March Field continues to make history with first female base commander
March Air Reserve Base, Calif. --
Col. Melissa Coburn, commander, 452nd Operations Group, will accept command of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, Saturday, March 23, 2019, as the wing’s first female commander. Brig. Gen. Matthew Burger will relinquish command of the Air Force Reserve Command’s largest wing and March Field host, at a formal ceremony on base to be attended by Airmen, mission partners and community members.
“I’m grateful that Col. Coburn has been selected to be the next 452nd Air Mobility Wing commander,” said Burger. “Having worked with her during my time here, I know we are getting a talented leader who represents the best and brightest across the command. She has the experience and skill that will ensure both the mission of our wing, and that of our mission partners, will continue to be successful.”
Coburn, 48, was born at Fort George Meade, Maryland, and lived the life of an Army brat for 14 years, until her dad retired as a warrant officer. Moving all over the place and spending eight years in Germany, she said growing up was adventurous. She wanted to a pilot even though no one in her family was a flier, she said.
“I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was about nine,” Coburn said. “We did a couple of Space-A trips back to the states when I was a kid, so that’s where I got the flying bug. Dad pushed me to join the Air Force or the Navy.”
She took her dad’s advice and applied to the U. S. Air Force Academy. As a freshman in 1988, she said only 10 percent of her class was female.
“I grew up with two sisters. So going into the academy, I had a lot of ‘brothers’ there,” Coburn said. “It was a bit of a shock for me. Not necessarily a bad thing, just the fact that people weren't used to us (females).”
She graduated from the USAFA in 1992 and moved on to under-graduate pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where the culture about women flying was different than today.
“When I went to pilot training women couldn't fly fighters,” Coburn said. “I was the only woman in the class for awhile. It's not even an issue now.”
Inspired by astronauts Sally Ride and Eileen Collins, Coburn aspired to be an astronaut until she started a family because “having kids takes priority over a lot of things,” she said.
Married for 19 years to her husband, Ryan, they have two children, son Gavin, 17 and daughter Reese, 15. Ryan is former Air Force security forces as well as civilian law enforcement, and now works as a nurse. Gavin is a high school senior, making college plans to follow in his mom’s footprints to become a pilot. Reese, a high school freshman, wants to be a doctor and is a competitive gymnast. She is also interested in serving in the military but not sure how that will work just yet, Coburn said.
“I love my family, and actually love hanging out with them. As a family we like to travel and we used to like to play games, but we are so competitive that no one wants to play cards with mom any more,” Coburn said. “We all scuba dive, we love the beach, and we like to ski.”
Since Gavin and Reese were born, the family has lived in five different locations, (N.J., S.C., Ala., Va., Calif.) so when Coburn made the announcement to her family in January 2019 that she would assume command at March ARB, everyone was excited, she said.
“Reese was very excited that she doesn’t have to move (during high school). Gavin loves it here, so he was happy that we would still be here when he returns home after college. Ryan really likes his job here at Temecula Valley Hospital, so he was happy too,” she said. “We talked about time commitment, and it's good because everyone is so independent. They’re used to me living a pretty crazy life.”
Daughter Reese, who is considering military service in the medical field, said she was kind of stressed when she found out her mom would most-likely require more time away from the family but that they will do their best to plan family time when the opportunity arises.
“I think what she does is amazing,” Reese said. “When people ask what my mom does, I say she’s a pilot, and they are shocked because it’s so cool.”
Ryan said he and his wife have always talked to their kids about give and take, and how the focus should be on the opportunities they share as a family.
“We are very receptive to change and knowing that we will get through it together no matter what. The time we spend together is what’s important, and that’s what we focus on,” Ryan said.
Coburn’s commitment to family reaches into her military family as well. She said she is very excited and grateful for the opportunity to lead the 452 AMW and is looking forward to it.
“I've gotten to know the wing for the last year and a half. I know the landscape and the people,” Coburn said. “I have 27 years in the Air Force and with that comes some experience.”
