By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Chief of Public Affairs
/ Published January 07, 2013
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Air National Guard will mark the end of an era Jan. 12 when Michael Dornbush formally retires from duty, concluding a four-decade career that saw him rise from the rank of airman basic to brigadier general.
During those 40 years, the 123rd Airlift Wing has grown along with Dornbush, metamorphosing from a strategic reserve force to an operational unit whose personnel have served with distinction in thousands of deployments to dozens of countries around the world.
That level of achievement -- in operations as diverse as earthquake relief, homeland defense and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is no accident, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Kraus, Kentucky's assistant adjutant general for Air. It comes as a direct result of the wing's institutionalized passion for excellence, and from men like Brig. Gen. Michael Dornbush who made it their mission to pay the legacy forward.
"Mike has had a tremendous impact on this organization by helping develop and sustain a standard of excellence as part of our culture," said Kraus, who has worked alongside Dornbush since the mid-1970s.
"He's the consummate professional officer -- a mentor and leader for countless folks in whom he's made a tremendous difference in terms of their careers and personal lives. We're really going to feel the loss when Mike Dornbush retires. He's just a remarkable man and a remarkable officer."
Dornbush came to the Kentucky Air National Guard as an enlisted communications specialist in 1976 after serving more than three years in the active-duty Air Force and Air Force Reserve. For the next 22 months, he reported to duty as a traditional Guardsman, working primarily in a classified communications vault to process message traffic using teletypes, punch-card readers and cryptographic machines.
"No one knew who I was because I never left the comm vault," Dornbush joked.
But he must have made an impression on someone. In January 1978, the wing commander, then-Brig. Gen. Carl Black, hired the young Airman as a full-time communications manager, a position Dornbush held until being commissioned as a communications officer in October 1984.
Dornbush remained in communications until August 1994, ultimately serving as commander of the 123rd Communications Squadron before being named full-time director of the base personnel office and, eventually, commander of the 123rd Mission Support Flight.
In November 2000, he accepted the post of executive staff support officer at state headquarters, a job Dornbush held until being named vice commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing in May 2004.
He moved back to Frankfort in December 2006 for promotion to brigadier general as chief of staff for the Kentucky Air National Guard. Four years later, he was named to his current position, director of the Joint Staff at Joint Forces Headquarters -- Kentucky.
Kraus noted what a rare achievement it is for an Airman to rise from E-1 to O-7, but Dornbush said he draws more satisfaction from having had the opportunity to command in a war zone in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He deployed to Jacobabad, Pakistan, in 2003 and 2004, serving as commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Group, a robust flying unit with multiple aircraft operations including Marine Corps KC-130s, Navy P-3s and Air Force Predators.
"That was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career," he said.
Dornbush has seen a lot of changes during his 40 years, but none have been more significant, he said, than the Guard's transition into a front-line fighting force.
"Back in the mid-1970s, the Guard was really a training organization," he recalled. "We basically existed to ensure that a large number of Reserve-component members were trained to the 80-percent level and could be quickly brought up to 100 percent if the Russians ever came through the Fulda Gap. Everything we did was associated with meeting the mission of a Cold War environment."
While unit members had more time for bowling leagues and softball tournaments, the base wasn't exactly laid back.
"You couldn't be in this unit without recognizing pretty quickly that the wing was a very serious, professional organization with extremely high standards. We trained all the time, and operations were very methodical.
"But today, we're living in the era of the Operational Guard. We're part of the Total Force mix every day, doing the real-world mission that keeps the five services engaged around the globe. They simply cannot accomplish their mission today without the contributions of the Guard and the Reserve Component."
Despite the changes of the past four decades, one thing has remained constant at the Kentucky Air Guard, Dornbush said: a commitment to excellence.
"I'd put our capabilities up against anybody in the Air Force today," he said. "We exude professionalism. I'm just thankful to have had the opportunity to work with so many outstanding Airmen who executed their missions so well. They provided me with leadership opportunities that allowed me to grow with the organization.
"For me to be the first non-rated support officer who served as vice wing commander was certainly a privilege. For me to be the first director of the joint staff was certainly a privilege.
"But I'm no one special. I owe those things, to a great extent, to the people who worked for me, because no one does these things by themselves."
As Dornbush looks to the future, and life after the Kentucky Air Guard, he knows two things for sure.
First, his wife, Linda, will get the lion's share of his attention for quite some time.
And second, the wing is in good hands.
"The leadership team is excellent, and I know they will take the unit to the next level," he said. "I don't think we've ever had more talent in the wing than we do today.
"I'm very proud to be a former member of the Kentucky Air National Guard."