Maj. Gen. Michael Stencel retires after nearly four decades of military service

  • Published
  • By John Hughel
  • Oregon National Guard

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael E. Stencel delivered a wide-ranging reflection of nearly four decades of military service during his formal retirement ceremony held at Camp Withycombe, in Clackamas, Oregon on November 4, after serving as The Adjutant General, Oregon the past eight years.

Presiding over the ceremony was General Daniel R. Hokanson, Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Having served as Oregon’s Adjutant General from August 2013 to July 2015, Hokanson had just become the new Deputy Commander, U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, as Stencel succeeded him in August–first as the acting Adjutant General and then with his official appointed by Gov. Kate Brown on Sept. 25, 2015.

“In many ways, his (Maj. Gen. Stencel) promotion to Adjutant General in August of 2015 was literally a baptism by fire as the state was hit by one of the worst wildland fires in our nation’s history,” Hokanson said, describing Stencel’s first major test in his new position. “In Oregon alone, over 631,000 acres burned as 125 members of the National were deployed in support of OPLAN (Operation Plan) Smokey–and it had been more than a decade since the Oregon National Guard ground troops had been called to fight fires.”

Hokanson aptly expanded the wildfire metaphor to illustrate both a broader theme and distinct membership Stencel now found himself part of.

“For those of you here today who haven’t been involved in fighting a wildland fire, there’s one thing you should know. Wildfires can change directions quickly, you can be behind the blaze when suddenly the wind switches, and now you’re in front of it. You have to be ready for hazards to come from any and all directions. The pace is unpredictable and many times unrelenting. And as it turns out, it’s a pretty good analogy for being a TAG (The Adjutant General),” he said.

Legacy and Landmark Achievements

During his remarks, Hokanson touched on additional challenges that Stencel had overseen during his eight years as ‘TAG’. This included both domestic operations and overseas mobilizations that guard members were routinely mobilized to support.

“In the eight years since he took the mantle of Adjutant General, Mike [Stencel] has navigated the formidable challenges, responding to the global pandemic, civil unrest, multiple overseas deployments, supporting Operation Allies Welcome, and managing wildfire season that transformed into wildfire years,” Hokanson said, detailing the extensive list of challenges during Stencel’s tenure. “Ultimately, Mike oversaw the mobilization of Oregon Guardsmen from almost every mission our National Guard does.”

Yet adding some brevity to the ceremony, Hokanson took the opportunity to inject some lighter moments and some interservice rivalry, having shared their common bond as military aviators over many years.

“He earned his wings at Columbus Air Force Base, trained at the Squadron Officers School at Maxwell (AFB) and completed the aircraft mishap investigation course at Kirkland (AFB) as well as the air base combat engineering course at Wright-Patterson (AFB). He earned and holds a Command pilot rating of more than 1,900 hours in military aircraft, a majority of those in the F-15 [Eagle] …and for those not familiar, that’s quite an achievement–just short of being a helicopter pilot,” Hokanson punned–which was quickly met by laughter with those attending, with a humorous, yet subtle swipe at the Air Force.

Hokanson pointed out that due to Stencel’s advocacy, the Oregon National Guard is better prepared for future endeavors. This includes aircraft upgrades, as well as two future cyber operations squadrons.

“Mike has never been afraid of asking the hard questions, making the hard decisions, or grappling with harder problems. He brings thoughtfulness, perspective, and a tremendous breadth of experience to every endeavor. And through that, he makes everyone, and everyone around him better,” Hokanson said.

There were other momentous changes within the Oregon Military Department that Stencel expedited and helped foster enduring his eight-year term. Most notable was the progression of new fighter aircraft for the 142nd Wing and 173rd Fighter Wing.

With the aging F-15C Eagle models flown at Portland and Klamath Falls, the Air Force announced on August 14, 2020, that Oregon and Florida would receive the first F-15EX Eagle II air superiority aircraft to continue their NORAD readiness missions. Then this past May, the 173rd Fighter Wing was selected to receive the F-35A Lightning II, continuing the unit’s mission as a fighter pilot training squadron with the Air Force’s latest and most-capable fifth-generation fighter aircraft. This was the result of years of perseverance to recapitalize two vital Oregon Air National Guard locations and two district missions.