Her top two priorities are focusing on readiness and taking care of the Airmen, she said.
“I am always willing to listen, so nobody has a bad idea. I think that we have a lot to learn from every single person who participates in the wing, whether it’s the youngest, least experienced…to older, experienced individuals,” she said. “I am really open to new ideas, new ways of learning, thinking and doing things. I’m looking forward to learning from them, and I expect them to be professional, do their best, support the mission and treat each other kindly.”
Her willingness to learn from others may have lent itself to being a good instructor at Weapons School. Lt. Col. Allen Partridge, commander, 729th Airlift Squadron, met Coburn in late 2009 when he was a student at the school.
“We all loved having her teach us because the temperature in the room went down. It may be a right-of-passage that they purposely stress you for six months,” Partridge said. “It was easier to learn from her because of her teaching style and personality. She was the only Reserve instructor in a very intense course, was smart, and more senior than most of the instructors,” he said. “She saw the bigger picture. As a commander, I can tell you that reservists are just as military and professional as active duty. They focus on what’s important.”
Coburn learned early in her career to listen to others, regardless of their rank or status.
Even as a new lieutenant Col. Coburn was eager to learn from everyone, said Lt. Col. Jeff Minton, commander, 729th Airlift Squadron, who met her in the early 1990s at McGuire AFB, N.J. “She constantly seeks advice and instruction from all ranks of Airmen. The Operations Group is better because of her and I am excited to see her lead the wing.”
In addition to leading the Reserve wing and running the base, Coburn will be the face of March ARB in the surrounding communities.
“This is a new experience for me. I’ve only gotten to work with them (community members) through others so I'm especially excited about that. I think our local communities are wonderful, and the support we get from them is absolutely amazing,” Coburn said. “They obviously really care about the base and the Airmen, and I appreciate that. I’m looking forward to establishing new relationships and continuing those already established.”
Coburn has already had some interaction with local civic leaders, attends quarterly honorary commanders’ events, and the annual base picnic to name a few, so the transition should be relatively easy for her in respect to community engagement, said Jamil Dada, 452 AMW honorary commander and Air Mobility Command civic leader.
“After 101 years, it’s about time to have a female commander at March. The community is very exited about that,” said Dada, who has worked with the last 15 March base commanders. “The fact that this base has had a 101-year relationship with this community, proves that the strong partnership will continue into the future. All three cities surrounding the base work with the county of Riverside to stay engaged with Sacramento and Washington (D.C.) to protect the base, and will continue to work strongly with her,” Dada said. “She has big shoes to fill, but she is capable. Her leadership skills are strong.”
Mission partners, the tenant units on base, are part of the Team March internal communities that Coburn will work with as the base commander.
“We have great relationships established with them. We are here to support them with whatever they need,” she said. “I think we do a fairly good job of that.”
"As a tenant on March ARB, we couldn't ask for a better Host than BG Burger has been, and Col Coburn will be. We look forward to continuing and advancing our relationship to make Team March even more powerful," said Col. Sean Navin, commander of the 163D Attack Wing, the largest mission partner at March ARB.
In considering challenges she may face as commander, Coburn said the wing and its mission, and everything that the wing supports, are the top two.
“That keeps us really, really, really busy with everything going on all the time. So, finding the right balance between mission focus, people focus, and that healthy life balance for everybody here is definitely the number one challenge.”
Second, being the host wing instead of an associate wing, there are some unique challenges here with which associate wings don’t have to deal, she said, such as getting the Air Force Reserve Command to recognize what is done here as a Reserve base.
“We need command support, and money for an aging infrastructure because we are an historic base,” Coburn said.
“General Burger has done a good job in including me in current, commander issues moving forward so I’m not in the dark about anything,” she said. “That will serve me well to at least get off on the right foot.”
NOTE: Coburn’s biography can be found at https://www.march.afrc.af.mil/About-Us/Biographies/Display/Article/1749364/colonel-melissa-a-coburn/