Colonel Vivians to celebrate retirement July 11

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Col. Mark Vivians bleeds Air Force blue. The 81st Mission Support Group commander was born at Wright-Patterson Air Force, Ohio, his dad retired as an acquisitions officer in the Air Force Reserve and his wife is a lieutenant colonel at 2nd Air Force.

He celebrates his Air Force career July 11 at 2 p.m., with a retirement ceremony at the Bay Breeze Event Center.

"I have been part of the military since I was born," said Vivians, who's served at 10 bases in nine different commands in his 24 years of active duty. "It permeates everything that I am and want to be. My push for excellence, my drive to accomplish tasks in a timely manner and my devotion to the people I serve all come from the lessons that my parents taught me, which come from the lessons they were taught in the military.

"I had always strived to achieve the rank of colonel because that is not only what my parents achieved, but also what they wanted from me," he recalled. "I was ecstatic to see their faces during my promotion ceremony. It was more important to me than the rank itself."

Vivians said choosing to pursue an Air Force career was a simple decision.

"I grew up enjoying the benefits of the Air Force and didn't want to give them up," he admitted. "The concept of the Air Force taking my dependent ID card was distasteful, so I got one of my own."

He attended Tuskegee University, Alabama, on a full-tuition ROTC scholarship and earned a degree in architecture. Both his father and his mother, a nurse who retired from the Army Reserve as a colonel, earned their degrees at Tuskegee. The legacy of the famed Tuskegee Airmen was another influence that shaped his dedication to the Air Force.

"Over the years, I have seen the knowledge and fame for this group swell to the honor that they richly deserve," Vivians insisted. "Every obstacle that I face professionally and personally, I think back to people like Gen. Benjamin Davis Jr. or Col. Lawrence Roberts and reflect on what they would have done. Their road was much harder than mine and their commitment and sacrifice allowed me to achieve the rank that I have."

He went on to earn two master's degrees - one in management from Troy State University and another in military operational art and science from Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

For the past two years, Vivians has directed base combat support, logistics, and service activities for 78,000 military members, civilians, family members and retirees. His duties include budgeting and spending $72.5 million in appropriated funds, $10 million in non-appropriated funds and $15 million in stock funds each year.

Vivians is also responsible for real property and equipment valued at $60 million and managing a fleet of 458 vehicles and 5,000 pieces of technical training equipment. He also oversees more than $69 million in contracts and a $19 million Government Purchase Card program.

There have been many changes in the Air Force during his career, but some important things have remained the same.

"The people are just as strong and mission-focused as they were when I joined," the colonel indicated. "As a civil engineer, I've seen a lot of changes, mostly because of the shrinking budgets and a lack of a specific enemy to focus on. I remember painting the back of street signs and replacing carpet because the 'boss didn't like it,' all for the sake of base appearance. Those days are gone ... and not missed.

"We also have changed our readiness posture," Vivians continued. "When I came in, every wing 'deployed' for exercises to a nearby site, usually on the same base, and set up bare bases for a couple of days. It was the best way that young officers could lead and develop the skills they need later in their careers. That went away with the lack of money and deployment ops tempo, but we've lost readiness 'sharpness' as a result."
His advice to up-and-coming officers reflects a changing Air Force.

"When I came in, it was an expectation to do your job and you can retire -- promotion was a bonus, but not required -- but not anymore," Vivians observed. "The Air Force is keeping only members who are upwardly mobile and pushing for advancement and betterment of the unit and mission. Every day, push hard and take care of the mission and the people, and the Air Force will take care of you."

Leading six squadrons has been the most satisfying aspect of his Keesler tenure.

"Being here to support the needs of the entire base population and the men and women of the MSG has been humbling and exhilarating," the colonel remarked. "Every day there is a new and different challenge, and we have accomplished many milestones. Overall, I see Keesler truly being the best base in the Air Force."

His duties have included interaction with local community officials, and he said, "We couldn't ask for a more caring and dedicated group of leaders here on the Gulf Coast. Their devotion to the military and our presence here is without equal. They have embraced our mission and families and support us in ways that we can't even begin to repay."

Vivians sees the shrinking federal budget as the biggest challenge he's faced as the 81st MSG commander.

"We have cut manpower and mission down to the bone, but we are still asked for more," he explained. "The $1 million we received from the Commander-in-Chief's Installation Excellence Award last year was a godsend to our quality of life, but we have a long way to go. Letting go of some very good and devoted personnel has been particularly painful. Also, sequestration and a 20 percent cut to the civilian payroll has been a particularly tough blow to everyone's morale."

The colonel and his wife, Lt. Col. Jileene Vivians, 2nd Air Force director of staff, met at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in 1999. She was a young lieutenant who served as a section commander and he was a captain serving as chief of maintenance engineering.

"We were good friends, but never dated -- only a blessing from God kept us together," he remembered. "She had orders to Scott (AFB, Illinois.) and I had orders to the Pentagon. Because of a hiring freeze, my orders were cancelled and they sent me to Scott. She was the first person I told. I believe from the moment that it happened we looked at each other differently ... and the rest was history.

"I am who I am because of her," Vivians declared. "She's my soul mate, mother of my children, and my sounding board, personally, spiritually, and professionally. She is my moral compass and my entire world. I live my life for her and the Lord's acceptance that I am 'doing good.'"

The Air Force has been very supportive of their dual-military marriage, according to the colonel.

"We've been stationed together at Scott; the Pentagon; Ramstein Air Base, Germany; Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, and Keesler," he noted. "The times we have been separated for deployment and ACSC have been our choice. However, it becomes much harder the higher in rank you get.

"My wife has followed me through three back-to-back commands, and it's time that I did some following of my own," he stated. "I believe that is what the Lord intends for our path."

He'll get that opportunity when his wife assumes command of the 80th Mission Support Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, California.

"The Air Force didn't have a job for me there, so I decided to retire and spend more time with our family," he said.

The Vivians have four children ranging in age from 5-16.

"They have been wonderfully cared for at the youth center and child development center," he said. "The staffs love them like they are their own, and I give a special thanks to them."

Life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been "fantastic," according to Vivians. "We've loved the coast, family activities, entertainment, the proximity to New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and most importantly, the people."

The colonel's experience as a former base civil engineer has been an asset to Keesler, according to Mark "Mo" Malone, director of the 81st Infrastructure Support Division.

"Sometimes when you are the base civil engineer and the MSG commander is from the same career field, it can be a curse -- lots of unwanted attention, micromanagement or outright directives," Malone admitted. "Instead, Colonel Vivians has been a patient mentor with helpful suggestions, sage advice and the ability to stand back and let me do my job."

Lt. Col. Sharon Nickelberry, 81st Force Support Squadron commander, said, "Some very sound advice I've gotten from Colonel Vivians is to 'make no decision before it's time.' I appreciate the candor and leadership he's provided, but most of all, I appreciate the fact that he was always willing to listen."

Vivians' deputy commander, Lt. Col. Kyle Tate, remarked, "Colonel Vivians is by far, hands down, the best boss I have ever worked for. He trusts and empowers his people, but also holds them fully accountable if they fail. Coupled with his positive attitude and commitment to overall morale, he's been an outstanding commander. He is one of a kind and he will be missed dearly."

A long-deferred "honey-do" list is Vivians' first retirement priority. He intends to go back to work in the not-too-distant future, perhaps in a civil service or contractor capacity.

"My wife and I are getting tired of the drag of moving, both on ourselves and particularly on our children," he acknowledged. "We are looking forward to stopping in one place and raising our family, most likely in the Washington, D.C., or San Antonio areas. We'll work until it isn't fun anymore, and then who knows?"