WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The command chief master sergeant of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is retiring following an almost 30-year career.
Before coming to Wright-Patt in May 2018, Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Arbona was the superintendent of the 11th Security Forces Group, 11th Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
Arbona offered some parting impressions before he retires:
How would you sum up your time here with the 88 ABW?
Arbona: It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been fast, it’s been full of loop-de-loops, twists and turns, hanging upside down, but it’s been fun and a blast. I definitely would get in line to ride this rollercoaster again. The people I was able to share this experience with have been phenomenal. That includes my teammate, Tech. Sgt. Lacey Thurman, who took care of things in the office to allow me to go out and do the things I wanted and needed to do, and my group and squadron superintendents, first sergeants and mission partners.
What do you feel you accomplished here at Wright-Patt?
Arbona: I didn’t accomplish anything without the support from my leadership and teammates, but we were able to accomplish enhancing professional development of all of Team Wright-Patt’s Airmen, not just those in the 88th Air Base Wing.
We built a squadron superintendent’s course, the first within the command, to ensure our folks who were being thrust into that role had all the resources – including manpower and accounting – necessary to make sure they were successful.
We also enhanced the learning experience of our First Term Airman Center as well as our Airmen Leadership School. We incorporated the National Museum of the United States Air Force into both curricula so Airmen who arrive here are introduced to our Air Force lineage and history. It starts with Huffman Prairie where the Wright brothers honed their skills in flying their aircraft. Then they are shown at the museum various displays.
We also improved relationships with our mission partners inside and outside the fence. We built upon the foundation our predecessors set and took it to a new level. With new agencies and people in the local community, we established those relationships and lines of communication. That’s critical to serving all of our Airmen.
What were your challenges?
Arbona: Obviously we’ve had several challenges. When you’re working with different entities within the 88 ABW as well as 115 mission partners inside the fence, plus 46 outside, trying to accomplish the mission while communicating effectively can be challenging. We saw that during the active shooter exercise in 2018. We discovered some gaps. Now we have better relationships, have had additional joint training and learned tactics, techniques and procedures.
Last year’s tornado, the pandemic and social justice issues have also been challenging. It takes leadership to work through these issues, and it takes communicating early and often. It takes genuinely caring for your people. When you think you have nothing left to give, something crops up that makes you want to give more. But it’s all part of that rollercoaster, right? That’s the ride, and you take the good with the not-so-good.
What were your best memorable moments here?
Arbona: Last year, the 88 ABW’s 75th anniversary was a great time to reflect on our history. It was an opportunity to celebrate with today’s 88 ABW, but also previous commanders and command chiefs and mission partners. It was truly wonderful to have so many people come together to celebrate the Mighty 88th.
One of my favorite memories was my very first day on the job here. It was the unveiling of the Memphis Belle. To be in the National Museum of the United States Air Force and meet relatives of the Wright brothers and civil leaders while experiencing that history unveiled in front of me was awesome. I turned to the commander and said, “OK, Sir. Today was Day One. How are you going to top this tomorrow?”
Another great moment was when the Cleveland Cavaliers came to Wright-Patt in 2018. What was awesome for me to see was bringing the players into the Wright-Patt Club to have lunch, seeing the looks of awe on our Airmen’s faces and watching them take selfies and get autographs with the pros. But as lunch progressed, there was a change. As the players asked our Airmen what they do for our Air Force and our country, those looks transfered to the players’ faces. To watch our Airmen tell our story to these professional athletes and wow them, it was a very proud moment for me.
What has inspired you as you’ve come to work every day?
Arbona: I was always told, “If you love what you do, you’re never going to look at it as work.” Right? I love what I do. The men and women of this organization inspire me. I know how hard they work. Our Airmen give it their best every day. I would do them a disservice if I didn’t do the same. At the end of the day, I often get home, sit on the couch and reflect, knowing it was worth it.
What personal philosophies did you use in your job at the 88th?
