A technical sergeant in the Defense Logistics Agency Joint Reserve Force predates most of the weapons systems he supports — but both DLA and the individual regard an unusual path to service as leading to the same destination: uncompromised readiness.
For the past two years, Air Force Reserve Tech Sgt. Gregory Sprouse has worked for DLA Aviation, supporting the Nuclear Enterprise Support Office.
Sprouse is 57 years old.
Despite being a technical sergeant, his civilian responsibilities are at the manager level; Sprouse represents DLA at Air Force Space Command Product Improvement Working Groups, resolving high-level issues affecting readiness of radars and satellites that detect nuclear launches.
“I was asked to take on the role of Air Force nuclear command, control and communication weapons support program manager,” Sprouse said. “I’m probably one of the few reservists who’s been working at DLA in basically the same job that I do in my civilian capacity.”
NESO, part of Defense Logistics Agency Logistics Operations, was set up in 2015 to support the nuclear triad of land-based heavy bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as systems performing national command-and-control functions.
Sprouse enlisted in the Air Force in 1981. Once his five-year hitch was up, he joined the Air National Guard and joined DLA as a civilian in 1987. After several promotions, Sprouse joined the Air Force Reserve in 2010 and at age 54 was promoted to technical sergeant — 33 years after he originally enlisted.
His position as a reserve individual mobilization augmentee means Sprouse is not active duty, nor is he a traditional reservist.
“I’m a rare commodity. It’s been administratively challenging — but it’s been worth it,” he said.
Two years ago, Sprouse went on reserve active duty in Customer Operations, supporting the Minuteman III ICBM and air-launch cruise missile program. He recently became the WSPM for Air Force Space Command’s command, control and communications.
Both the Air Force and DLA benefit from having a reservist in this role, Sprouse said.
“The government doesn’t necessarily need to pay for an active-duty member every day; there’s a certain cost associated with that,” Sprouse said. “There are enough people in the Reserves who are ready — kind of like the minuteman concept in the [Revolutionary War]. When they’re needed, they’re already trained up and can perform.”
If it sounds like Sprouse wears a lot of hats — he does. He might have continued his Air Force active-duty career if family obligations hadn’t forged a different path for him. Sprouse left the service to tend to his daughter, who was born with significant health challenges.
“She was in and out of hospitals when she was very young, and it got to the point where I had to get out due to her health,” he said. “I meant to go back right away, but before I knew it, 16 years had passed” since he had left military service.
By then, it was 2010, and Sprouse was 50 years old.
“I went back to Lackland Air Force Base [Texas] — for supply school,” he said. “I was with these 18- and 19-year-olds fresh out of basic training, so it was kind of interesting.”
Sprouse said he’s a runner and has kept in shape even when he wasn’t serving in the military.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I was right at that point where they could have said, ‘No, you’re too old,’ or, ‘You won’t have time to finish.’”
Sprouse is eligible to retire in December 2017, but he has two more years to complete in his enlistment. He also recognizes that his expertise, like the mission he supports, is important.
“It has been a distinct pleasure being on duty again and working with the NESO, where the pace is busy. And I have learned quite a bit about our Air Force nuclear enterprise,” he said.
Sprouse said he’s not only appreciated the opportunity to support the team but also to complete his military career.
“Most tech sergeants are not 57 years old,” he joked. “But I enjoy wearing the uniform; I don’t have to think about what to wear.”
Sprouse credits his education and experience in supply, systems, technical, customer service and even a brief foray into acquisition as qualifying factors in his position as a weapons support program manager for NESO.
“Because I’ve been a WSPM before, I’ve been on the customer-facing side for years — I can fill all those different roles just based on my civilian service,” he said. “[Acquisition] helped on Minuteman III, because there are some acquisition-related things that I helped get started, [like] a long-term contract in support of the ground-mechanical workload for ICBM.”
Sprouse said that thanks to his years as a civilian, he knew some of the players he now works with as an IMA. But it was eye-opening to come in “cold” to the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, to announce he was the new DLA WSPM.
“I travel a lot and sit with the AFSC customers and I brief DLA sustainment support,” Sprouse said. “When they need part numbers, I chase part numbers. If there are programmatic issues, I’ll go out to the rest of the DLA enterprise and try to get answers.”
The NESO mission is still fairly new, and DLA Aviation is the lead for support of the Minuteman III, so Sprouse’s work life is busy. And his technical expertise is put to the test working with radars, satellites and space systems.
“These systems really need extra effort — not only in sustainment, but in modernization,” he said. “The radars I work with were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s by guys with slide rules.”
Parts for the antiquated systems are not always readily available.
“It’s what we call diminishing manufacturing sources — meaning there’s nobody really making these parts,” Sprouse said. “I provide a lot of technical support of the weapons systems, where I’m reaching back, working with the AFSC’s sustainment contractor and the engineering support activity at Hill Air Force Base [Utah], trying to find sources for parts.”
Sprouse also works with the AFSC’s product improvement working groups.
“I try to make all of the PIWGs for the NC3 sites,” he said. His next PIWG will take him to New Mexico, and then to England, where there’s a radar Sprouse said is critical to national defense.
Sprouse explained that the AFSC headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base has a network of radars.
“Some are for space tracking, while others detect ICBM launch,” he said.
Two radar systems detect the launch of ballistic missiles: the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System — better known as BMEWS — and the Perimeter Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased-Array Weapons, or PAVE PAWS.
“There are numerous DLA-managed parts supporting these radars,” Sprouse said. “Keep in mind, these systems have been around a long time, so delivery and solving part issues are challenging.”
In addition to touting his current duty as his favorite, Sprouse said his second time in uniform has been much different than his time as an active duty service member in the ‘80s. He often encounters people who thank him for his service and offer to buy him lunch.
“It’s not like I did something heroic; I was just doing my civilian job but in a military capacity,” he said.
When Sprouse returns to his civilian job, he said it will feel like starting at DLA as a new employee, even though he never left.
He views his time serving as an IMA as a “win-win-win” scenario.
“It’s a win for me, because I get to finish my military time. It’s a win for DLA Aviation NESO, because if they’d gotten another reservist who didn’t have any DLA experience, they wouldn’t have been able to perform the mission,” he said.
“It’s a win for the Reserves, who are trying to show DLA that they have personnel who are relevant and can lend support. And it’s a win for the Reserves ‘total force’ concept.”