If anyone knows the ins and outs of operating Grissom Air Reserve Base, it’s Col. Thomas Pemberton.
From 1992 to 2010, his roles at the base ran the gamut, including chief of mission development and tactics, an evaluator navigator for the KC-135 Stratotanker planes and commander of the 434th Operations Support Squadron.
“I learned about the reserves and about the Air Force here,” Pemberton said. “I grew up here, and it was kind of a leadership crucible for me. People pushed me outside my comfort zone here and helped me grow.”
Now, after an 11-year stint serving at other bases around the nation, Pemberton is back at Grissom in the biggest roles there is.
During an assumption of command ceremony on Saturday, the 58-year-old colonel officially took the reigns of the 434th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) to become the 38th commander of the unit.
The wing is in charge of operating and maintaining the entire base, which also has Marine Corps and Army reserve units there, along with the largest KC-135R Stratotanker unit in the Air Force Reserve Command that run refueling missions around the world.
Hundreds of airmen and women from the wing all wearing their brown-camouflaged uniform, along with Pemberton’s family, packed into a hangar to watch as he was handed the 434th ARW flag, officially granting him authority over the installation.
“I’m very proud to be part of the most capable Air Force and most capable air refueling wing in the world,” he told the unit. “I look forward to serving the men and women of the 434th.”
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Pennington, who was Pemberton’s superior at March Air Force Base in California, said Pemberton was the perfect fit to become commander, considering his long history at Grissom.
“What an awesome opportunity to have someone with such great ties to the community and a legacy of performance to come back here and serve as the wing commander,” he told the crowd.
Pennington said that when Pemberton was under his command, he was one of the most passionate and creative wing commanders he had. He said Pemberton pushed to keep his airmen as prepared as possible during the pandemic, even with so many restrictions in place.
“He’s a little bit feisty, he means business and he wants the very best for you,” Pennington said to the airmen. “So let me tell you, you are in good hands with Thom Pemberton at the comm.”
Now, Pemberton said, he wants to bring that same attitude to his new role at Grissom.
“There’s always things you can approve upon,” he said in a separate interview. “It’s about continuous improvement, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m going to lead our airmen and challenge them a little bit.”
One of his major initiatives will be to ensure the base is prepared and ready to respond in case of a direct attack. Pemberton said that means checking to see if basic infrastructure such as the electric grid and water supply holds up under pressure.
At the last base at which he served, Pemberton said, he partnered with the state’s power company to shut down electricity at the entire facility for 10 to 12 hours to see if generators worked and networks were still connected to complete missions.
“It’s easier for the enemy to engage at our bases and our locations, and disrupt us getting to the fight, than it is to meet us head on in a fight,” he said. “We have to think through that, and we have some really smart people here who can do that.”
Pemberton said he also wants to launch a new program called Operation Bright Future, in which local teachers, principals and guidance counselors come to the base to experience a refueling flight and learn about training and scholarship opportunities for students.
The goal is to educate the educators so they can pinpoint students who might thrive or enjoy serving in the Air Force, he said.
“I truly believe in education,” Pemberton said. “It can change the world in a lot of ways.”
But more than anything, he said, he wants to bring a spirit of servant leadership to the base so airmen and women know he’s working alongside them, and not above them.
“I won’t ask the airmen to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” Pemberton said. “I’m running with them on their fitness tests. If it’s 90-degrees and they’re sweating on the flight line, I’m going to be sweating there with them.”
He said that after all, it’s not the KC-135 planes or the cutting-edge technology that make Grissom a well-oiled military machine. It’s the people who serve — and sacrifice — that make the base what it is.
“While it’s a phenomenal weapon’s system, it’s not our aircraft that make our Air Force great,” Pemberton said. “The best weapons system we have are our people — our airmen are the best weapons system we have.”