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Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez: Shaping mission success

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  • By Lt. Col. Joseph Edington, 6th Mission Support Group deputy commander

Without many arguments around the proverbial water cooler, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez is affectionately known as the “Godfather” of the Air Force’s aircraft and munitions maintenance communities.

Not only did Marquez revolutionize aircraft maintenance by institutionalizing reliability and maintainability concepts, but he was also instrumental to munitions maintenance by directing the development of rapid munitions assembly concepts and creation of the Air Force Combat Ammunition Center’s Combat Ammunition Planning and Production course to train and test these capabilities.

Because of his many accomplishments spanning more than 33 years of military service and his important contributions to both the aircraft and munitions communities, units across the Air Force nominate Airmen annually for the Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez Award of Maintenance Excellence to not only honor Marquez but to recognize maintainers for their superior service and performance. 

In 2010, I had the privilege to have lunch with Marquez. As a munitions officer who has benefited from attending AFCOMAC’s CAPP course twice as a staff sergeant and as a captain, he begrudgingly told me about his time during the Vietnam War where he had his first real exposure to the munitions maintenance community.

Even though there are many lessons from his life, leadership, mentorship and guidance that I have drawn upon since meeting him, the following story in particular still resonates with me today.

While stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, then Major Marquez, an aircraft maintenance officer, was working maintenance control, now lovingly called the maintenance operations center, when he was informed by the base’s munitions officer that there was a problem with the next scheduled resupply of munitions components.

Specifically, the inbound shipment could not be picked up from the port on the Mekong River because the base’s entire fleet of M35 2 1/2 ton trucks aka “Deuce and a halves” were all non-mission capable. 

Bottom line, without operational trucks, no munitions could be picked-up and transported to the munitions storage area, and without delivery, no munitions could be assembled to meet the fragmentary order in support of the wing’s flying schedule.

Armed with critical information that the base’s combat aircraft sorties were in jeopardy of being scrubbed, Marquez marched over to the base motor pool to see what he could ascertain.

Upon arrival at the motor pool, Marquez immediately discovered that his respective major counterpart was nowhere to be found, and had not been seen by the front-line lieutenant and master sergeant for several days.

Being the bold leader he was, Marquez immediately assessed the situation, rallied the on-duty vehicle maintainers, and most importantly, helped develop solutions to resolve the deuce and a half inventory’s non-mission capable status. 

Once the entire fleet was triaged, he and the motor pool experts started fixing what they could fix through limited parts availability and cannibalization of their hard broke trucks.

Additionally, realizing this was not just a motor pool problem, he called back to the maintenance chief for help. Once the situation was explained, every available aircraft mechanic and electrician reported to the motor pool with tool kits in hand.

The next day, enough operational deuce and a half trucks arrived at the munitions storage area ready to be driven to the port for pick-up of their wing’s much-needed munitions. 

After his story, I was completely spellbound from hearing how Marquez cut through organizational red tape with grace and ease.

More importantly, how Marquez’s actions transcended egos and hurt feelings while subsequently crushing the wing’s mission by successfully operating outside hard party lines of specific Air Force specialty code’s traditional tasks and responsibilities.

As I informed Marquez how awe and inspired I was by his story, he did something that completely caught me off guard—he laughed at my exuberance and said there was a little more to this story.

The rest of the story was what you would have expected. Marquez briefed his boss, the wing’s deputy commander of maintenance of the situation. Fully realizing the impact, the DCM, with Marquez in tow, went directly to brief the wing commander.

While briefing the wing commander, the support group commander stormed into the wing commander’s office looking for an explanation why Marquez thought he was in charge of vehicle maintenance and how he needed to stay in his lane.

After some uncomfortable silence and glaring stares, the wing commander chimed in by providing some guidance and direction. The first is for the support group commander to find his vehicle maintenance major!

With that in mind, context is important. For example, in the late sixties, there were no emails, Internet, or smartphones. When you were faced with emergent requirements or necessities, you had to make decisions on the spot with very limited information and then most importantly, act.

In Marquez’s defense, he did not have time to wait for lateral communication to facilitate organizational coordination, let alone initiate or participate in the search for the missing major who had oversight of vehicle maintenance. Nor was he in vehicle maintenance to solve their supply problems, however, he did provide solutions or drive their maintenance priorities. Bottom line, he was in vehicle maintenance to preserve combat sorties—which he did. 

His lesson to me as a munitions officer was that the wing’s mission shapes and drives the organization, not the other way around.

I can’t tell you how many times in my career I have hit roadblocks from squadrons whose priorities are incongruent with the wing’s mission or strategic framework. More specifically, frustrated from friction caused by a squadron who has forgotten that the wing’s mission they are subordinate to is bigger than their specific AFSC or squadron namesake.

I am ashamed to say that I have been guilty of this on more than one occasion from a munitions maintenance customer support perspective.    

In Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s directive to Airmen “Accelerate change or lose,” he explains that only through collaboration within and throughout will we win. If we as an Air Force are going to win the high-end fight, we must continually and candidly assess ourselves and address our internal impediments.

Like Marquez’s aforementioned story from Vietnam, we cannot shy away from our duties as Airmen we not only need for ourselves, or our squadron, but for our wing in preparation for the next challenge.

Additionally, to effectively collaborate on mission success, we must build enduring relationships throughout our wing at all levels that cut through bureaucratic and sometimes self-imposed “red tape” which transcends internal conflicts and most importantly, we must cultivate an environment that operates and thrives outside of our specific AFSC mindset by focusing on grand strategy.

Brown closes accelerate change, or lose with, “If we are bold enough, we can shape our future proactively vice reactively after experiencing catastrophic loss and potential defeat.”

If we as an Air Force do not continue to accelerate change, we as a nation risk losing a lot more than just combat sorties.

In regards to munitions maintenance, it was during port operations on the Mekong River where the first seeds of rapid munitions assembly development and AFCOMAC’s creation were planted as Marquez was amazed at all of the different components needed for munitions build-up to meet their FRAG requirements.

This simple observation during the Vietnam War would later bloom and prove critical as rapid munitions assembly development and AFCOMAC’s CAPP graduates were successfully battle-tested during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Lt. Gen. Leo Marquez was born on January 27, 1932. In honor of this date, his leadership, guidance, mentorship and boldness are remembered.

Around the aforementioned proverbial water cooler, some would argue that January 27 is also the birthday for both aircraft and munitions maintenance communities as we know it.

Regardless if you are a maintainer working in the missile fields, munition storage areas, weapons storage areas, maintenance back shops, or on the flight lines across our Air Force, happy birthday! And like our Godfather, we do not wait for mission success, we shape it!