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Alabama Air Guard officer leads Tropic Care medical training mission

  • Published
  • By Capt. Hans Zeiger
  • 194th Wing
Lt. Col. James Jones, the officer in charge for the Tropic Care Maui County 2018 Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) mission, first learned about the IRT program from members of the Alabama Air National Guard who had participated in previous missions around the country. Jones is the bioenvironmental engineer officer for Alabama’s 187th Medical Group at Dannelly Field Air National Guard Base in Montgomery. On the civilian side, he works as a maintenance manager at the Michelin Tires plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And this year, Jones has devoted countless hours to leading the planning and operations for Tropic Care Maui County 2018.

The Tropic Care IRT is a health care training mission involving around 350 military members from the Air National Guard, Air Force, Army, Navy Reserve, and Marine Corps Reserve. Part of a long-running Defense Department initiative, the mission is operating from six clinic locations in Maui, Molokai, and Lanai from August 11-19. Three days into the Tropic Care mission, more than 3,800 medical, dental, and vision care procedures had been performed across the mission’s six sites, representing almost $228,000 in patient care.

“I have learned a lot about the functions outside the medical group such as services, logistics, government purchasing cards, public affairs,” said Jones. “It’s really opened my eyes to a much bigger operation than just the Med Group. This is a true multi-service mission. This has been a great opportunity for me to work in-depth with the Navy, with the Marines, with the active duty Air Force, with the active duty Army.”

Following an initial planning meeting at which IRT planners met to lay the foundation for Tropic Care Maui County, Capt. Kelly Machado of the Air National Guard’s IRT program reached out to Jones in January and asked if he would serve as officer in charge for the mission. Jones was already the unit planner for an IRT mission in Alabama, but he agreed to change duties to accept the lead job for Tropic Care.

“I believe he is the perfect OIC for this mission,” said Machado, who first worked with Jones when she was the medical administrative officer for the 187th Medical Group. Though Jones had never served in an IRT before, Machado knew that he had the qualities necessary to succeed in the OIC role. “He is a natural mentor and continually made himself available for all the Airmen within the unit, not just those within his work center,” said Machado. “Lt. Col. Jones was in charge of a table top exercise that I was able to participate in. It was not only highly successful (as it surpassed the set objectives) but he also took the time and purposely planned it so it was a lot of fun for the people involved.”

Prior to coming to Maui for two mission planning meetings earlier this year and the mission itself, Jones visited Hawaii twice on military duty. On one occasion, the 187th Fighter Wing supported the Hawaii National Guard for an operational readiness inspection. Another time, he observed a CERFP exercise on Oahu.

The Air Force and the Air National Guard run in Jones’s blood. His father served in the Air Force and was later a member of the Alabama Air National Guard’s 187th Fighter Wing. Growing up on a farm in rural Alabama, “I was taught the core values of the Air Force but didn’t realize it,” he said. “I was raised to do the job right, always tell the truth, and put your family ahead of everything else. That translates to integrity, service before self, and excellence in all you do.”

After Jones scored well in an assessment of electrical and mechanical knowledge as a teenager, his father spent time introducing him to the Air Guard.

He decided to join. Jones enlisted in the 187th Fighter Wing. “Before I joined the military I really hadn’t been out of the state of Alabama, so it was a very humbling experience for a country boy to go out and see the big world,” he said. He worked in avionics on the F-4 Phantom and then the F-16 Fighting Falcon, serving for 11 years late in the Cold War. Twice he deployed to Europe. But he got out because of the demands of his civilian work.

Nine years went by, and Jones felt the urge to re-enlist. “I missed it,” he said. “I missed the camaraderie. I missed serving the country. I really enjoy this aspect of my life.” So he came back into the 187th, this time in aircraft maintenance. During his six years in maintenance, Jones deployed to the Middle East for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Then Jones received his commission, and he has served as a bioenvironmental engineer officer for the past 13 years. From 2011 to 2013, Jones took a key role in the launch of a new Alabama National Guard Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and High Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package, or CERFP. He served on active duty for operational support for two years, running the CERFP and establishing operating procedures.

“Those were very rewarding missions, but I was an individual contributor,” said Jones. Tropic Care, on the other hand “is by far one of the most exciting missions I have been associated with, and it has also been one of the most challenging. It has really helped me grow as a leader and as a team member.”

Jones says that he has learned “to identify your strengths and your weaknesses and your resources. This was an opportunity for me to work with people I had never met, to recognize people’s strengths, where they would contribute most to the mission and then to mentor them on areas they could improve on. Also this is the biggest mission I have been on, so I have really learned how to delegate….to allow other people to do their jobs, and [for] me just to manage the big picture.”

“He’s a planner, and he follows through with that,” said U.S. Navy Reserve Senior Chief Petty Officer Simon Hernandez, non-commissioned officer in charge for the Tropic Care mission. Hernandez said that Jones is interested in improving processes, constantly looking for a way to do things more effectively. “He’s always working an algorithm in his head. He’s got the answer, but I can see that he is waiting for a better answer.”

Jones looks to team members to give input on decisions. “He’s a good listener,” said Hernandez. “He sits there and listens to you. He’s very approachable.”

“He’s a facilitator,” said U.S. Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Maricela Soberanes, the assistant officer in charge for the Tropic Care mission. “He allows us to make decisions,” said Soberanes, adding that Jones backs his people up after they make decisions.

Jones takes military duty seriously, but he is also passionate about his family. Jones and his wife have been married for 25 years and have two daughters. One graduated from college and recently got married, and the other is a recent high school graduate. An avid Harley rider, Jones aims to ride a motorcycle with his youngest daughter in all 50 states. So far, they have made it to 40 states, including Hawaii. He also enjoys time with his family camping and attending baseball games.