At other military installations around the state, infrastructure was modified and repurposed to enhance existing operations and retool for new missions. In June of 2018, Stencel cut the ribbon on the Joint Reserve Intelligence Center (JRIC) at the Portland Air National Guard Base. The JRIC now supports more than 225 Reserve and active duty personnel as well as government civilians providing IT and network capabilities to the Department of Defense.

In Eastern Oregon, Camp Umatilla officially became the Raymond F. Rees Training Center on September 29, 2022, as Stencel hosted the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Daniel Hokanson along with Rees to mark the grand occasion. The ceremony was part of the transfer of property from the former U.S. Army Umatilla Chemical Depot to the Columbia Development Authority, as nearly 17,000 acres will be used for National Guard training as well as industrial development in the Umatilla and Morrow counties region.

This past spring the Oregon National Guard and U.S. Navy officially opened the Small Unmanned Aircraft System Operating Facility in Boardman, Oregon. The $13.3 million project includes paved organizational vehicle parking and a runway, a controlled waste facility and flammable materials facility along with the tactical unmanned aerial system flight facility and a machine gun range.

Expansion into solar and other renewable resources was developed at various Army National Guard Armories around the state with other projects in the pipeline for years to come.

When it was Stencel’s time to address those in attendance, he was quick to thank those whom he has served with and those who supported his responsibilities.

“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a lot of people, including Governor Brown and Governor Kotek who entrusted me with this position,” he said. “I’ve been blessed by incredible people and mentors, up-down-sideways…this includes pilots I’ve served with in the F-4 days, and to the past few years at Headquarters and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior enlisted leaders and others…it’s just been phenomenal.”

Over his career, he has seen the National Guard evolve into a Strategic Reserve, followed by the last 30 years as an Operational Reserve, and recently being called an Integrative Reserve.

"That assessment is applicable because with the National Guard and active component when we mobilize and deploy now, we do it together,” he said, describing the evolution of current Overseas Contingency Operations.

“The United States cannot deploy without the National Guard. We’re affordable, we have an incredible amount of experience, and we are more resilient because of our dispersal across the country, and as a vital link to the Department of Defense and to our communities. That’s especially important in Oregon because we don’t have any active components.”

"For me, the million dollar question is this… “Is this sustainable?”

Answering his own question hypothetically, Stencel said it depended on the State or organization and their ability to recruit and deploy service members.

“Over the past two years, that propensity to serve is waning. Our numbers are down 30 percent, it’s not just an Oregon problem but a national problem we need to get after,” he summarized. “It’s because of the operation tempo, the demands on the National Guard, especially from the mobilizations from the pandemic, and an improving economy.”

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the average Oregon guardsman served more than a hundred days on duty.”

Yet through these challenges of the past several years, Stencel remains optimistic. With the active component downsizing in some areas, it allows the National Guard an opportunity to recruit veterans who still want to serve, but he said, “This comes at a cost when it comes to a declining culture of service” in the nation as a whole.

“We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force and when you look at the size of the military, we’re less than 1 percent of the total population,” Stencel said, expanding on the broader concept of public service. “So here we are, coming up on the 250th anniversary of our independence, and more than 1.1 million service members have given their lives for this country. …and I think that we should feel a sense of obligation to live our lives as though we owe them something.”

He pointed to an expression from President John F. Kennedy that he feels touches on “what it takes to make our democracy work.”

“To often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” Stencel said, quoting the 35th President.

An avid reader, Stencel has been an advocate for education, travel, and in many ways, challenging oneself as a life-long learner.

“A mantra I often use is ‘Leaders are learners,’” and he pointed to one of his favorite writers, Historian David McCullough. “He puts the question out there, “How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?””

Though he weighed and described many of these concepts throughout his remarks, he correlated them on a personal level when he initially spoke about his own decision to join the military.

One of the Last ‘Phantom II’ Pilots Still Serving

Reflecting back to his initial entry into the military, Stencel said he “never thought too much about promotions or a full career in the military but a desire to become an aviator.”

