Building bridges between Airmen and diplomats

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alexander Cook
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

During Third Air Force leaders’ recent visit to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, one member stood out from the rest. Erin Sawyer is the Senior Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and is a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State. 


“For me it’s a bit of an exchange program,” Sawyer said. “I learn how to speak Air Force while providing strategic perspective from the State Department.” 


As the POLAD for USAFE-AFAFRICA, Sawyer provides invaluable advice on foreign policy matters to U.S. Air Force senior leaders while also serving as a link between the Department of State and Department of Defense.


“It’s a chance for me to go out and see how people lead in the military environment and that’s always a terrific thing for me to observe at all levels,” Sawyer explained. 


The POLAD program was initiated by the Department of State following World War II and was relatively small in scope and mission. FSOs were only assigned to a small number of military service chiefs, combatant commanders, and service secretaries. Since 9/11, the program has expanded, sparked by a need for increased interaction and institutional coordination between the Department of State and Department of Defense. 


“The interagency collaboration piece is critically important because none of us do our work alone,” she mentioned.


Sawyer also discussed the international cooperation she witnessed during her visit to Incirlik AB.


“There’s value in the relationships people are able to form here among our Turkish counterparts and ourselves. I understand there are some NATO partners here as well, Spain, Lithuania, and Poland. Being able to have that exposure and work with people together builds those relationships that make it stronger in the future.” 


USAFE-AFAFRICA’s area of responsibility covers 104 countries, creating a dynamic operating environment for all U.S. agencies involved. Turkey stands apart as the only country in the theater to straddle two continents.


“Geography to me says it all,” she said. “Turkey is part Europe and part Asia and it’s the link between this huge geographic area that’s of critical strategic importance. The U.S. presence here at Incirlik is decades old and it’s really a symbol of our bilateral relationship with Turkey, but even more broadly than that, the enduring alliance with NATO. This is NATO’s southern flank and Incirlik is well positioned to be able to give us eyes on threats and potential issues that might arise. We couldn’t be closer to the action than we are here.” 


Sawyer mentioned how impressed she was to see the amount of responsibility delegated down to junior enlisted Airmen and their dedication to the mission. 


“I was really pleased to have the opportunity to come out and travel with Maj. Gen. Reed for this visit,” said Sawyer. “I’m really impressed with the dedication of the Airmen and their resilience coming out here in some pretty austere conditions during stressful geopolitical times. It’s impressive that people can come here for a short period of time and really put their heart into the mission.” 


As a career Foreign Service Officer, Sawyer believes that all Airmen have a role to play in building strong relationships with partner nations. 


“Everyone can be a diplomat,” she said. “It’s not just people that do it as a profession. If you’re interacting with your Turkish counterpart, that’s who they’re seeing, driving some of their perceptions of an American. It’s better than seeing it on TV. It’s a real person and it’s a real relationship and those are the things that matter and make it easier when you have a crisis to be able to work together effectively.”