As if taking command of the most-deployed wing in the Air Force wasn’t enough of a challenge, Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn comes into the role as the COVID-19 pandemic intrudes on the wing’s operations, and as the Air Force, in the wake of the George Floyd shooting, grapples with issues of race and diversity.
And, yeah, she’s the first female commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing (1st SOW), too — although she’s quick to point out her path to wing commander was blazed by other women who have moved through the service’s command echelons.
Her gender, Schermerhorn said in a Wednesday roundtable with local media, is “a fact, but not one that defines who I am as a leader.”
Later in the roundtable, Schermerhorn said that in her position as 1st SOW commander, “I want to make sure that women throughout AFSOC recognize that there are no barriers. And if that’s something I can do in this role, that’s a win.”
Schermerhorn, a 25-year Air Force officer, took command of the wing last month from now-Brig. Gen. Michael Conley, who became vice commander of Space Operations Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Command of the 1st Special Operations WIng is Schermerhorn’s third posting at Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
From March 2003 to January 2007, she served first as a navigator, instructor and flight examiner with the 15th Special Operations Squadron, then as executive officer for the 16th Special Operations Wing, and later as the chief of special programs for AFSOC Plans and Programs.
Schermerhorn returned to Hurlburt Field from April 2010 to June 2014, serving first as director of operations for the 19th Special Operations Squadron, and later as the squadron commander.
Immediately prior to taking command of the 1st Special Operations Wing, Schermerhorn was vice commander of the 11th Wing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
A master navigator with more than 3,500 flight hours, Schermerhorn is a veteran of Operations Joint Guard, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. She holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s degrees in business administration and strategic studies.
Her breadth of experience in special operations, in which she has experienced both the training and operational sides of the enterprise, helped set her up to take command of the 1st SOW, Schermerhorn said Wednesday.
“I understand the culture,” she said, also noting that “AFSOC is not a slow-moving machine.”
But AFSOC — and with it, the 1st Special Operations Wing — is moving a little differently these days, as they work to keep their missions going in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this month, Schermerhorn, whose post as commander of Hurlburt Field’s host unit also makes her the overall installation commander, mandated that everyone on the installation wear a mask at all times, except when they are in base housing or involved in physical training, at which time physical distancing must be maintained.
In addition to helping to keep Hurlburt Field personnel healthy, Schermerhorn said, the mandated wearing of masks is serving another purpose.
“It’s a reminder to all of us that these are not normal times,” she said.
For the 1st SOW personnel, as well as other units, she said, mission planning must now include the fact that airmen will be going into areas where, most likely, there is a 14-day quarantine requirement. That’s an added burden for operations, she said, and also an added burden for airmen’s families.
Overall, Schermerhorn said, the challenge for the 1st SOW in dealing with a global pandemic is, “How do we maintain an enduring posture?”
Given that her airmen also interact with the surrounding community, Schermerhorn already has had some limited discussion with local officials in connection with communitywide efforts to stall the pandemic.
She hasn’t specifically asked that local county or municipal governments enact mask mandates, she said.
“I’ve just expressed that we look at the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines … (and) try to apply them to the maximum extent possible,” she explained.
The CDC recommends cloth face coverings in public settings and among strangers, and a study published through the CDC on Tuesday suggests that “widespread adoption of policies requiring face coverings in public settings should be considered to reduce the impact and magnitude of additional waves of COVID-19.”
Schermerhorn said Tuesday that protective measures against COVID-19 “will be an ongoing dialogue with us (Hurlburt Field) and the community.”
In the meantime, she said, her strategy will be to lead by example, and to show her airmen that she trusts them to make the right decisions when off the installation.
With regard to issues of diversity in the Air Force ranks, brought into sharp focus for the service and the wider society in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year, the Air Force has established a task force to look at policies, procedures and practices that may be unfairly impacting minority personnel.
In pursuit of that goal at Hurlburt Field, AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife recently convened the installation’s commanders to listen to some of the minority personnel serving there.
Calling the session “a good opening to my own personal understanding” of diversity-related issues, Schermerhorn said she is continuing to listen to podcasts and read about those issues.
Gaining an understanding of those issues, and creating an atmosphere where airmen can talk about them, has critical implications for the 1st SOW’s operations, Schermerhorn said, because doing the work “requires the input of everyone who is part of the mission.”
Schermerhorn was somewhat hesitant to speculate as to where the wing’s diversity efforts will go beyond the current conversations.
“It’s a work in progress,” she said.
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