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Former support group commander looks back on colorful career

Retired Col. Karen Bence, former 162nd Mission Support Group commander, right, shows Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt, Air National Guard director, and Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Muncy the base fighter station during a visit last year. Colonel Bence retired after 35 years of service this June. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Gabe Johnson)

Retired Col. Karen Bence, former 162nd Mission Support Group commander, right, shows Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt, Air National Guard director, and Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Muncy the base fighter station during a visit last year. Colonel Bence retired after 35 years of service this June. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Gabe Johnson)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When an Air Guard recruiting ad caught Col. Karen Bence's eye as she walked though the airport in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1975 she had no inclination that she'd retire one day as the commander of the Guard's largest mission support group.

"A college buddy of mine and I were dropping someone off when we saw these 'Go Air National Guard' postcards. We thought let's fill these out and see what happens. In no time a recruiter was at our door. I'll always remember how aggressive they were. A college kid at the time, I thought a three-year commitment was an eternity."

By April 1976, Colonel Bence was enlisted and serving as an orderly room clerk in the 114th Fighter Wing's maintenance squadron in Sioux Falls.

"We were females and, with the exception of the nursing corps, we were a novelty in the Air Guard in those days."

She first came to Tucson's 162nd Tactical Fighter Group in 1978 to work in the safety office and later moved into operations where she worked full time in the academics section.

"Back then everyone was first generation. There were no second or third generation family members working here yet," Colonel Bence recalled. "We worked, played and lived here. People raised their kids here. All summer long families would be at the pool that was once behind [the Tucson Air Guard Recreation Association], or building 15. For breakfast, everyone in the wing ate at TAGRA at the same time. For lunch, everyone ate there at the same time every day."

"There was a sense of community that, I believe, lives on today at the squadron and flight level here."

In 1984, an opportunity came up for commissioning and she took it. She gave up her full-time enlisted job to become a training officer in operations - a drill status position.

She soon found her niche in the personnel world, transferring two years later to the unit's force support squadron, which then was known as the consolidated base personnel office. Though she often ventured into other mission areas throughout her career, she always returned to civilian and military personnel-related jobs.

"I've worked in all of the groups, with the exception of the medical group. In all, I've changed career fields a half dozen times."

Colonel Bence worked as an executive officer for the Selective Service System, dabbled in public affairs during a brief assignment in the Air Force Reserves, returned to the unit's support group, and later served as the wing Inspector General and headquarters squadron commander.

"It's been a very good ride," she said. "I learned a lot."

In August 2007, taking a leave of absence from her civilian job with the Transportation Security Administration, Colonel Bence once again returned to full-time duty and assumed command of the 162nd Mission Support Group. The group of about 400 Airmen supports the wing's F-16 training mission with everything from security to fuel management to personnel services.

Among support group members she was highly regarded as an advocate for their diverse missions and was known for empowering individuals to use their skills to lead as well.

Capt. Tricia Pacheco, commander of the 162nd Communications Flight, served under Colonel Bence. "I was a lieutenant when she hired me," she said. "She was a great mentor for me as a young commander. She was always there when I needed her but she didn't hover over me even though I was junior. The trust and confidence she had in me to do the job gave me the confidence to do it."

"My enjoyment has been the people," said the colonel. "What impresses me most is their sense of community and dedication to their wing, state and to what they do. There are so many talented people here that could do anything they wanted to do, but they chose to be here because they see this place as being special."

"They are willing to deploy. They raise their hand and leave families and small babies behind. Despite the sacrifice they're proud to do it and they'll do it again. I'm so proud of all of them."

The June unit training assembly was Colonel Bence's last as she relinquished command of the group and retired. She plans to resume her work with TSA and visit the 162nd often.

Her words for her fellow Guardsmen: "The wing is strong, it's solid, it's sound - built on a legacy of fine leaders and strong men and women. Do your best and you'll pass that legacy on to the next generation. Stay focused, stay positive and stay looking forward."