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MacDill commander bids farewell after colorful two-year stint

Col. Steve Snelson, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base, talks with reporters on August 29, 2019. (Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Hurricane Dorian. Mold in the family housing. An active-shooter incident. The possibility of a lost African-American cemetery found on base. A global health pandemic.

These were just some of the challenges that Air Force Col. Stephen Snelson faced during his two-year tenure as the de facto mayor of MacDill Air Force Base. The commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing stepped down last week. His replacement won’t arrive in Tampa from his deployed location until around August and has not been publicly announced. The Wing’s vice commander, Col. Benjamin Robins, is in charge for now.

Snelson oversaw combat air refueling missions and services such as childcare and housing for members of the U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and 31 other joint mission partners on base. But he also dealt with scenarios such as locking down the base while local police searched for an armed person and the potential discovery of a forgotten African-American burial ground on base.

He managed all of this while working to improve communications and trust among his airmen, he said, and among the organizations on base, as well as across the Tampa Bay community.

“I really tried to foster an environment where people could come to me or come through the chain of command and make an improvement,” Snelson said. “As a commander, there’s no single person who has cornered the market on great ideas.”

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He applied lessons learned from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael to better prepare for Hurricane Dorian, such as communicating early with some 20,000 employees on base. He also helped families living in privatized military housing who faced problems such as mold, he said.

“There were not a lot of processes in place for folks to get help if they had frustrations or issues or concerns,” Snelson said.

He felt he accomplished his goals, but said that work remains for his successor, especially regarding maintenance of the installation itself, which includes fixing air-conditioning units. His time at MacDill gave him a taste of what it’s like to be mayor of a small city, Snelson said.

“There’s never enough money, there’s never enough people and there’s never enough time to fix everything that you need to,” he said.

And then of course, there’s helping the base handle a pandemic.

He worked to match Tampa’s response to the crisis, he said, and to follow guidance from the Department of Defense. For instance, when MacDill received service members coming back from U.S. Central Command’s area of operations, which spans 20 nations from Egypt to Kazakhstan, they worked to safely transport them from the airplane to the hanger and to the hotel on base where they would be quarantined, he said.

Having service members work from home, however, exposed problems with the base’s computer capacity for teleworking, something they had to work through.

“Working here reaffirmed for me the importance of trusting your team,” he said.

Today, about 25 percent of the 6th Air Refueling Wing is back to work. And the Child Development Center on base is open only to children of mission-essential workers, with less than half of the usual 500 or so kids enrolled, Snelson said.

The Department of Defense last week put out guidelines on how bases can begin planning to resume normal operations. Chief Master Sgt. Anthony Green, the senior enlisted member of the 6th Air Refueling Wing, said MacDill is taking a phased approach to reopening, with officials meeting weekly to assess the situation.

“You don’t see people wanting to rush back into this,” Green said.

Green said he felt proud to work with Snelson.

“He’ll be hard to replace,” Green said.

At his next assignment, Snelson won’t be an installation commander, so he won’t have to worry about traffic light issues or back-ups at the gate.

Instead, as commander of the 89th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, he’ll be tasked, among other things, with escorting the president to and from Air Force One.

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© 2020 the Tampa Bay Times