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16th CAB commander focused on future

Photo by Ingrid Barrentine Col. Robert Dickerson is the commander of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

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When Col. Robert Dickerson took command of 16th Combat Aviation Brigade earlier this month, he was joined by several longtime friends who said they never expected Dickerson would be in the position he is today.

"They didn't think maybe with my sports background or how I was at school that I'd still be in," Dickerson said.

During high school, the Wilmington, Del., native attended a military college preparatory academy to improve his chances with schools that might offer him football scholarships. A skilled athlete, Dickerson ultimately turned down opportunities to play college football because he was so impressed by the military environment of the prep school.

"I liked the structure, the discipline and the organization that this military academy provided me," he said.

In the end, he chose to accept an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Dickerson's exposure to aircraft at West Point steered him eventually to the aviation branch. As a cadet, he took part in a training exercise in 1986 at Yakima Training Center, when he realized that for him, being in a cockpit was far more exciting than having his feet planted on the ground.

"It looked a lot more fun being in a helicopter flying around versus the things we were doing as an infantry platoon leader on the ground," he said.

In 1987, Dickerson was commissioned as an aviation officer upon graduation. Bringing nearly 25 years of military service with him to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Dickerson is far from calling it quits. It's Soldiers, he said, who inspire him to continue serving.

"What I see the American Soldier do on a daily basis - it's incredible."

He cited Soldiers' unwavering commitment and positive attitudes despite the tough operating conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, examples that have inspired him and helped Dickerson through some of the toughest times in his career. During his last command, Dickerson frequently visited troops in motor pools and dining facilities to help alleviate his own stress.

"They're sweaty, they're grimy and they're dirty, but they got a great attitude and just talking to those Soldiers would always pick me up," he said.

Regardless of conditions, Dickerson believes that all troops are professionals who should be viewed and treated that way. He called his leadership philosophy "standards-based," explaining Soldiers should understand what their leaders' standards are, and in turn, leaders need to enforce those standards. He views the Army as one big team with many players, comparing it to sports teams in some respects. He often repeats a central philosophy to fellow leaders: "Teamwork is the key to making any organization successful."

The unique mission of the 16th CAB will require a lot of teamwork, not only with I Corps and the JBLM community, but also with surrounding communities. Dickerson is an enthusiastic supporter of the community connector program, which has linked 16th CAB with University Place. He experienced the benefits of a similar partnership during his last command at Fort Campbell, Ky., and believes such a relationship is key to the military's success.

"Not a lot of people know what we do on a daily basis, and we need to bring that back," Dickerson said. "We need to close that gap, and I'm looking forward to doing that by having a great relationship with University Place."

As commander of the newest brigade to JBLM, Dickerson sees a long and busy road ahead. While part of 16th CAB remains in Alaska, with some of its subordinate units currently deployed, Dickerson's No. 1 local priority is to consolidate and build in preparation for the return and relocation of troops, aircraft and equipment.

By summer 2012, JBLM will have an additional 44 helicopters along with another 1,100 troops. He plans to ease the impact of rapid growth on his Soldiers by maximizing his current space until new buildings are completed. Construction of new facilities begins in 2014.

While attending to his Soldiers' living circumstances, he will also focus on their individual and collective training, which will commence next summer. The training will give 16th CAB a chance to focus on aviation-specific skills at YTC, where conditions in Afghanistan can be replicated. He also plans to send troops to Fort Bliss, Texas, where altitudes and temperatures are closer to conditions in Southwest Asia.

Its proximity to training areas is only one reason Dickerson is excited about stationing the 16th CAB at JBLM. He looks forward to training alongside other units - especially infantry and artillery - to assist in their preparations for deployments. "Afghanistan is an air-centric, helicopter-centric war," he said. "It provides what we call freedom of maneuver within Afghanistan, so it's a very high demand asset in country."

Dickerson hopes to dispel any concerns about a new aviation brigade bringing more noise to local airspace. His crews are continually briefed to "fly friendly" by avoiding noise-sensitive areas and flying at high altitudes when possible.

"We will do everything within our ability when it comes to respecting the members of the community in being as quiet as possible and being as environmentally friendly as possible," he said.

He is also optimistic about the impact 16th CAB will have on the economy by helping to bring jobs for construction, maintenance and fuel handling and usage. With an eventual deployment to Afghanistan projected, Dickerson said he plans to do everything he can to prepare the brigade for what lies ahead, even if he doesn't personally lead it overseas.

"What I want to hand off in August 2013 is a team-focused, standards-based, professional, full-spectrum aviation brigade that's ready for its deployment to Afghanistan and hand those controls over to my successor," he said.

Dickerson and his wife, Shelley Lynn, reside on JBLM Lewis-Main with their German shepherd, Panzer. They have two sons: Zachary, 21, and Bryce, 19.

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