HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – During this weekend’s monthly Unit Training Assembly, the 419th Fighter Wing will welcome new commander, Col. Matthew "Eddie" Fritz.
Fritz previously served as commander for the 44th Fighter Group, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. He replaced Col. Regina "Torch" Sabric, who had served as commander since April 2018.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings, the 1,300-person wing was unable to host a traditional change of command ceremony. In lieu of speaking to 419th FW members in person, Fritz sat down with public affairs to talk a bit about himself and his priorities as he takes the reins. He also recorded a video welcome message from the Hill AFB flightline.
What kinds of leaders have inspired you and what are your personal values as a leader?
There are several leaders who planted the seeds early in my career on the absolute importance of caring for Airmen. They emphasized the value of compassion, empathy, and walking in others’ shoes. Having been assigned to the 44th Fighter Group in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida panhandle, caring for Airmen really hit home. We had about 224 people who were displaced from their homes due to major damage – some homes were completely destroyed. During tough times, you can clearly see how a person’s performance is directly tied to what’s going on in their personal life. As an example, after the hurricane, we had a young sergeant who had always been a top performer. But with the pressures and stress of the hurricane aftermath and also some marital issues, we started to see his performance devolve due to a very strained relationship with his family. The stressors and pressures that our people deal with can very quickly become a matter of life and death. This experience showed me that it’s critically important that leaders stay tuned in with the struggles of our people and that we respond with compassion and empathy. It can be all too easy to go down the path of writing someone off as not being a good Airman after they make these kinds of mistakes, but that’s not necessarily true. If I hadn’t known this sergeant prior to all these problems, I would’ve had a completely different perspective. When possible, we should seek to help and provide the resources our people need to get better, so ultimately, they can show up and get the mission done. I also strongly believe that as a leader I have an obligation to ensure that my decision making is legal, moral, and ethical. If leaders keep these three things in mind, we can’t go wrong.
What are your top priorities as you take command of the 419th FW?
Ultimately, I want to ensure that we are accomplishing our wartime taskings, and this goes back to taking care of our personnel so they can knock it out of the park every day. Because, without our people, the multimillion-dollar equipment and F-35s sitting out on the ramp here are useless. It’s a priority for me to get our people paid and provide a safe work environment, and I want to help reduce distractions so they can focus on doing what they’re here to do. With that in mind, I plan to put an emphasis on customer support, as it's absolutely fundamental. I believe it’s a baseline obligation to maintain good morale by taking care of the pay and benefits for our people and to ensure their career progression is on track. If these things aren't done effectively, people get upset and frustrated, which affects their performance.
I also want to focus on removing some of the performance pressure that a lot of folks are experiencing. Our people are feeling the weight of the increased operations tempo and deployments, along with the stressors of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and now the civil unrest we’re seeing in our communities. It’s an unprecedented time, and all of these things are incredibly difficult. I need to ensure that people don’t feel an unmanageable level of pressure that would cause them to do something unsafe. As commander, I must also be willing to make the difficult decision to call a time-out if necessary.
Finally, it’s very important to me to fully support and cultivate the Total Force relationship with our active duty counterparts in the 388th FW. Hill’s fighter wings are known as one of the best examples of how to do TFI the right way. I want to make sure it stays that way and that our relationship endures as a positive and healthy one moving forward.
You started out as an F-16 crew chief and have since served as a part-time Traditional Reservist and fulltime Air Reserve Technician and Active Guard and Reserve officer. How have these various roles and perspectives shaped you over the years?
I’ve been so fortunate in my career, having the opportunity to serve in a variety of different roles and statuses within the Reserve Component. I began my career as an enlisted F-16 crew chief and quickly grew to understand how important it is to treat people well. When I was a young and impressionable Airman, I would stand in awe, totally enamored, as the pilots walked out to the jets prior to flight. If a pilot or officer treated me with respect and kindness, it meant the world. On the other hand, if I was treated poorly, that had a lasting impact. So that gave me such an appreciation for the enlisted perspective. I also understand the value in explaining the “why” behind various decisions to our Airmen at the lowest level. I really pride myself on going out of my way to acknowledge our folks, no matter their rank or mission, and to thank them for a job well done.
Having been in the various statuses — TR, ART and AGR — I also gained great perspective on how serving in each different capacity really shapes our viewpoints and expectations. Unless you’ve served as a TR, it’s difficult to understand the pressure that comes along with that. It’s really challenging to juggle all the things our TRs juggle in their civilian life and then to come in and serve one weekend a month and do all the things they need to do. Alternately, I have seen the other side of the fence, having served full time as an ART and AGR. I understand the expectations and limitations tied to each, as they are unique and present their own set of challenges.
Can you speak a bit on why Total Force partnerships are so valuable to the Air Force?
TFI is the new normal in the fiscally constrained environment in which we now live. To associate with active duty and have that partnership is vital, but it can undoubtedly be difficult on both sides. While we have a lot in common, we also have a lot of differences, which can make things challenging. For instance, the active duty has 24/7 access to their people, while in the Reserve, we have limitations on getting people out the door to deploy based on various laws and rules that apply. This is sometimes difficult for the active duty to understand and navigate because it's not their world. I believe it’s incumbent on us as reservists to continue to communicate and inform them of our unique pay statuses to come to a common understanding. TFI is actually a lot like family. There are going to be challenges and disagreements, but you’re always going to find a way to come together to make it work, because in the end you’re a family, and families stick together. When things are working, it’s awesome, but there will often be friction. Constant communication is key. Understanding our limitations and challenges, we can find work-arounds and a way forward.
Tell us something about you that isn’t in your bio.
During my second deployment to Balad Air Base, Iraq, I started volunteering to work in the Air Force Theater Hospital, and that experience completely changed my outlook on life and was very impactful in several different ways. I was a young fighter pilot who wanted to change the world. I was fired up and I wanted to drop bombs, take out the bad guys, and win wars. While in the hospital, I came across a local family that had been hit by a bomb and all of them had sustained injuries, but their five-year-old boy lost his leg. Seeing that family and that boy changed everything for me. Before that, war was clean and sterile – I was in a cockpit flying 20,000 feet up, seeing through sensors. In that moment, I fully understood the very serious implications of war and how innocent people, unfortunately, sometimes get caught up in it.
On a subsequent deployment, I also came to grasp the utter dichotomy of war during a Purple Heart ceremony for a group of Army guys that were hit by an enemy ambush and saved by a Close Air Support fighter mission. To those men, the pilots who saved them were “angels on their shoulders” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as they recounted how those airplanes protected them and saved them from the enemy. So, that also really shaped me. It was unbelievably rewarding to know that my job as a pilot has that kind of profound impact. I returned from that deployment with a deep appreciation for my job and I’m very thankful for those experiences.