MXG CC warns: check yourself before you 'deck' yourself

  • Published
  • By Andrea Jenkins
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
How do you know if you are out of uniform?

The 23d Maintenance Group commander will tell you.

He is known for his no-nonsense approach, and some even say he's too strict. But at 51 years old and more than 33 years in uniform, U.S. Air Force Col. Jeffrey Decker says he's firm, but fair.

Responsible for a group larger than some Air Force operational wings, Decker doesn't let his reputation get in the way of ensuring everyone follows regulations and adheres to standards.

"We're in the military. I enforce what is in the books, and I don't know any different," he said.  "I am 51 years old. I was born 17 years after World War II.  I guess I'm a different generation."

Standards are in black and white for the colonel, who sees no gray areas in his day-to-day operations.

"If I see someone deviating from the standard, it's my job to let them know," he added. 

Recent examples of on-the-spot corrections include laughable and almost unbelievable dealings with Moody Airmen and NCOs. A staff sergeant who failed to salute the colonel's staff car was busy texting and walking. When Decker questioned him on why he did not render proper courtesies, the NCO said he did not know what a staff car was and he had only been at Moody for two weeks.

The same day, a group of Airmen parked in an undesignated parking area because they were running late for a meeting. Decker asked them, politely, to move their vehicles to the proper parking area. One Airman's response: "Yeah, I'll do it later."  When pressed on the issue, another Airman asked the colonel, "Well, who are you?"

Can he just let something slide? Just let it go? No.

"I can't walk by a problem; I just can't.  To me it's like driving by a house that's on fire without stopping and trying to help," he said.

Being consistent with discipline and adhering to the standards is important for Decker, who keeps perfectly arranged maintenance regulations and Air Force instructions in color-coded binders on his desk credenza. The uniform AFI has a special place on his computer's desktop.

"When you have 2,500 people, you have got to work hard and you have to be consistent," said Decker. "It's all about having a passion for excellence. I often use a football quote as a comparison. When one coach was asked why he was so tough, he responded 'I think that's unfair because everyone has to buy in to the chemistry and contribute to the team harmony to achieve their mission.'

"He was talking about winning football games, but honestly it's no different here with our maintenance group," he added. "Everyone has to buy into doing maintenance correctly because of our mission and its importance. We have airplanes to maintain. We gotta fix the planes, and we gotta fix them right because we have people depending on us with their lives."
Decker is no stranger to the maintenance world; he spent eight years as an enlisted avionics maintainer prior to commissioning in 1989 through Officer Training School.

"My time as an enlisted conehead (avionics) definitely helped me be a better officer," he said. "I still have calluses from the buffer when Airman Decker was buffing floors. Everything I expect the Airmen of the maintenance group to do, Airman or Staff sergeant Decker has done," he said.

At Moody, the term "Decker-rated" was coined to poke fun at how Decker demands all maintenance personnel keep a tidy work environment, to include pulling weeds and buffing the hangar floors.

"It may seem silly to have people who work around greasy engine parts all day, stop to clean or pull 'weeds and seeds' duty, but it's an attention to detail thing," said Decker. "To me that little bitty weed is the equivalent to that tiny screw inside the aircraft engine. If we do not develop that sense and pay attention to the tiny details, we may become complacent and miss that tiny screw that's missing from the fuselage, which may get sucked into the engine and damage an aircraft.

"So whether it's a tiny weed or tiny screw, it's all about attention to detail," he added. "I mean what is the point of folding your underwear into six inch squares in basic training? It's attention to detail."

Growing up, the Kentucky native remembers his father ensuring Decker and his four siblings kept their rooms clean and finished their share of household chores.

"My Dad always said if you have time to lean, you got time to clean," said Decker laughing. In addition to keeping a clean work place, his wife says he is clean at home as well.

"I have to say that he is pretty neat at home as well, but maybe not as particular as at work," said Angie Decker, Decker's wife of two years. "But having a tidy work area is important to Jeff."

The couple maintains two households, one on Moody and one in Louisville, Ky., where Angie spends a lot of time due to her job.