“I just wanted to fly. The standard take-off pattern [of the 142nd] ‘back in the day,’ often had aircraft flying over Camas (Washington) toward the Pacific Ocean. If I was outside as a kid and heard that sound, it was ‘heads up, to where those airplanes are’ …and that was my dream, to one day fly one of them.”

Stencel’s pathway for his military career began after graduating from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1983 with a Bachelor's in Civil Engineering. He then received his commission through the Air National Guard Academy of Military Science in December 1984, and finished his undergraduate pilot training in 1985, completing his training in the F-4 Phantom II. His first assignment was with the 123rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at the Portland Air National Guard Base. His military service has taken him through nearly every position and type of leadership from the flight, squadron, group, and wing to the State level.

For most of his military career, he served with the 142nd Wing in Portland, as the unit transitioned from the F-4 Phantom II to the F-15 Eagle in 1990, and subsequently rising through the ranks in various leadership positions, culminating as the Wing Commander from July 2009 to December 2012. He served as the Battle Director, deploying to the U.S. Air Force Central, 609th Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Force Base, Qatar from Sept. 2010 to Feb. 2011.

It was during his early days of flying in the mid-1980s with the Air Guard that he also met his wife Sue, who was working as an administrative specialist for the 123rd Fighter Squadron.

“Mike had just gotten back from F-4 pilot training at Kingsley Field [Klamath Falls, Oregon] when we first started working together and became friends,” she said, recalling how their military careers and life together crossed paths. “I had enlisted with the 244th Combat Communications Squadron in 1982 and was working towards a possible commission myself. Often you’ll hear service members say the guard is like a family, well in our case it literally was.”

As a couple, they both served as traditional guardsmen, balancing a growing family while additionally pursuing civilian careers.

With promotions and advancement, Michael Stencel took on roles as the Aircraft Maintenance officer and then his first assignment at the Joint Force Headquarters in Salem as the Munitions Officer, Plans and Programs officer. He returned to the 142nd in August 2001 as the Commander of the Civil Engineer Squadron and by 2005, became the commander of the 142nd Mission Support Group.

“On every level, we made it work. The kids would be with grandparents on drill weekends and then the ‘normal work-life balance’ during the week,” Sue Stencel said. “I was able to start a career in real estate and serve in the guard.”

In 2004, Sue retired after nearly 23 years in the Oregon Air National Guard, serving as the 142nd Unit Historian. On many levels, she understands the commitment that military spouses make, especially with her husband’s position as the adjutant general over the past eight years.

“When it comes to work, Mike’s on time—all the time. He’ll get to the office early, will leave late, and has an attention for the details,” she noted, detailing his life-long work habits. “But really, he’s a humble guy, he doesn’t force things—he lets it happen.”

This attentiveness towards his work was noticed by Maj. Gen. Stencel’s former 142nd Fighter Wing vice commander, Col. (retired) Rich Wedan.

“Fighter pilots are trained to make quick and accurate decisions, yet saying that—he often told me there was no harm in thinking something through overnight,” Wedan said, recalling Stencel’s measured leadership approach. “Nothing rattled him. He was always that steady and calm person when it came to important decisions.”

When Stencel was promoted to Brigadier General and his new role as the Assistant Adjutant General, Oregon Air National Guard, Wedan became the 142nd Fighter Wing commander and said Stencel’s mentorship was still especially valuable.

“He’s extraordinarily intelligent, and he always made decisions because it was the right thing to do,” Wedan said. “Both in my role as the Wing commander and as the F-15 Weapons System Council Chairman, he never was a micromanager. He really gave me free rein to accomplish the job.”

Wedan recalled how Stencel’s steady determination led to the extension of the unit’s lease at the Portland International Airport. After nearly 15 years of negotiations and the continual work of several 142nd Wing Commanders, the Port of Portland and the Oregon National Guard signed a 50-year lease, on January 16, 2013.

“This process had been in the works for a long time,” Wedan said. “With his unique background and understanding of property and leasing issues, as well as his years of military experience, he was able to complete the lease extension and get it across the goal line.”

