For historians, COVID-19’s a big story, but operational focus continues

  • Published
  • By Robert Goetz
  • 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

History offices throughout the Air Force are tasked with compiling a historical record that captures the performance of their organizations’ operational missions at the moment and helps inform commanders’ decisions in the future.

That task remains the same in 2020, but with one big difference: an X factor known as the novel coronavirus that is affecting everyday operations.

At Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, historians at Air Education and Training Command and the 12th Flying Training Wing acknowledge the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their organizations’ missions, but it does not obscure the telling of their operational stories.

“It’s an important topic, perhaps the most important topic in the wing’s history this year, but the history itself hasn’t changed, so other than what is covered, we’re still going to tell the same story,” said Lane Bourgeois, 12th FTW historian. “We’re all going to do what we always try to do: capture those issues that affect our missions and our units’ responses to those issues.”

Historians try to collect as many good documents as they can to tell their units’ stories and provide them with a good baseline of knowledge, Bourgeois said.

“Our focus is, as always, on mission accomplishment and on anything affecting that accomplishment,” he said. “That won’t change.”

Bourgeois listed bird aircraft strike hazards, encroachment, inspections, the budget, syllabi changes, maintenance issues, and changes in pilot instructor training and the remotely piloted aircraft program as important topics in this year’s wing history.

“There are also the more routine parts such as the chronology and statistical back matter that we collect as a matter of course, including flying statistics, unit and key personnel changes, student production and organizational structure,” he said. “Historians usually have no shortage of topics to cover; the challenge, as always, is to do a decent job within the time constraints.”

Recently back from a deployment, Bourgeois said he is catching up and still determining COVID-19’s overall impact on the wing, but he sees changes in how personnel work and communicate with one another.

“We’re getting a lot of practice when it comes down to teleworking,” he said. “We’re using website tools to meet virtually. This is a new way of operating and there were some technological growing pains at the beginning. As we continue to operate this way, we’ll probably get better at it.”

Time will tell how it affects productivity and quality, Bourgeois said.

“I suspect it’s going to have significant negative impacts on both, but you never know until the data is in,” he said. “In any event, what we discover as a result will have implications for the future.”

At AETC, at least one historian has been in the office every day to capture the history of the organization fighting through the pandemic, said Gary Boyd, command historian.

“We have written a history through July 2020 and a set of lessons learned for Air Force leaders and have acted as AETC’s lessons-learned source,” he said. “We even contributed papers on previous pandemic responses prior to COVID-19 being declared a pandemic.”

Historians are busier than ever during a crisis, Boyd said, making sure key data is saved for posterity and ensuring that interviews are conducted with key participants and that transcripts are made of key meetings.

“When the command’s COVID-19 task force was up and running every day, we ensured a historical event log was up to the day in its entries for the commander’s use,” he said. “We also ensured we monitored and guided our field historians. Lane was deployed during the crisis for the most part, so we tried to backstop him here as much as we could.”

In addition, AETC historians engaged with future ops planners to smooth over issues that arose during the command’s crisis response activities, Boyd said.

While dealing with the impact of the pandemic, the AETC history office has maintained its focus on the command’s mission and expanded its outreach.

“We have used the time at museum activities to upgrade the visitor experience and work on training new Airmen in the heritage of the Air Force,” Boyd said.

As history offices continue to document their organizations’ significant events and everyday activities, the pandemic could continue to loom large in their stories.

“The wing has received guidance to be mindful that we’re in this for the long haul and prepare ourselves to operate with this pandemic for the foreseeable future, be that months or years,” Bourgeois said.