New Commander Takes Over U.Va. Air Force ROTC

Listen to Col. Daniel DeBree on Strength of the Program at U.Va.:

July 17, 2009 — Col. Daniel DeBree, the new commander of the University of Virginia's Air Force ROTC unit, had a connection to U.Va. years before he knew he would be teaching here.

While stationed in England in 2004, DeBree, 43, was browsing through a used book stall and found a copy of James McConnell's book "Flying for France," detailing his life in the Lafayette Escadrille, a unit of mostly American pilots flying fighter planes for France in World War I, before the United States became involved in the conflict.

In April 1917, McConnell became the first U.Va. student killed in The Great War, a year after penning his book. The statue "The Aviator" in the Clemons Library plaza was commissioned in his memory.

DeBree started to understand the connection when he saw a photo of McConnell on the wall in the corridor of U.Va.'s Air Force ROTC headquarters.

"I was walking down the hall and I saw this photograph and thought, 'That looks familiar,' and then I unpacked the book," he said.

DeBree, a native of Sussex County, N.J., was an Air Force ROTC cadet when he was a student at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school in Hoboken, N.J., which was part of his inspiration to work in an ROTC program.

"I wanted to go back and see ROTC from the other side," he said of his first ROTC posting. "I want to help bring up the young lieutenants."

DeBree, 22-year veteran, was attracted to the Air Force by a desire to fly fighter planes. When his eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, he became a weapons systems officer, flying nine combat tours in Afghanistan, Bosnia and in two wars in Iraq in F-15E and F4G planes.

Debree said he had an epiphany about his role in the Air Force while in Iraq. On Jan. 30, 2005, the day of the first Iraqi election in many years, his squadron was flying low over Baghdad to protect the voters, who he said were coming out in the thousands. He had a "grandstand view" of the throng.

"That's when it struck me," he said. "This is why we are here. To give the Iraqis a right we take for granted. For them, this was a watershed and virtually all of them went out to vote. I thought, 'This is not a bad thing to dedicate my life.'"

When not on combat tours, DeBree has spent a lot of time in the classroom. Aside from his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the Stevens Institute, he also holds a master's degree in national security studies from California State University, and a master's' in military operational art and science from the Marine Corps University. He has also attended squadron officer school, the Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting, the Air War College and Boston University, where he was a National Defense Fellow.

A professor of military science, DeBree enjoys teaching, in part of its long-lasting impact.

"I like the actual mechanics of it, but I get a real sense of satisfaction when I see the effect on the students," he said. "Over the next four years we will commission about 75 cadets and that is helping shape the Air Force well into the future."

U.Va.'s Air Force ROTC program has about 100 cadets, and DeBree also oversees units at James Madison University in Harrisonburg and Liberty University in Lynchburg.

He said he plans no immediate changes for the program, preferring to watch it work for a semester.

"I have some ideas, having been an ROTC cadet," DeBree said. "I want to see how it runs and talk with the cadets and cadre. I will probably just do some tweaking around the edges."

— By Matt Kelly