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Program works on first impressions

A new program at Tinker Air Force Base is working to connect new Airmen to the greater Oklahoma City community. The partnership answers the FAQ: What is there to do downtown and how can I learn about it?

Master Sgt. Andre Thomas, First Term Airmen Course career assistance advisor, explained the program pairs a group of Airmen who are about to complete the course up for a day with the OKC Convention and Visitors Bureau. It came about by asking, “How do we improve the FTAC program, make it fun and also connect the Airmen to our community?” he said.

Like many big cities surrounding military bases, there are often two distinct communities and getting the two to mix and support each other can be a challenge. While the city’s downtown area is only about nine miles away from the base, the sprawling downtown area isn’t easily accessible to Airmen without cars. Exacerbating the problem for many years has been a lack of parking and simple transportation throughout the various downtown districts.

“This program has changed the first impression of Airmen because they have an opportunity to see what the community has to offer,” Master Sgt. Debbie Jackson, FTAC CAA said.

The new partnership leverages the newly functional downtown Streetcar system run by Embark, which takes riders on two routes throughout downtown at reasonable costs. In fact, the OKC Streetcar tour is free for the day with passes courtesy of the Embark and the OKC Convention and Visitors Bureau. A built-in bonus comes in the form of a tour guide with Cristy Ksepka, OKCCVB certified tourism ambassador, who meets the group in the morning to begin the tour and immediately starts to bring the Airmen ‘home’ to OKC by telling stories and revealing secrets.

So why are these ‘secrets’ so important for new Airmen to know? “I bring them down there to show the (free parking) lot that not everyone knows about (near Bass Pro Shop),” Ksepka said. There’s also the Centennial Land Run monument nearby which gives her a chance to tell the story of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City by talking about that monumental event. People from other states may not understand how our state was formed or that both Oklahoma and Oklahoma City was settled in one day. “There was a boom of a cannon on April 22, 1889, that began all this,” she said.

The tour quickly progresses to the Bricktown area where the newly arrived Airmen are introduced to the Harkin movie theater, restaurants, OKC Dodgers minor league baseball stadium and the Bricktown canal. While waiting near the baseball stadium, they learn about the Streetcar system, how to purchase tickets and what they can expect when traveling downtown for events. They board the Streetcar at Mickey Mantle Plaza to begin the trip uptown toward Automobile Alley while Ksepka points out historic sites, landmarks and continues telling the story of the town. “If you’re going to visit downtown OKC, downtown, Bricktown, the business district, it’s one of the greatest ways to see the whole thing in one swoop,” Ksepka said.

The group then stops at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to learn about the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, the lives lost and are able to tour the grounds. “If there’s one thing you are going to see in the city it has to be the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum or at least the grounds,” Krepka said. “When we get to the memorial stop, we talk about the second boom that changed Oklahoma City — April 19, 1995, at 9:02 a.m.” Standing next to the large reflecting pool, the group sees and understands the symbolism of the rows of empty chairs and why this is important to the city, its culture and how the military was impacted by loss of life and by participating in the rescue and recovery efforts.

There are dozens of interesting and important places where this tour could stop, but none more important than the memorial Master Sgt. Andre Thomas Jr., the FTAC CAA said. “Oh, man. I get chills. It’s really what we are all about when you talk about a professional Airman. Resilient Airmen. The tragedy that has made Oklahoma resilient ties right in to that.”
“It’s a community connector,” Thomas points out. “To this day it is the most impactful domestic terrorist attack we’ve had. Walking those grounds is a staple for anybody that comes here, especially anyone that’s connected to Tinker. You walk those grounds and I can assure you, you will be connected.”

The Streetcar ride continues through the downtown area with the next stop back in Bricktown for lunch at the Bricktown Brewery restaurant. Being in a venue like Bricktown Brewery and overlooking the area from the second floor windows provided a relaxed atmosphere intended for a ‘chat with the Chief’ opportunity. Multiple Chief Master Sgts. from Tinker joined the tour for lunch to learn about the new Airmen, pass along their thoughts and guidance and learn a bit about the downtown area themselves.

The tour ended with a walk along the Bricktown Canal combined with further information and discussions about what the area has to offer. The Career Assistance Advisors were key players in answering questions and letting the Airmen know the great things Oklahoma and Oklahoma City have to offer them and their families. “In the past, as Senior NCOs and supervisors, we tell Airmen to get out, do things and see what the community has to offer, but we don’t show them. The downtown tour is a great example of the unique partnership between Tinker AFB and the community,” Master Sgt. Jackson said.

Because of the new partnership between the base and Oklahoma City, there are dozens of new Airmen taking the ride downtown each month. The connections to the community grows with each positive, first impression.

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