Arbona: It’s simple: Treat people the way you want to be treated. If an Airmen comes into my office, I stand and give him or her the respect they deserve. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to serve as a senior leader of this organization and I believe we must treat people with dignity and respect. I want people to have a chance to talk to me and I have an open-door policy. I’m so grateful many Airmen have taken me up on that. Everyone has a story to tell.
What are you taking from here that is going to assist you next in life?
Arbona: I thought I was strong and resilient, but this job really built upon that. This job tested and pushed me. I’m glad I was able to rise to the challenge and complete my tour with many positive results. These past five months have really tested me. My wife, Chief Master Sgt. Rebecca Arbona, 88th Force Support Squadron superintendent, has been deployed since February, so I’ve been single-dadding it to a 7-year-old daughter.
School closed, daycare closed, so I’ve been working from home some, developing her curriculum and making sure she’s doing what she needs to do. I perform all the domestic chores. I’m the chef, chauffer and, by the way, I have a job as the wing/installation command chief. I had to stop working on my master’s degree. I’m on a break on that right now. Taking care of our daughter and taking care of the men and women of this installation are more important. I’ve gotten pretty good at braiding hair the last several months!
What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want the wing to do after you leave?
Arbona: I’d like people to remember that I came in, saw that our professional development and participation weren’t as robust as they could be and helped change that. I worked hard to remind our leaders how important professional development is and how our Air Force cherishes it. Our Airmen need education and training to grow and develop into leaders. The return on investment pays off. We haven’t solved everything but it’s on the upswing.
What about your job here or the base itself are you going to miss the most?
Arbona: The same thing that drives me is what I’ll miss most – the people. Going to FTAC and seeing brand-new Airmen fresh out of tech school, welcoming them into our Air Force and encouraging them to do well. I’ll miss sitting with those at the Airmen Leadership School and discussing leadership philosophies. I’ll miss professional enhancement seminars and working with our Airmen on a daily basis.
What does the future hold for you and your family?
Arbona: I’ll retire with 29 years and one month; that’s the best decision for our family. My wife is competing for command chief jobs, so my intent is to take care of our daughter as she enters second grade, continue with my education and be there for my wife as we see what the Air Force has lined up for her next. I plan to return to work eventually but I’m not in a big hurry right now. I want to help and support my wife. We’ll be married 25 years in September and have been together for 28.
We understand you are acquainted with Chief Master Sgt. Jason Shaffer, the 88th’s incoming command chief. How do you know him and what can you tell us about him?
Arbona: In ’05 or ’06 while stationed at Sembach AB, Germany, a friend called me asked to look out for this guy. We’ve been pretty tight ever since. I’ve been one of his mentors for a while now. I’ve heard you should always be training your replacement and for 14 years I’ve been doing just that. He’s been able to learn from my mistakes so he doesn’t repeat them; he’ll come into the seat more advanced than I was. He’s going to come in to learn, grow and excel and he’s going to do great things. He’s passionate, he cares for people and he has a wonderful wife and three kids.
I’ve told him it’s fast-paced here. He’s coming from MacDill AFB, Florida, which has a higher-HQ there, so he understands that dynamic, plus he has been at the Pentagon and knows how to operate in different environments with several chains of command in the backyard. I will say the support from my fellow command chiefs has allowed me to do my job without micromanaging or telling me what I should be doing. They have been a safety net. I’ve shared that he will have them as a resource while he performs his mission. I know he is excited.
Any other parting words?
Arbona: To the men and the women of the Mighty 88th, thank you. I actually love rollercoasters (I don’t care for the teacup ride) and have been on some of the fastest in the world. I was even fortunate enough to get a ride in an F-15. The 88th’s ride is the best, by far, because I shared it with so many people. Thank you for sharing this experience with me and for what you do, not only for the 88th and Team Wright-Patt, but the Air Force. Never underestimate your impact on this wing, Wright-Patt, the community, the Air Force and the DoD’s missions. What we do is nothing short of phenomenal. Have that pride.
Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Arbona is retiring following an almost 30-year Air Force career. (Skywrighter photo/Amy Rollins)