An Airman’s strength flows from the mind

  • Published
  • By 514AMW
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing
Sometimes it can takes years to attend certain Air Force developmental education courses, but that was not the case for Major David Rodriguez, the former Chief of Wing Tactics, 514th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

The Air Force Reserve Developmental Education Designation Board (RDEDB) selected the Freedom Wing’s reservist two years in a row to attend two separate highly competitive courses: the Advanced Study of Air Mobility (ASAM) and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS).

ASAM is an in-residence Intermediate Developmental Education, or IDE, graduate program developed by the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and hosted by the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. The ASAM cohort consists of sixteen U.S. Air Force officers with only one slot for the Air National Guard and one slot for the Air Force Reserve. The 11-month program guides those students through a rigorous academic curriculum preparing them as mobility and logistics advisors to commanders across all echelons. In addition to professional classes ranging from business statistics to joint logistics management, ASAM students receive the opportunity to travel to various combatant commands and visit industry partners like FedEx and Amazon witnessing real-world logistical challenges. The final process of earning a master’s degree at ASAM is completing a graduate research proposal with guidance from an AFIT professor and sponsorship from an Air Force leader with expertise on the topic. Major Rodriguez successfully completed the program in June 2021.

The second program called SAASS is the Department of Defense’s premier school for developing strategists. It is an 11-month advanced study group consisting of forty-five elite officers. In Maj Rodriguez’s cohort, thirty-seven consisted of active duty Air Force and Space Force, one Army, two Marines, three allied partners from the Royal Australian Air Force, Germany’s Luftwaffe, and Great Britain’s Royal Army, and one Air National Guardsman. Maj Rodriguez, like in ASAM, was the sole reserve ambassador who provided needed insight to Reserve and Total Force matters.

“The School of Advanced Air and Space Studies was by far the most challenging experience I have ever faced,” said Rodriguez. "Amid world-class competition and a demanding all-Ph.D. faculty, I was exposed to classic, contemporary, and a future-based curriculum consisting of over 35,000 pages of assignment reading, 9 papers, tests, presentations, a debate, a thesis, and an oral comprehensive exam. To motivate myself throughout that rigorous journey, I found myself glancing at a Thucydides quote hanging in the stairwell of the school. It said, ‘The strongest are those brought up in the hardest schools.’”

Aiming high from the start

Beginning his military career in 1997, as an enlisted avionics craftsman in the N.J. Air National Guard, Maj Rodriguez climbed his way to the rank of technical sergeant before commissioning in 2005.

In 2010, the 732d Airlift Squadron, 514th AMW, hired Rodriguez as a C-17 Globemaster III pilot.

“I had many great experiences at the 732d, but my most memorable was my 2016 deployment to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, as a C-17 (Globemaster III) aircraft commander,” said Rodriguez. “My crew and I were hand-picked to fly a critical mission that involved delivering special operators to help repel an attempted seizure of a strategic airfield. The best part of that experience was the entire crew consisted of RAMs! The team that made it happen in 24 hours after experiencing an in-flight emergency and swapping jets was co-pilot 1st Lt Cameron Hatton Jr., loadmaster MSgt (Ret) Sean McClendon, and loadmaster TSgt Wayne Groeblinghoff.”

He and his crew went on to earn the 2016 Fourth Air Force Raincross - Aircrew of Excellence Award.

During his active flying, Rodriguez held various positions throughout his career such as the chief of tactics, chief of safety, and executive officer at various levels including squadron, group and wing assignments.

Challenge accepted

“I was at a point in my career where I needed to switch gears; I wanted more of a challenge,” said Rodriguez. “Three Freedom Wing leaders inspired me to pursue ASAM- Col Robert “Preach” McAllister, Col Dennis Duffy, and Lt Col Kiel Gilliland. At the same time, two squadron commanders were extremely instrumental in my journey- Lt Col Michael Prodeline and Lt Col Justin Reynolds. I thank them all for their mentorship and support!”

