Live from Afghanistan: Father promotes son via video teleconference

Then-1st Lt. Travis Black, 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron Materiel Management Flight commander,  prepares to take the oath of office administered by his father, Lt. Col. Steven Black, chief of nutritional medicine at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, via video teleconference May 29. Captain Black and his family had not seen the lieutenant colonel since he deployed four and a half months ago. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Danielle Johnson)

Then-1st Lt. Travis Black, 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron Materiel Management Flight commander, prepares to take the oath of office administered by his father, Lt. Col. Steven Black, chief of nutritional medicine at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, via video teleconference May 29. Captain Black and his family had not seen the lieutenant colonel since he deployed four and a half months ago. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Danielle Johnson)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- Can you hear me, Dad? ... Pop, can ya hear?"

"Loud and clear."

And just like that, from halfway across the world, Lt. Col. Steven Black, chief of nutritional medicine at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, was ready to promote his son, 1st Lt. Travis Black, Materiel Management Flight commander, 87th Logistics Readiness Squadron, to captain at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst via video teleconference.

With a nearly life-size, live video stream of his father behind him, and his mother, Carolyn Black, and wife, Jillian Black, present to pin on his newly earned insignia, Captain Black's promotion ceremony also served as a special, miniature family reunion.

Colonel Black left his home in Colorado Springs, where he is a professor of biology at the Air Force Academy, in early January for a deployment to Afghanistan. It had been more than four and a half months since he had seen his family.

With thousands of miles in between the two, Captain Black, a 2005 Air Force Academy graduate, had originally "written off the idea" of having his father promote him, Carolyn Black said.

"But he was the best choice," Jillian Black added. "Travis looks up to him so much as an officer and as a dad. It just made it that much more special and personal."

Captain Black described how his father mentored him. "My father has always been a sounding board for me," he said. "As a young cadet, he encouraged me to keep pushing through the first year of the Academy." Now, both active-duty officers, "His guidance has not stopped -- he often shares the highs and lows, good and bad, and his overall 'lieutenant colonel' take on leadership."

Colonel Black's dual role as father and officer is not new to the family. "The title 'Captain Black' still reminds me of my father," said the younger officer. "He wore that rank when we first moved to Colorado Springs [in 1997]. It's humbling to wear the rank he once wore."

As Captain Black develops as an Air Force officer, he said he will look to his father as a role model. "I know I have big shoes to fill -- my father is such a great, level-headed, passionate, and charismatic officer. I can only hope to live up to the officer he is," he said.

Captain Craig Straight, installation deployment officer and the ceremony's presiding officer, encouraged Captain Black, saying, "[He] will face significant challenges, as we all do in the real world. I know he'll do well." He described the promotion ceremony as an "awesome, awesome thing" and being a part of it as "an honor."

Colonel Black said he is "one proud papa" to be able to promote his son to the rank he once wore.

"It was really special to Travis, especially because his dad administered the oath when he was sworn in as a second lieutenant into the Air Force," Jillian Black said. "And as his dad gets closer to retirement, this may be the last promotion he'll be able to administer the oath for."

While Colonel Black was clearly an easy first choice to administer the oath of office, the logistics of the video teleconference were a bit more complicated. Only three places at McGuire AFB have the capability to host a VTC. "Once I knew the medical clinic had the capability needed, it instantly became my first choice," Captain Black said. "My father, a medical corps officer, is stationed at a medical facility at Bagram AB. I knew it would be unique to have two medical facilities coordinate this promotion."

The technical aspects of VTC were a result of the collaboration between Gerald Calabro, 87th Medical Support Squadron systems analyst, and Tech. Sgt. Terry Rainey, NCOIC of the information systems shop at Bagram AB, Afghanistan. "We get requests for VTCs all the time," Mr. Calabro said, "but this was the first request we've had for this sort of event. Everyone was happy to jump on the bandwagon to get it done."

More than a week of planning and testing culminated in a successful 20-minute promotion ceremony. The two hospitals connected via satellite, "which can be difficult due to the high winds and dusty conditions," Sergeant Rainey said. "Fortunately, we were able to configure our VTC systems directly to McGuire," bypassing the typical connection that must go through Landstuhl, Germany.

Although time was a concern, and just minutes before the ceremony was to begin the connection timed out, but when 10 a.m. came, everything went smoothly. "There was the typical half-a-world-away communication delay that is expected on overseas calls and there was occasional scrambling of the audio, but otherwise it was the next best thing to being there." Colonel Black said. "[Mr. Calabro and Sergeant Rainey] deserve a bonus."

Both men were able to see their work pay off. "It was well worth all the coordination and setup. Especially when you see how much it meant to Captain Black and how proud Lieutenant Colonel Black was to deliver the oath to his son," Sergeant Rainey said.

"I felt really good about doing something outside the typical work spec. It was definitely a feel good thing," Mr. Calabro said.

While Colonel Black's virtual presence made the promotion ceremony unique, it was the entire family being together that made the occasion particularly special for Captain Black.
"They have seen me at my best and worst throughout my short Air Force career. All of them are always cheering me on, giving me advice, and just listening when necessary," the captain said. "I was thrilled that my mother was there to share the opportunity to see my father live through the VTC capabilities."

Carolyn Black was equally pleased to take part in the ceremony.

"I was impressed Travis put it together -- actually made it happen," she said. "And I know it meant a lot to Steve." The audience that gathered for the ceremony, which included many Airmen from the 87th LRS, could also see Colonel Black's excitement as he took a moment away from his official demeanor to snap a picture of the streaming video on his end.

"It was incredibly gratifying to be a part of such an important milestone -- even though I was on the other side of the world," Colonel Black said. "And it was an honor to be among people who respect Travis and provide him such strong support."