A Salute to Heritage

  • Published
  • By Josh Plueger
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
There's a place in each of Offutt's flying squadrons where Airmen convene.  A place that adorns squadron history on its perimeter walls, which helps bond that unit's heritage from its past to its present. Photographed wingmen, forever exempt from time, are always in attendance from display cases. A place where squadron lineage is not chronologically separated from the present, but alive and celebrated through the rituals of roll call. These sacred spaces, the epicenter of the squadron community and esprit de corps, are referred to as heritage rooms.

Since the inception of military aviation, communities of pilots have been forming rituals, which have shaped and strengthened the bonds of squadron members since World War I. Heritage rooms became a communal space to employ their squadron's traditions and culture. A room where every member wore the same scarf and carried the same challenge coin within their uniforms.  An intimate space where Airmen are members of something larger than themselves.  They are a family, a community. 

"The Hoover Lounge is more than just another room in our squadron - it is a place that many Ravens call home," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Alicia Mikulak, 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron. "It builds a sense of community and family, and often brings people back to it long after they have, PCS'ed, or moved to other squadrons on base.

"Very few units in today's military can say that they have a place like the Hoover Lounge where you can walk in and be welcomed solely because of our heritage and tradition," she added. "It is one of the many reasons why the 343rd has been, and will continue to be, one of the best squadrons to be a part of in the United States Air Force."

A common thread exists among many of Offutt's flying squadrons. Heritage rooms really come to life at the end of the work week. Airmen get the signal to convene based on their squadron numbers. The men and women of the 343rd RS get together at 3:43 p.m., for example. Squadron commander's hold roll call with the structured assistance of an elected Airman designated as mayor. New members are introduced to the community as others say farewell.  Many leave their nametags attached to a wall or column, adding one more layer to the living history encapsulated within their heritage room's walls.  Standing room is all that remains as the commander holds court. War stories are read, Airmen remembered.

Even without a squadron commanders present, roll call is upheld by the elected Mayor of the heritage room.

"It [the heritage room] serves as an excellent source to make everyone feel like a family and to bring the new guys in and have them realize that they are now a part of something so much bigger," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Adam Wienk, acting Mayor of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron's heritage room. "They see that they are now part of a family dating back to 1941."

Airmen are not only geographically separated around the world fulfilling mission requirements, but are also separated thanks to hallways, cubicles and offices, not unlike many civilian work places. Heritage rooms give a welcome respite to the anonymity of this dispersion of squadron personnel.  Face-to-face interaction, if only for an hour a week, adds to the squadron's esprit de corps. 

"Our sister squadrons have similar heritage rooms, while other squadrons may have break rooms, etc.," said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Shayler Pierson who works in the 97th Intelligence Squadron, Offutt's oldest unit. "That said, because over 80 percent of our 400-plus Airmen are first-termers. Our heritage room is integral to educating them on our past, and definitely contributes to our unit's high morale and esprit de corps."

The 338th Combat Training Squadron has been training members of the Royal Air Force since 2011, harkening back to the early years of World War collaborations.  The very collaborations that have spawned many of the rituals and customs employed within heritage rooms.  With the RAF members training side by side with Airmen of team Offutt, it was only a matter of time before the 338th heritage room reflected the British influence.  Pieces of a burnt piano, from a recent piano burning, are adhered to a wooden plaque on the south wall of the heritage room.  The burning of pianos has been a RAF custom usually performed in the Fall since the Battle of Britain in 1940.  An expert pianist and fighter pilot was killed in action during the conflict where in an act of mourning his piano was burned, never to be played by another.

Heritage rooms also reflect the combined efforts and skills of the men and women of each squadron.  These efforts come in the form of highly skilled carpenters to decorative additions purchased or borrowed from duty locations around the world. 

"Our heritage room was fully remodeled by members of the squadron," said Capt. Christopher Pauly, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron. "The bar and the checkered green and white polka dot wall patterns are just two examples of the exemplary work, time, commitment and pride put forth by squadron members to leave a legacy for future Wildcats."

With reconnaissance being the earliest implementation of wartime avionics, it is fitting that Offutt's flying squadrons all have their own unique heritage rooms, rules and customs.  Heritage room customs and rituals connect todays Airmen with ancestral wingman of the past.  In these rooms, rich in history, Airman forge a bond with one another that is unique to the military community, bonds that are remembered most as flyers bid farewell. 

To heritage, we salute.