JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Rotar helps pilots see in the dark, he is the admiral of a fleet comprising dozens of life rafts, and the work he does could provide aircrew with the pathogen-proof suits and masks they would need to survive a theoretical zombie outbreak.
Rotar, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, is a 176th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician responsible for the upkeep, inspection and repair of scores of different types of equipment necessary to keep C-17 Globemaster III pilots, loadmasters and passengers alive when all else fails.
Master Sgt. Sam Cooper, AFE Flight Chief, C-17 Section, says Rotar and every other AFE technician under his supervision are responsible for a dizzying array of devices aircrew may not think about until right up to the intense moment their lives depend on it.
“Everything, from the chemical-defense equipment to the parachutes to the emergency passenger-oxygen systems to life preservers to life rafts, the aircrew knows no matter what, the equipment is done properly and is going to work if they have to bail out of the aircraft and end up in the water,” Cooper said. “They will be taken care of until rescue can come and get them.”
Though Rotar provides C-17 air crew a contingency lifeline today, his path to the AFE work bench was a serpentine route of pursuing education followed by seeking service.
Studying accounting and finance at a local university while working full time quickly led to burnout, Rotar said, and he found himself looking to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Anthony, who enlisted as an airborne Ranger in the active Army.
After a look at the regular Air Force, Rotar joined the Army as an airborne radio operator maintainer. After Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training, the newly minted Soldier thought he would be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
His pinpoint assignment however was with 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
“When I got orders up here I thought it was a joke because I was born in Florida, did all of my training in Georgia — Fort Benning and Fort Gordon,” Rotar recalled. “I had never been west of the Mississippi (River) until I was stationed up here.”
Three months after signing into 4/25 with 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry Regiment, the paratrooper found himself Afghanistan bound for Khost province for a combat deployment. After seven years of service at JBER, Rotar said he decided to stay in the state that was once too cold and remote for the Floridian.
Landing a job as a loadmaster with a statewide aviation logistics carrier, Rotar said he fell in love with flying in the Last Frontier. That love would find him at the Alaska Air National Guard Recruiting office and a new job in AFE.
“This gives me time to still be hands on, still develop Airmen at a younger level,” Rotar said of his new enlisted specialty, comparing it to his Army job. “I still get to work with people and do meaningful work.”
Any time Rotar works on a piece of AFE, he pores over the technical order and ensures strict attention to the smallest of details.
“If I mess up on my end, it could cost someone’s life on the other end,” he said. “So I take extreme pride in knowing what I do could save somebody’s life.”
Working on everything from chemical-protective gear to quick-don masks to helmets, Rotar said he marvels at how many Army occupational specialties he would encompass with the knowledge he uses on a daily basis.
“We are the armorer,” he said. “We are the rigger, we are everything in one entity. The amount of equipment and the amount of detail in each specific task for each piece of equipment makes it that much more challenging as far as the knowledge base of this career field.”
During an inspection and repacking of a BA-22 Bailout Kit parachute, Rotar worked closely with Cooper to power through a particularly sticky performance step securing a nylon line.
Cooper doesn’t disparage Rotar for seeking help. He encourages it.
“It’s not about having all the right answers,” he said. “It’s about how to find the right answers.”
Still, that help often comes wrapped in a lesson of how to use ingenuity and adaptability to tackle any unforeseen technical problems.
“If all I’m doing is telling Airmen how to do a task a specific way, I’m setting them up for failure,” Cooper explained. “The most important thing for my NCOs is to teach their Airmen how to think critically, pay attention to detail, and if something doesn’t look right or you’re unfamiliar with it, start asking questions.”
Rotar said he looks at any new technical obstacles waiting for him among the dozens of life-saving equipment as opportunities to shine.
“My favorite part of this job is learning,” he said. “It’s a mental challenge, and I enjoy the challenge every day.”