"We are both work-a-holics at heart," said Angie Decker. "We both have demanding jobs.  Mine takes me on the road, so much of our time is spent apart.  When we are apart, we both tend to really ramp up our working hours during the week and on the weekend.  Everyone in maintenance says they can tell when I am away by the hours Jeff works. The time is not just to find issues and be tough, but to see who is really doing great work and what his Airmen may need to do their jobs better."

Decker's reputation on base precedes him as many Airmen have been "decked," meaning a personal counseling session with the colonel.     

"Colonel Decker actually stopped two NCOs from my unit this morning," said Master Sgt. Sonny Cohrs, 23d Wing public affairs superintendent.  "One was wearing headphones in the parking lot, which is clearly against the AFI, but the colonel's approach seemed a bit abrasive to me."

Decker told the staff sergeant this wasn't a "college campus" and proceeded to quote the AFI. The other NCO was accused of not having his shirt tucked in, which was tucked in, but Decker told him it wasn't tucked in "enough."

"My NCOs remained respectful and corrected themselves on the spot," said Cohrs.  "The situation led to lengthy discussions once we all got to the office about the AFI and leadership styles. His approach is not my personal style."

Decker later called the chief of public affairs to explain the infractions and commend one of the NCOs on his squared-away haircut.

While some may find Decker's approach a little off-putting others, think he is just misunderstood.

"I don't see anything wrong with the way Colonel Decker does business because he follows the same rules," said Master Sgt. Sheryl Curry, 23d MXG command section superintendent, who has worked directly for Decker for two years. "He's strictly by the AFIs and if you're not compliant, he will correct you. If you're wrong - you're wrong - point blank. I've seen him correct individuals on several occasions. He's never nasty about it."

Decker's wife agrees by addressing what seems small and insignificant can help stop bigger issues.  

"I think Jeff is considered tough because they do not understand what is driving him to address issues.  Jeff takes his oath as an Airman very seriously and he expects everyone who takes the same oath to take it just as seriously. If he cannot trust Airmen to do the simplest of things, such as wear your PT uniform correctly, or trust officers and NCOs to correct problems, how can he ensure you will do the right things to keep yourself and your fellow Airmen safe?"

His direct and sometimes unforgiving tactics lead to rumors about what really happened.

"The rumor mill torques me off a little, especially when as a commander exercising proper authority or just asking questions about what or why something is happening spirals into something that is not even true," Decker said. "It's like the telephone game from school, but it's disappointing in these days because everything I do is within the bounds of the regulations and it's all to maintain good order and discipline. I'm not a loose cannon." 

Regardless, Decker doesn't worry too much about his direct and sometimes menacing persona because he believes if people just got to know who he really is, they would know that it's nothing personal. He says it's just business, and he holds everyone, including himself, to the same standards.

"I often quote Brigadier General (Anthony) Cucolo, who said 'There is a lot more to loving your soldiers than making sure that they always love you.' Honestly, I'm not worried about being popular or loved,  just respected and understood." 

Although the colonel may have a reputation for being harsh when pointing out an infraction, he is even quicker to point out Airmen's accomplishments.

"Colonel Decker is an outstanding leader and commander," said Col. Chad Franks, 23d Wing commander.  "He is firm when it comes to discipline, as he should be, but there is no doubt he loves his Airmen.  I get more emails from Colonel Decker bragging about the great work his Airmen are doing than I do from any other commander in the wing. We are lucky to have him on the Flying Tiger team."

In addition to working upwards of 70 hours a week, Decker also teaches Marine Corps Staff College online because he believes higher education is important in today's military.

"My dad never even graduated high school, and both of his sons were officers in the Air Force -- talk about a proud poppa," he said.

"Getting your CCAF or attending higher level education is one of my passions, not as a square filler but to make you a better person and a better leader. When a person hangs up the uniform after four or even 20 (years), they'll have something to show for it." 

For Decker, who will PCS next year, it is important to leave a place better than he found it. His corrections are just his way of teaching the next generation.

"This was a fantastic group when I got here but there's always room to improve," he said. "The person who comes to take my place will be able to take the saddle and take it wherever he or she wants it to go.

"Bottomline," he added. "I may be tough and firm but I'm fair, and, it is because the mission demands it."