Houston & Peach

He started as a cook at Robins, and now commands a wing

New J-STARS commander gives clear message to airmen

After taking command of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Col. Tom Grabowski delivered a strong message to his airmen.
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After taking command of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Col. Tom Grabowski delivered a strong message to his airmen.

A man who once worked as a cook at Robins Air Force Base on Monday took over one of its most important jobs.

Col. Tom Grabowski assumed command of the 116th Air Control Wing, a Georgia Air National Guard unit that jointly operates the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System with the 461st Air Control Wing. He is replacing Col. Mark Weber, who has led the wing for the past two years.

Grabowski joined the Georgia Air National Guard in 1985 as an enlisted communications officer. In 1986 he worked as a cook in the non-commissioned officers club on base. He is now the commander of 1,143 airmen.

“It’s a real Cinderella story for me to be starting today, now as wing commander,” he said in an interview prior to the ceremony in the Century of Flight Hangar at the Museum of Aviation.

After the change of command, Grabowski spoke for a few minutes before stepping away from the podium and giving an order that was a change in protocol. In the center of the hundreds of seated community members, 60 116th airmen stood at attention. Grabowski told the leader of the group to put them at ease.

He said he had stood in the same formation for many change of command ceremonies, and he well knew that after standing at attention for that long, no one wanted to listen to the new commander.

“So shake it off, get the blood flowing, and listen to what I have to say,” he said. “What I absolutely need you to be focused on is being ready, ready for the fight tonight. There is no other Joint STARS on planet Earth for the combatant commanders to get their Joint STARS fix, except right here at Robins Air Force Base.”

Then he added one more directive. He asked the airmen to go out into the community and talk to people about joining the unit. He gave the airmen the name of a master sergeant to email names of potential recruits, and told them to copy him on the mail.

If they wanted to impress their new commander, he said, that’s how they could do it.

“Part of being ready is being 100 percent effectively manned, and right now the unit is not 100 percent effectively manned,” he said. “My hope is that the recruiting office calls me next Monday and says there’s a line out the door.”

J-STARS operates 16 E8-C planes that provide overhead battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, along with command and control. The unit is heavily deployed and the Air Force has made replacing its aging planes a priority. Grabowski said in an interview that the replacement program is on schedule with new planes expected in 2024.

Grabowski has over 2,600 flying hours, including 1,700 flying hours over Iraq and Afghanistan. Before taking command of the wing, he served as vice commander.

In his parting comments Weber gave his assessment of the state of the unit. Although keeping the aging planes flying is a continuing challenge, he said, the unit has performed every mission it has been given.

“Simply put, the state of the unit is strong,” he said. “The 116th is always, always at the front door of conflict. Our airmen demonstrate the physical and moral courage to rise up and go anywhere at a moment’s notice to fight our nations wars and keep us safe here at home.”

Wayne Crenshaw: 478-256-9725, @WayneCrenshaw1