Rodriguez joins a roster of 514th AMW ASAM alumni, including Col Erik G. Brine, 514th AMW Vice Commander, Col (Ret) Dennis Duffy, former 514th AMW Vice Commander, Col Robert “Preach” McAllister, former 78th ARS Commander and now 87th ABW Vice Commander, Lt Col Kiel “KEEL” Gilliland, Lt Col Sharon Gilliland, and Lt Col Chris “BRINCS” Uhland. The Freedom Wing’s most recent ASAM graduate is Maj Shane Malkin-Class of 2022. “It’s impressive for any wing to send a candidate. However, the 514th has produced many highly qualified candidates to represent the Air Force Reserve at ASAM,” said Rodriguez. “That historic representation is reflective of the quality Airmen the Freedom Wing develops and we should continue to identify more talent. ASAM typically recruits logisticians, pilots, navigators, cyber, and maintenance officers.”

In August of 2020, while Maj Rodriguez was a student at ASAM, SAASS was searching for qualified candidates to apply.

“The challenge of attending the most prominent school in the Department of Defense motivated me to throw my name in the hat, and fortunately I was selected, said Rodriguez. More candidly, I was humbled.” Major Rodriguez was the only member of his cohort to be selected and the first ASAM reservist to be accepted to SAASS.

“SAASS is an elite military school that develops military strategists to think critically, solve multifaceted problems at the national level, and employ airpower as a component of the instruments of national power,” said Rodriguez. “Strategic thinkers study national policy, assess the capabilities of our adversaries, and identify our strengths and weaknesses too. One of our tasks is to advise senior leaders to help them achieve military objectives that support national aims. The SAASS faculty has done an outstanding job preparing Class XXXI for the next phase of their careers. Every faculty member possesses a doctorate degree and is an expert in their respective field.”

An objective of the program is to, enhance the student's ability to think critically about airpower and warfare through an extensive examination of both theory and historical experience, according to the SAASS website. The course also cultivates the student's ability to argue effectively and responsibly about airpower.

“SAASS is known as the ‘book-a-day club,’” said Rodriguez. “At times, I had to read more than one book a day. The course was extremely demanding, but rewarding at the same time. At the end, I had earned a Master of Philosophy in Military Strategy and now wear the SAASS patch which weighs heavy on my shoulder."

Not just an education

On top of earning a Master of Science in Logistics Air Mobility from ASAM and a Master of Philosophy in Military Strategy from SAASS, Rodriguez said Class XXXI had the privilege of participating in a staff ride to Athens and Crete, Greece. They also toured Space X, Virgin Galactic, Vandenberg Space Force Base, Los Angeles Space Force Base, Indo-Pacific Command, and Pacific Air Forces.

“The staff ride to Greece gave us unique opportunities to learning lessons of the past to modern-day application,” said Rodriguez. “We visited and delivered ‘stands’ or lectures at the Acropolis, Pnyx Hill, Thermopylae, the Hellenic Air Force Museum, the Gorgopotamos Bridge, and then sailed to Crete to study Operation Mercury. This trip alone was an amazing immersion into historical operational campaigns.”

Where next

Rodriguez has been assigned to work in the Reserve Air Staff at the Pentagon, specifically in Plans, Programs, and Requirements (HQ USAF/REX). He will also be embedded with the Air Force Futures’ Skunks team as an airpower strategist and planner. As such, he will be a conduit to help advise the Chief of Air Force Reserve and the Air Force Futures Integration Cell on Air Force Reserve future initiatives.

Message to Airmen

“The RDEDB typically opens in August and closes in September,” said Rodriguez. “It aims to select Majors or Lieutenant Colonels interested in an in-residence professional military education (PME). I highly encourage those who are interested to do their research and apply. The commitment is not designed for all.”

The RDEDB convenes once a year to identify the best qualified officers for in-residence schools for a PME experience. If selected, extended developmental education opportunities, such as SAASS, are available to graduates of these in-residence programs.

“For all Airmen, there are many paths to leadership,” said Rodriguez. “Choose what you believe in, and don't be afraid of change. Most importantly, seek mentorship. I did not accomplish this journey on my own.”