Protocol pursues perfection

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- Before every event, coordination must be done. From the outside looking in, all that is seen is the event. Nobody wonders how the chairs were set up, volunteers found, name placards made or who spent last Saturday afternoon welcoming the distinguished visitor.

All those tasks are accomplished here by the 39th Air Base Wing Protocol Office to ensure events go smoothly and every detail is taken care of so people participating in high-visibility events can focus on the event.

"Protocol is the first impression," said Capt. Jonathan Murphy, 39th Air Base Wing chief of protocol. "Our job is to do a ton of prep work to make sure that first impression is good. You can't go back in time and change that moment when they're speaking to Airmen or public officials; so if it's really bad, that's how that person will be perceived by everyone who took part in that event."

Protocol also ensures that all customs and courtesies, all forms of diplomacy and all forms of propriety are followed.

"If a group of generals attend a ceremony, there is protocol that determines which order those generals will sit in," explained Murphy. "That's protocol -- rules that govern how people act in social settings."

At Air Force bases worldwide, protocol focuses on social functions, military ceremonies and DV visits. Because Incirlik Air Base is a Turkish installation, protocol must coordinate with host-nation partners. This is especially necessary.

Here, the 10th Tanker Base Command "controls who has access to this base; so when we have a general who wants to visit the base, we can't just say, 'Sir, come on up. You can come take a tour of the base, and we'll bring you around and show what we do here,'" explained Murphy. "There is certain protocol that the Turkish general's staff has because ultimately, they want to know who's coming to their base."

Along with big-picture responsibilities such as major command, Air Force and Department of Defense leadership visits, protocol is also responsible for the details of events such as promotion ceremonies, senior NCO or NCO induction ceremonies, face-to-face visits with units, and various other events where Airmen are being recognized.

"I feel bad if I mess an Airman's name up on a seating card, because when we do these events, it's not just for the generals. We do this for the Airmen attending, too," said Murphy. "Like when we do the Airmen's breakfast, we ask for Airmen who've been doing well and the stars of their squadrons, so this is supposed to reward them. I don't want to create a bad first impression."

No matter how much coordination is put into an event, things can happen that will have an adverse effect on it, and as a protocol officer, Murphy said that's something you must accept.

"I've resided myself to accept that it can only go 95 percent right, and you just hope and pray that the five percent that goes wrong is so minor that nobody notices," he said. "During the (39th Maintenance Squadron) change of command, everything was good to go; but out of nowhere an airplane decides to land in the middle of (former wing commander) Col. (Eric) Beene's remarks. We had no control over that though. We did the quiet hour request, but some things are outside of what you can control."

Because of this opportunity to work directly with the wing commander, Murphy often gets a clear view of the bigger picture and now has a different outlook on the importance and purpose of protocol.

"I used to think it was all pomp and circumstance, and it was silly that people would be running around, freaking out, saying 'Is that person's name misspelled?' or 'Are the generals sitting in the right order?' I didn't care," said Murphy. "I thought it was a waste of time and resources; but the impact of looking bad in public is enormous and that's what you're trying to save your boss from.

"At my next base when I'm back in FSS, I'm going to help the protocol officer," said Murphy. "I'll get to events early to see what they need help with. I know what it feels like when you've planned out a huge event and you didn't think of some minor little detail and you find yourself with nobody to ask for help."