"Warrior scholar" always looking for next step forward

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Maj. Billy Pope Jr. comes from humble beginnings. A product of Helendale, California, his tiny town of 2,500 residents didn't even have a library - he had to rely on a traveling library in a van to get his book fix.

"We had a joke growing up," Pope said. "We always said it was 15 miles to Victorville, 14 miles to Barstow, and two feet from Hell."

Despite whatever possible teenage angst his younger self endured in his hometown, he realizes now that the small-town upbringing is a major part of who he is today.

"Growing up in a small town is a different way of life, and I hold that dear - that's why I keep a picture up on the wall," he said, pointing to a framed photo of a beautiful but desolate looking desert vista on the wall next to his office door. "That really formed the basis of who I am."

For Pope, 81st Communications Squadron commander, his quest for knowledge started young. After the traveling library of his childhood days was no longer an option, he started looking for ways to go to college. A friend who had been in Junior ROTC, suggested he check out the ROTC scholarship program to make his way through college.

"I went to the University of Redlands, California, on a ROTC scholarship for computer science," he explained. "My intention was to join the Air Force and see the world. I wasn't planning on staying in - just do the four years to pay back my education, then bounce out."

While that may be a common plan for many Air Force recruits, Pope and his wife Amanda, who were high school sweethearts, would have to wait a bit before traveling.

"My first assignment was at Edwards Air Force Base, California," he said with a shake of his head. "We were right back in the middle of the Mojave Desert. We went back to the same hometown where I lived, and I spent my first two years in the Air Force with my wife right back where we came from."

Then the Popes finally got their wish - world travel. His second duty assignment, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, allowed them to visit 20 countries in three years.

Now, almost 14 years later, it's pretty clear Pope found something he liked. A cyber operations specialist by trade, his career field allowed him many opportunities for unusual assignments to keep him hooked.

"Somewhere along the way I fell in love with the Air Force," he said. "It's kind of a cliché to say, but each assignment is special in some way, and each one builds on the last one and becomes my new favorite."

One particularly interesting assignment that helped keep him on the hook was his time stationed in Tampa, Florida, at U.S. Central Command, where he ran the commander's communication team for Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Corps Gens. John Allen and James Mattis.

"I used to travel with them - I'd see Gen. Mattis every day," he said. "Everything you read about him is exactly how he is. He walks up to you, looks you right in the eyes and says, "Good morning young man," every single day. He's like a storybook character."

Interactions with the legendary "Mad Dog Mattis" aside, the culture of camaraderie, connectedness and improvement has been a major factor in Pope opting not to leave the Air Force.

"I always tell our Airmen there's probably a handful of reasons why people come into the Air Force, but it's that culture and family that keeps people in," he explained. "I try to imagine what it would be like on the outside without that camaraderie and connectedness to a bigger mission, and I don't think I could do it . . . I just have too much fun here."

Throughout his career, Pope has had many opportunities to learn and grow. Few have been as enlightening as the year he spent at Harvard University, though.

As part of intermediate training, the Air Force sends officers to different schools to obtain a master's degree. Most candidates go to some sort of military college. When Pope saw that Harvard was an option, he decided to go for it.

"First of all, when I got there, I felt completely out of place," he said. "I was admitted to what they call the mid-career master's in public administration program. It was made up of mostly non-military people. It was an amazing group of people.

"When you get there, you know you do the normal greeting stuff at orientation, 'Hi, I'm Billy, nice to meet you,'" he continued. "And I kid you not, I met a guy there who literally flew in the night before from Port au Prince, Haiti, and stood up a hospital in the aftermath of the earthquakes back in 2010. I talked to another guy who was the deputy director of NASA. A third guy I met started and runs a nonprofit in Africa that houses 4,000 orphans.

"The course was designed to draw in people who may one day be presidents of their respective countries," he said. "It was an amazing feeling being a part of this elite group of people."

One of the hardest parts of the year-long program for Pope was transitioning back into a collegiate mindset.

"When you're taught that brevity is key to writing in the military, going back to writing academic research papers was a big challenge," he said with a laugh.

While the Air Force may have sent him to Harvard to learn a few lessons, his education in the service started much earlier and from a less traditional source.

"When I was a second lieutenant at Edwards during my first tour, I was trying to figure out my place in the Air Force," he said. "I was working in the IT directorate, and our job was to make sure the base computers were running correctly. It felt like I was stuck. I would drive to base every day, do the job, and then go home. Then one day I realized there were two routes I could take to work. One was straight to the office from the gate and the other was down a side road that ran next to the flightline.

"On that drive, I'd see the first six F-22s in the Air Force," he continued. "At the next hangar was the first joint strike fighter, and then one of the first CB-22 Ospreys. There were the red tailed F-15s and the B-52 bomber that carried the X-1 all along my drive. A year into my tour, I realized that's a pretty important drive. I started to always hang that left, because seeing what was going on at the flightline helped me connect what we were doing to the bigger mission.

"That was a really important lesson for me - it was such an unlikely thing," he added. "But it really helped me establish my place and impacted my morale and how I felt about my service."

These lessons were not lost on Pope. He's carried them for years to a place where he can help both Airmen and fellow officers learn a thing or two - his first squadron command.

"He's very inspirational - he just exudes positive energy," said Maj. Cliff Bayne, 81st Logistics Readiness Squadron commander and close friend of Pope's. "After I'd been commanding for a year, he came along to his own command with this energy, and being around him reenergized me."

Pope isn't just a leader of Airmen, Bayne explained. He's the perfect squadron commander to help usher in the three new 81st Mission Support Group commanders arriving this summer.

"He'll be the veteran commander of the bunch," Bayne said. "I can't think of anyone better to keep them energized and motivated. He's a customer service-oriented commander, which is so important when you're in a support function like we are."

Through his continual development in the classroom and at work, Pope is able to share his experiences and philosophies with those around him in a mentorship role.

"There are three things we reinforce all the time," he explained. First of all you work hard, because that's what our nation depends on you to do. When you lay your head down at night, you should be asking yourself if you gave everything you could that day. Second, have fun. If you don't enjoy what you do, then you won't be able to do it right. A good attitude is infectious. And third, take care of your people; your buddies, bosses and family members. It's giving someone the hard advice when they need it."

Ultimately, each day is a new experience for Pope - a new opportunity to learn something, share a story or mentor a friend. And while he may not have all the answers, he'll certainly give it the old college try.

"There is no 100-percent right path that's going to make itself clear," Pope explained. "But there's always one more step forward. There's something you can do today that will make you better than you were yesterday. So you might as well take that step."

As Pope's grandfather used to say, "Hard work remains to be finished, and someone has to do it - why not me?"

For Pope, that hard work has led to a lifetime of lessons learned, and a collection of books in his office that rivals any traveling library van.