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Where are they now: Mark Schnell


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USAF Major Mark Schnell recently coordinated the largest movement of F-35s in the world, to date.

Previously a Kimball student, Mark Schnell recently coordinated the world's largest movement of F-35s to date – and loosely compared it to scheduling a trip to watch the Huskers play.

Following his 2002 graduation from Kimball High School, Schnell, son of James and Julie Schnell, joined the United States Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Kansas State University, where he was attending college.

"I initially entered the service through ROTC for two primary reasons," Schnell said, "The first was to fulfill my own personal desire to serve. I never had plans for a full military career but I felt that I wanted to do my part to whatever degree was required. The second was to help me pay for my schooling. The ROTC scholarship I received at the end of my freshman year of college helped to pay for me to continue pursuing my degree at an out-of-state college."

Schnell met and married his wife of eleven years, Kristen, at Kansas State University. Kristen is a Major, as is Schnell, in the USAF, and currently works budgets as a finance officer for Air Force Special Operations Command.

Kristen's current job has her directing the allocation of funds for the different bases and wartime operations. The couple just welcomed their first child last week, Sept. 22, Annamelia Marie.

Following completion of his four-year degree, Schnell was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas for pilot training.

Schnell held the rank of Captain in the USAF from May of 2010 to the beginning of this month, when he was promoted to the rank of Major.

"I will most likely hold the rank of Major for approximately the next four years," he explained.

Schnell has been deployed, with his last deployment to Afghanistan in 2013, when he flew A-10C Warthogs for the74th Fighter Squadron out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.

Last month, Schnell was named Project Officer at Volk Field in Wisconsin, named the Exercise Northern Lightning.

"Exercise Northern Lightning was an Air National Guard hosted exercise that focuses on opposed air interdiction against highly integrated air defense systems in a contested operational environment," Schnell said. "Simplifying it, the exercise is built to train our war-fighters to fight through an enemy's advanced defenses to bomb targets in enemy held territory."

He added that preparation for the exercise began in April of this year for himself, when he was assigned the position of Project Officer, or PROJO.

"At that point I was in charge of planning, preparing and executing the movement of people and assets up to Volk Field, Wisconsin and back," he said. "The process itself is much like traveling to Lincoln to watch the Huskers play. It consists of finding out how many people needed to go, where they were going to stay, what they were going to eat, how they were going to get there and back, what tools they needed when they got there to execute their mission, and finally who was going to pay for it."

Schnell added that the exercise began on August 22 and continued through September 2, of this year and included 14 F-35As and 185 military personnel to support it.

"Obviously this exercise – being the world's largest movement of F-35s to date – took a bit more planning and was on a slightly larger scale, but those were the big hurdles," he said.

Emphasis was placed on joint integration of 4th and 5th generation air assets from the Air National Guard, Air Force and Navy, as well as ground parties from the Army and Air Force.

"We executed multiple missions during our time there, including Offensive Counter Air (OCA), Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD), and Close Air Support (CAS) involving actual employment of laser and GPS guided munitions from block 30 & 50 F-16, F-18E/F, and F-35A aircraft," he said. "Additionally, KC-135R, EA-18G, RC-135RJ and E-3 platforms all participated. The morning usually consisted of approximately 16 blue fighters (who played the 'good guys') versus up to 30+ red fighters ('bad guys') in any one fight. The afternoons were smaller fights and part-task training for units to work on the basic blocking and tackling tactics that we employ as a joint force when we fight a large scale war."

Schnell believes that the exercise went really well, as they were able to execute all their desired scenarios and learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. He added that the exercise provided pilots with a great deal of training that they wouldn't have otherwise gotten at their home stations.

"The F-35As were able to fly 138 sorties totaling 204.7 flight hours and dropped twenty-four 500lb laser-guided bombs during the exercise," Schnell said, "which proves that the F-35A is combat ready as the Air Force said when it declared the F-35A initial operationally capable in early August."

"On the other hand there are always some things that you wish you could do better after a game," he continued, "so, I've been working on our after action reports to ensure that we gather as many lessons learned as possible from the exercise for all the hard work and money that went into it. Overall, the exercise was a great success and I look forward to seeing the F-35A continue to excel as it moves toward full operational capability, which it should achieve in 2018."

Schnell stated that his military career has had a lot of benefits, but the one he enjoys the most currently, is working with a large group of diverse people to bring the newest major weapons system to its full potential.

"There are a ton of talented airmen in the 33d Fighter Wing, and working the day-to-day issues with them is very fulfilling," he said.

"From the T-38C to the A-10C, and now the F-35A, I've had a great time flying the aircraft the Air Force has trusted me with," he said. "The least enjoyable part would be hard to pin-point, but I will say that it's probably the slow inertia of the system. A lot of times I feel our team has the right answer now, but it takes months to get that answer to impact the service or program. Often times this is simply due to the amount of coordination it takes to spread the word throughout the entire Air Force or F-35 enterprise... but, I'm probably just an impatient man."

The Air Force has given Schnell and his wife a career path that has been enjoyable and has supported their needs. He said, "As for my career, my wife and I both agree that we will continue serving so long as we are having fun and it fits the needs of our first priority - our family."

So who does Schnell admire the most?

"Honestly it's not one individual. My highest admiration goes to 'the community'. There are a lot of great people in the world with a lot of great words, but as I've traveled around the U.S. and the world the thing that I've come to admire most is 'the community'. Each great individual was made so by a little bit of natural talent, but mostly by the community of people they were raised in."

"I've seen time and again that people of all different types, religions, and races reach the 'great people' status, however they do so largely because of the community they were a part of. The community provides the individual different perspectives, ideas, opportunities, and an understanding of moral and ethical values," continued Schnell, "I've seen this to be true in my own life with my family, friends, and neighbors that were my community in Kimball and the greater Wyo-braska area. It is the constant influence of seeing good people fight to do good things and support each other through service or friendly competition that leads to individuals being able to achieve greatness. In the end it's my community that I admire most. It's my family and friends that I can count on without hesitation to be there with a firm handshake and smile, whenever I make it back, to help keep me stay grounded and focused on what is important in life."


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