McConnell Air Force Base can seem like a mysterious place, operating as it does in a tightly secured area in southeast Wichita.
But to Col. Phil Heseltine, there’s nothing mysterious about it – it’s just another town like Wichita or Derby, he said. And the Air Force’s honorary commander program is aimed at helping the surrounding community understand that.
Heseltine, vice commander of McConnell’s 22nd Air Refueling Wing, said the program gives local leaders a chance to learn more about and grow closer to the McConnell community.
“It’s a great way for us to partner, and it’s mutually beneficial because we will know leaders in our community as well,” Heseltine said.
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“It’s a relationship, not a business partnership.”
Leaders in Wichita, Maize, Derby and other surrounding areas who have an interest in the program are nominated, Heseltine said, and if selected, they are paired with a commander on base.
Currently, there are 26 honorary commanders, said Leigh Bellinger, who works in public affairs for the base.
Honorary commanders get the chance to see the day-to-day activities of the base, Heseltine said. They receive a tour of the base, attend events and ceremonies and sometimes go on missions.
“How do we get to know each other as community partners? How can we expand on those relationships? Bringing those community leaders into our meetings and taking part in our day is a way,” Heseltine said.
The honorary commanders in turn give tours of their businesses, Heseltine said.
Past honorary commanders include business owners, bankers, law enforcement officers and doctors, he said.
The program recently had its first honorary commander from Koch Industries: Stan Koster, vice president for Koch Agronomic Services.
Koster said he became involved in the program in November after being recommended by Heseltine, who was a church friend.
Koster teamed up with Lt. Cliff Theony, who is responsible for the 22nd Civil Engineer Squadron. The squadron does maintenance on new buildings, real estate management and is responsible for emergency personnel, Koster said.
Six weeks into the two-year program, Koster said he has toured the base and attended a squad Christmas party, where he met some of Theony’s personnel.
“You really get to understand just how impressive some of these people are,” Koster said. “Their dedication, what they do and why they do it, the respect they give to each individual – they’re out there putting their lives on the line to respect our freedom and rights.
“The more you get exposed to that, the more you appreciate the sacrifices they make for us.”
Koster said he recommends that anyone who is nominated for the program participate.
“Take the opportunity,” he said. “And that’s me saying that after six weeks.
“I’m really excited for the next two years.”