OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Clad in his camouflage uniform with three stars on each collar, Lee Levy II walks the shop floor in the sprawling Building 3001 on Tinker Air Force Base. The lieutenant general is in his element as he exchanges hellos or salutes with virtually everyone he passes.
Most of them are addressed as “airman,” even if they’re wearing Levis and T-shirts and have never served a day in the military.
“Whether you’re a career civil servant, even our commercial partners, if you’re a contractor working the building, I call you airman and I expect you to behave like an airman,” Levy said. “I expect you to embrace the Air Force core values. That’s important because that’s how we all collectively operate as one from the same value set so we can deliver for the warfighter.”
The tour takes place during one of Levy’s last days in command at Tinker. He recently handed the reins to Maj. Gen. Donald Kirkland. His office has been cleared out, but for a handful of items, including a pair of Mickey Mouse ears that sit behind his desk.
For three years, Levy, 55, has had the top job at the Air Force Sustainment Center, overseeing more than 43,000 military and civilian personnel at Tinker and elsewhere, the Oklahoman reported. So large is the operation, Levy said, if it were on the Fortune 500 list, the Air Force Sustainment Center would be No. 116. It is a $16 billion-a-year business.
In short, the mission is to keep America’s warplanes operational and in the skies. Filling the one cavernous building at Tinker is an assortment of KC-135 tankers in various states of disassembly. At one end, sit several engines from the brand-new F-35. In addition to Tinker, the center stretches to two other Air Force bases and has a presence in more than 70 installations around the world.
This is Levy’s second stint at Tinker. He served in other capacities from 2004 to 2007. He has an obvious passion for Oklahoma. His wife, Rhonda, is a native, and the couple plan to stay in the state when he retires from the Air Force. He’s moved 19 times in his career, and it’s clear Oklahoma has become home.
“To call Oklahomans patriotic is really an understatement,” he said. “It’s the kind of enthusiasm and support for the military and their families that you don’t find everywhere.”
Raised by his mom in a single parent household, Levy had an early interest in aviation. He credits his participation in the Civil Air Patrol for setting him on a path that in 1985 would lead him into the Air Force.
Levy said he followed a nontraditional route in reaching his career heights. The military’s top brass include many who attended one of the nation’s service academies, but Levy, who had a chance to go to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, chose a different path - Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and its ROTC program.
“I listened to some people who had gone off to regular four-year colleges and had fun,” he said. “At the time, I thought the academy sounds like a great free education but it doesn’t sound like much fun. ROTC sounds like more fun, and I’ll end up at the same place as a second lieutenant. I don’t regret it for a moment.”
That doesn’t mean Levy isn’t a fan of the service academies. He said anyone could spend 10 minutes at each and come away with a good feeling about America’s long-term future. But he believes going to a regular college helps him relate to those he commands.
“I wouldn’t say not going has helped or hurt me but I would say it’s given me a different perspective,” he said. “Particularly with young officers.”
Levy is proud of the direction the sustainment center has moved in the last few years. And he likes to talk about its mission in the community. The next 75 years at Tinker will be different than before, “as we move into this century, we move away from an iron age Air Force to an information age Air Force.”
“We have several thousand software engineers here, and we’re going to do nothing but grow that,” he said.
To help ensure the continued advancement of its capabilities, Levy has become a proponent of STEM programs in schools.
“Today, we bend metal on airplanes,” he said. “It’s a hands-on affair. The next generation will be bending ones and zeroes.”
As he continues to walk through the building at Tinker, he points out ongoing maintenance on the KC-135 Stratotanker and what exactly those working on it are doing. Taking its belly apart is just one aspect of the aircraft’s overhaul. These planes are meant to fly for decades, even longer than Levy’s career in the Air Force, which is in its final hours.
Levy has few regrets about the last three years but could probably come up with a few if you gave him time. That’s how he’s wired.
“I could fill volumes with things that didn’t get done, or didn’t get done completely,” he said. “That’s the nature of being passionate about what you do.”
His impact on the community will be missed. Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes encountered Levy frequently at city events. Clabes appreciates the way Levy interacted with those in the community.
“Even though he’s a three-star general, he treats you like a regular person,” Clabes said.
Clabes also praised Levy’s ability to get the most out of those he commanded.
“He’s a guy you’d want to be around whether he’s a general or your golf buddy,” Clabes said. “He motivates people to be the best of the best.”
Rose State College President Jeanie Webb praised Levy’s efforts in education.
“He’s one of Oklahoma’s greatest advocates for education and workforce development,” Webb said. “He’s really focused on STEM, which is something they need at the base. To me, he defines what our nation should be. He’s a great patriot, and I think he’s brought the community closer to the base.”
She called Levy and his wife a dynamic duo.
“They’re both so passionate about Oklahoma which is important,” Webb said. “I’m glad they plan on staying here because I’m anxious to see what they do next.”
A high-energy, fast-talking guy like Levy will no doubt find retirement a challenge. He has outside interests including golf, hunting and fishing. Perhaps the most surprising is his love for border collies. He raises and trains them in obedience and confirmation. He’s also an AKC judge. But what he’s looking forward to most is a lot more time with Rhonda who he sometimes refers to as a “force multiplier.”
“She’s never worn the uniform, but when she married me she effectively joined the Air Force,” Levy said. “I tell people all the time in our house there are two airmen and one paycheck. She doesn’t get a dime, but she gives 100 percent of her heart and passion to the airmen and their families.”
“I’ve been blessed to command and lead airmen,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be deployed. I’ve had some amazing experiences. Some not so amazing depending on how you look at it. But I’m still here. There are many of my friends and many people I’ve known professionally who are not here. I’ll get to walk out the door.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.