Commander, who navigated wing from ARW to SOW, retires after 33 years of service

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kasey M. Phipps
  • 137th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

It was Sunday afternoon. Most people were relaxing and recharging before beginning work the next day, soaking up the time with loved ones and friends before packing and preparing for work.

Here, it was the Sunday – the last day – of November drill. Offices began to empty out, lights turned off, cars streamed down Air Guard Drive and out the front gate.

“I guess I should start packing up,” Col. Devin R. Wooden, 137th Special Operations Wing (137th SOW) commander, said aloud as Master Sgt. Arlene Nilkumhang, his command secretary, began to gather her things before heading home.

Looking around at his office and the empty boxes on his couch, Wooden continued, “I think I’ll pack the pictures last. When I take those down, I’ll really be done.”

That Sunday was not just the last day of November drill for Wooden (it was also the last day of his last drill as the 137th SOW’s 16th wing commander), and the photos on the wall were not just for decoration. They are the framed and displayed highlights of his career – a career that shaped his life in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he joined more than 30 years ago in 1986. 

Wooden graduated from Yukon High School in May of that year. At home, with a dad and an uncle in the 137th, he would watch the weekly C-130 Hercules formations fly overhead on their low-level routes.

That September, just before his 18th birthday and with a semester of college under his belt, Wooden was enlisted as an airman basic and faced with a dry erase board of vacant enlisted positions.

“No, ma’am,” he said in response to his recruiter. “I don’t want to do any of that, I just want to go where the pilots are.”

Four years later, he commissioned and joined other pilot hopefuls at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio, Texas. In September 1991, he returned to the 137th as a newly- christened aircraft commander – the first of many “commander” titles for him.

“I can honestly say that wing commander was the farthest thing from my mind for a large part of my military career,” said Wooden. “In the early days, I was focused on being competent at my job.”

After being a director of operations for many years, Wooden took command of the operations squadron on base in 2005 and has since worked his way to the highest commanding position on base. His self-professed career highlights include:

  • The last large C-130 deployment in 2003, during which the 137th was one of the lead units in a seven-wing deployment (the largest deployed C-130 deployment ever assembled)
  • Watching the men and women of the Wing stick together and persevere during Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) in 2005, during which the wing went from 48 enlisted flying positions to just 13 and relocated almost a one-third of the base
  • Becoming only the second Air National Guard unit in the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command and only military unit to fly and maintain the MC-12W

Apart from the churning and tragedy of deployments, natural disasters, mission changes, and even domestic acts of terrorism, the people of the Oklahoma Air National Guard were always the leveraging factor of Wooden’s career.

“I can’t think of any other place I have ever been where the caliber of people is what it is here,” said Wooden. “I enjoyed going on the road with them, creating memories and reliving them through stories. This kind of culture – military culture – doesn’t exist anywhere else that I know of, which is why so many find it hard to leave.”

Those same caliber of people look at Wooden and see not just a competent commander, but also a patient, family-oriented mentor. For those who worked closely with him, like Nilkumhang and Capt. Joseph Conell, former wing executive officer, his strengths shone in his daily tasks and responses.

“He's never going to tell you how to do your job; he really likes you to own your project or your problems, whatever it is,” said Nilkumhang. “If anyone needed something answered, however small, he wanted you to take ownership of that. He’d patiently guide you to make choices so that when there's no one else there – you make bold decisions and own the possible failures.”

During his time, Conell remembered reviewing Wooden’s color-coded calendar, including a recurring and emphasized, “Lunch with Mum”.

“He made it a priority to create balance the best that he could,” Conell said. “Family was important to him.”

Now, his military career comes to a close with a Wing-wide ceremony held here, May 5, 2019. As the flag is passed down a line of Airmen, each one representing Wooden at a particular rank in his career, most of the faces within the photos in his office are represented in person to watch.

They are the evidence of his top priorities and loves – flying, family and Airmen. They include:

  •  A photo of him and his wife, Kelly – whom he met here at the Wing where she also served – at one of the many military balls they attended
  • A family photo that includes his three daughters, on vacation somewhere warm
  • A different kind of family photo, in which his first crew poses in front of their aircraft while on a deployment
  • An aerial photo of the nearly 1,100 Airmen of his Wing in formation, taken on the day he took command.

But, as Nilkumhang flipped the light on early Monday morning, ready to dust off the surfaces of those photos as usual, the walls and shelves were empty. The frames were packed neatly.

During his retirement ceremony, Wooden recalled what his Command Chief Master Sergeant, Chief Master Sgt. Stephen L. Rosebrook, once told him: “You know what your problem is? You love this wing to a fault. Now, it’s time to reevaluate.”

Frames in boxes, obstacles navigated and gratitude spoken – that’s what Wooden did.