year.