Dividends Magazine, 2021 Edition
By Kathy Kenne
Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Spurlock, United States Air Force. The name may not be familiar, but you might have seen him in the background as President Barack Obama or President Donald Trump hopped aboard Marine One. He was the one carrying the “football.” You may have seen him giving an interview at the Paris Air Show about the mission of the Air Force’s new KC-46. You might have even seen him flying over Starkville when he was a student pilot at Columbus Air Force Base.
A graduate of MSU’s online MBA program, Spurlock has an easy smile and genuine warmth that make talking with him a pleasure. He’s had a fascinating career, and he’s not even close to done.
He began, like many Air Force pilots, as a student then an instructor at Columbus. While there, he became familiar with MSU’s online MBA program, but it would be during his next assignment in California, flying KC-10s, that he enrolled along with his wife Jessica.
“The program valued the previous experience I’d had,” Spurlock recalls. “I received credit for some classes I’d previously taken. I enjoyed working with Jessica on the degree and partnering with her on our capstone project. I think I made a better grade than she did in that class, but don’t tell her I said that!
“I was deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya much of 2009 to 2013,” he continues. “The faculty was very understanding when I didn’t always have the best Internet connection to complete assignments when they were due.”
He received the MBA in 2011 and by 2013 found himself moving his family across the country to work at the Pentagon as an Executive Officer for an Air Force Operations Group focused on budgeting. It was there that his gift for bringing groups together to collaborate became evident.
“It was eye-opening to see how competing agencies could come together to spend money effectively,” he says.
By this time, the Air Force was well aware of Spurlock’s acumen. His next assignment? The White House. Spurlock served as one of five Military Aides to the President for two years each under Presidents Obama and Trump.
“When I first arrived, I remember thinking how many people were involved in making sure the President had what he needed to accomplish solving the world’s largest problems quickly and effectively,” he says. “Just moving the President around required the coordination and planning of hundreds of people on the medical team and in the military and Secret Service. So many people gave of themselves selflessly.”
Spurlock was one of them. One aspect of his job was to carry the “football” – the satchel containing the nuclear launch codes that must accompany the President wherever he goes. But the job was much broader than that. He recalls many once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as escorting the Pope on his U.S. travels or attending a G20 conference with President Obama.
He assisted the President in awarding Presidential Medals of Freedom and had his own Lieutenant Colonel oak leaves pinned on by President Obama. And when he left the White House, it was President Trump who pinned the defense superior service medal on his uniform.
Some situations were more heart-pounding. Spurlock was in the Mar-a-Lago “situation room” as the 2017 missile strikes against Syria were carried out. He also accompanied Defense Secretary James Mattis and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell in 2017 as they negotiated the release of U.S. citizen Aya Hijazi, her husband and four other humanitarian workers from an Egyptian prison. He and Powell had the privilege of escorting them back to the United States.
Working in two different presidential administrations (and later, a third) isn’t common. What was that first transition like?
“I actually picked up President Trump in New York to bring him to Washington for the inauguration,” Spurlock says. “When I started at the White House, the Obama administration had been there almost seven years, so they had all their processes flowing. But on January 20, I was helping a whole new staff just find their offices. I jumped on the boat when I went to work for President Obama, but when President Trump and his staff started, I got to help build the boat – the processes. That was a great experience.”
How does one follow an assignment like that? The Air Force knows how to invest in their best and brightest. They sent Spurlock to the Harvard Kennedy School for a year to obtain his Master of Public Administration degree.
From there, he was assigned to McConnell Air Force Base and tasked with standing up a new squadron to support the Air Force’s latest acquisition, the KC-46, once again showing his prowess for facilitating collaboration.
“That was a challenging time,” he reports. “With a new airplane, you’re building a new community. Every plane in the Air Force has a personality built around it. The KC-46 not only provides in-air refueling, but it has a lot of high-tech systems for communications and defense. We pulled in pilots from 22 different airframes to stand up this new community. Our squadron started with 17 members and had reached 117 by the time I had completed that assignment. It was great – a very humbling experience, and I learned a lot.”
Following this monumental achievement, it was back to the White House – this time as one of 14 White House Fellows. Founded by President Johnson in 1964, the White House Fellows program is the most prestigious in the country for nurturing leadership and public service. Its notable alumni include such names as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Spurlock and his class of 14 participated in the program for 14 months. Each was assigned a different federal department in which they were senior advisors to Cabinet-level officials. Spurlock was assigned to the Department of Finance.
“That’s when I had to dust off some of those skills from my MBA program,” he laughs. “I was tasked to work with the Defense Production Act board performing due diligence on companies that had requested loans for COVID recovery. Our team worked with multiple federal agencies. I would dig into companies’ finances, business plans and leadership. It was a great opportunity to apply those skills I had acquired in the MBA program.”
This past March, Spurlock’s fellowship found him in President Joe Biden’s Domestic Policy Council under Ambassador Susan Rice, dealing with the problem of unaccompanied children at our nation’s southern border.
“My efforts were directed at getting the right people in the room and focusing on interagency cooperation,” he says. “My goal was to look at the situation and potential solutions holistically and be an unbiased third party. We were then able to apply that experience to build a plan for unaccompanied Afghan children in Operation Allies Welcome. It was very rewarding.”
As Spurlock was nearing the end of his fellowship, the leaders at AFWERX had their eye on him. AFWERX is a relatively new program office in the Air Force that seeks out emerging technologies in the private sector with the idea of syncing them with Air Force needs in a manner that improves technology and provides more cost efficiencies. Noting Spurlock’s array of experience and gift for coalescing groups to accomplish missions, the leaders at AFWERX created a job for him. He is now the Chief of Strategic Investments in AFWERX’s $900 million AFVentures division. He is tasked with considering what it might take for a small company with cutting-edge technology to scale up to serve the needs of the Air Force.
“My experience with interagency coordination and federal lending programs helps me find sources for federal loans for these companies that they pay back with interest,” he states. “It’s a winning situation for the companies, the military and the taxpayers.”
Spurlock’s career has not been typical of an Air Force pilot, but putting his family first has meant he’s taken a different route from time to time.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better Air Force experience,” he relates. “It’s included everything from meeting every living President except one to spending Easter at the White House Egg Roll with my kids. It’s all been very humbling.
“One of my mentors drilled into me to make sure you know how you define success, otherwise others will define it for you,” he sums up. “You’ll chase that carrot only to find out in the end you don’t even like carrots.”
Spurlock has forged a remarkable path, and America is better for it. And now you will know the name Wesley Spurlock because it’s likely you’ll be seeing him in the future.