JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington D.C. –
One of the more common questions service members are asked is, “Why do you serve?” Some answer because of patriotism and for the love of the United States of America. Some answer because of opportunity, college or travel.
For Col. Erica Rabe, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and 11th Wing vice commander, the answer lies in a long family lineage of service members and a community that surrounded her family before, during and after her father's battle with cancer.
Colonel Rabe is a fourth-generation Airman. Her great grandfather was a colonel and a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Her grandfather is a retired chief master sergeant and former enlisted Air Force pilot. Her father was a captain and a pilot in the Air Force.
“It’s kind of in my blood,” Colonel Rabe said. “I grew up in Fairborn, Ohio, which is right outside of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and it had an active flying unit so we’d hear old F-4 (Phantom II) fighters fly constantly.”
She remembers at an early age, her grandfather taking her to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. He would share stories about his service as they walked the museum. She listened to his tales of flying mostly bombers World War II – the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell and B-29 Superfortress.
“It’s the way I grew up, and it’s what surrounded me,” Colonel Rabe said. “It’s just what I always wanted to do. If you ask my friends that I grew up with, they will tell you that this is what I was going to do.”
Colonel Rabe attributes a lot of her success today to her grandfather.
“I consider myself the Airman I am today because of him,” said Colonel Rabe. “Not only did he tell me a lot of stories about him in the military and how he became a chief master sergeant in the Air Force, but he’s also just one of those good American people who has never said a bad thing about anybody.”
Whenever I put the uniform on, I try to envision being like my grandpa,” she added.
Colonel Rabe later attended The Ohio State University where she earned her degree and went through the ROTC program. Her father attended The Ohio State University and the ROTC program 30 years prior to her. When her dad commissioned, he gave his first salute dollar to her grandpa. The silver dollar salute has been a military tradition since the 19th century. Newly commissioned officers give a silver dollar to the first enlisted member who salutes them. She used the same dollar for her first salute when she commissioned and gave it to the same man her grandpa.
That silver dollar is one of many physical reminders of her and her family’s tie to living a life of service in the Air Force. There are also the intangible memories that remind her of how the Air Force becomes more than just a career, but a lifestyle and an extended family.
When her father was diagnosed with cancer, the Air Force moved Colonel Rabe and her family to Wright Patterson to take advantage of Air Force medical services at the hospital on base. At four years old, Ohio became Colonel Rabe’s home for life. And as her father succumbed to cancer, she found that the Air Force family was a force all on its own, surrounding her family with support and friendship. Her father continues to play a role in her career.
“My father is buried at Arlington Cemetery, so I try to go there as much as I can and bring my son there,” Colonel Rabe said. “I just have the stories my mom would tell me about him and she said he was all Air Force. He was very excited about it and there is no doubt he was going to make it a career. Who knows what he would have become. Every time I get a promotion, I take a moment to think back and go, okay, he’s totally looking down at me.”
Colonel Rabe met her husband, Colonel Nathan R. Rabe while they were both attending the ROTC program at The Ohio State University. Colonel Nathan Rabe also serves as a vice commander, though he’s stationed almost 150 miles away with the 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
Despite the current distance separating them, Colonel Rabe considers herself extremely lucky with how they’ve spent all other assignments together, she said.
“We’ve kind of done everything together,” Colonel Rabe said. “We commissioned on the same day. We both attended Air Command and Staff College together. We both attended senior developmental education the same year. We were able to be squadron commanders on the same base together.
“It’s really incredible how it all worked out,” she added.
Looking back on her career, Colonel Rabe said one of her biggest milestones in her career was serving as the 802nd Force Support Squadron commander at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.
“It’s a goal I set for myself,” Colonel Rabe said. “Just being considered for squadron command and then to be selected and to successfully make it through is hard.”
Colonel Rabe said it may be cliché to say that you get somewhere because of your teammates, but there are few, if any, achievements, made without the help of teammates along the way. And when you combine incredible mentorship with amazing teammates, it makes your job so much easier.
“Everyday I wake up I know I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do,” Colonel Rabe said. “I’m just incredibly thankful for the leaders who have put me in this opportunity and had the confidence for me to do this job. And certainly, for the teammates who helped get me here everyday. Some of them don’t realize how much impact they’ve had, but they really have, and there’s too many to name.”
As the number-two in charge of the installation and 11th Wing, Colonel Rabe – callsign “Deuce” -- is customer-service oriented and ready to help build the wing. Standing alongside Col. Mike “Goose” Zuhlsdorf, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and 11th Wing commander, the pair will navigate the challenges of commanding the installation through the first-ever joint base service-lead transfer from Navy to Air Force responsibility. They, along with the base senior enlisted leader and command chief, are charged with ensuring the creation and development of the 11th Wing to support critical mission partners and the ceremonial support mission of the 11th Operations Group.
“I want to help Goose in every way possible to finish building this wing,” Deuce said. “Both of our goals are to be able to hand the keys to the car over to the leaders who replace us. By the time we depart in a couple years, hopefully, there is less building required and a good base and battle rhythm for the new leaders.”
“I also want our Airmen here to be able to say that this was a great assignment,” she said. “My desire is for Airmen to walk away and say, ‘That was an incredible experience and an assignment that I’ll remember.”