This experience helped provide a template for the 173rd Fighter Wing, lengthening their lease to 2095 at Klamath Falls, as the unit signed a 50-year extension on Feb. 19, 2018.

“There’s probably no way the two wings would be in the position they are today without these lease extensions,” said Command Chief Master Sgt. (retired) Daniel Conner. “We were told by the Air Combat Command Inspector General’s office, prior to the extension with Portland, that the wing would be shut down because of not having a lease in place.”

Conner was part of a working group that was tasked to achieve an extension for the 142nd and recalled how Stencel was the right leader at the right time to accomplish the negotiations.

“The timing was impeccable. I watched how he worked as a leader to bring people together, not only on the lease but how he had developed as a leader with each new assignment during his time in Portland,” Conner said. “He was always so well prepared for the next step and next role.”

Maj. Gen. Stencel selected Conner to serve as the Command Senior Enlisted Leader for the Oregon National Guard in October 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was entering an alarming fall surge with daily cases over 58,000 (seven-day average) as more than half the U.S. states were reporting a rise in new infections.

“We looked at the numbers every day, and we had concerns for our members serving both on domestic operations and medical teams,” Conner said, remembering a dramatic rise in case. “We had TUBs (TAG Update Briefs) nearly every day and sometimes twice as the pandemic took on a ‘normal battle rhythm’, yet (Maj.) General Stencel made sure we were prepared to do this for the long term.”

During this period Stencel and Conner made routine site visits, checking in on testing locations, vaccination clinics, and eventually some of the 50 Oregon Hospitals around the state the Soldiers and Airmen were assigned to during the rising cases with the Omnicom variant. He recalled how Stencel’s leadership was crucial.

“One of the key aspects to serving in the military is ‘bringing people to the fight,’” Conner said. “All through this critical period, he remained upbeat and steadfast because our service members on the ground kept saying to us, that “they wished they could do more,” and we got a sense that nothing was insurmountable.”

“Every Soldier and Airman a Leader”

Retiring himself in December of 2022, Conner said that Stencel’s prominent motto he instilled for the Oregon National Guard took on a deeper level of conviction and will live on past Stencel’s time in uniform.

“Every Soldier and Airman a Leader.” It’s more than just a motto, it really resonates with his sense of leadership principles and that everyone contributes to the mission,” Conner explained. “It goes to the core values and ensures a sense of shared responsibility from our senior officers to our junior enlisted members.”

When Stencel became the 142nd Wing Commander on October 17, 2009, then Brig. Gen. Bruce W. Prunk, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard, said Stencel's experience as a traditional Guardsman would benefit the unit because of his varied military and civilian experience.

"We have a very dedicated core of full-time people, but the Citizen-Airmen make up the heart and soul of the organization," Prunk said.

This sentiment was echoed by Wedan as well. “He’s the perfect example of a traditional Guardsman, rising to the top as he’s mastered every challenge given to him. It’s only fitting that someone of his integrity and intellect would serve as adjutant general for the Oregon National Guard.”

As Maj. Gen. Stencel enters retirement, Sue Stencel said the family is ready to embrace the next chapter of life, but will remember some of the experiences of the past eight years.

“We’ve hosted receptions for our State Partnership countries of Bangladesh and Vietnam that have been insightful on many levels,” she said.

“But last year, just after Thanksgiving, the First Lady (of the United States), Dr. Jill Biden hosted a ceremony at the White House, highlighting national guardsmen from around the country. It was also the opening of the White House for Christmas so it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events.”

In his final remarks to conclude his retirement ceremony, Maj. Gen. Michael Stencel asked Sue to join him on stage, helping partake in the moment with those in attendance.

“It's really that shared vision, those struggles you endure through one’s military experience that creates a bond and level of trust that you just can’t match out there in the civilian population,” he said, pausing at times in an emotional conclusion.

“Going into retirement, I’ve asked so much of everyone in uniform over the last eight years…my ask now is that you get involved. Become proponents for education, because the country needs all of us to be engaged, responsible citizens.”