VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
“I’ve been very fortunate to have done what I’ve done and to have had great people to work with. The relationship between a Base Civil Engineer, which is dual hatted as the CE commander, and the Deputy is a very special one, and it has to be,” said Richard Cote, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron deputy commander. “We have to work very closely together, so there has to be that bond that, in fact, does last a lifetime. I cannot thank [all the commanders I have worked with] enough for the positive impact they’ve had on my life.”
Cote, who arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1980 as an active duty U.S. Air Force member, retired from the same base nearly 40 years later. Saying farewell during his retirement ceremony on June 25, 2020, was not easy as he looked back on the memories of his beloved base and the lessons he learned.
The West Coast and the Air Force were nothing new for Cote, as his father retired from Travis Air Force Base. In 1980, Cote followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Air Force.
“When I was recruited for the Air Force, they were looking for engineers,” said Cote. “I put on my dream sheet Vandenberg because I wanted to be on the West Coast. That was the only base I put on my dream sheet, and I was fortune enough to get it.”
After four and a half years of military service, Cote decided that being active duty was not the path for him. However, he loved his job and knew he had found his place in the Civil Engineer field at Vandenberg AFB.
“Here on the Central Coast, it’s beautiful, and I also enjoyed the Air Force community, but I realized the active duty Air Force wasn’t right for me,” said Cote. “It was just natural that I would stay here and still be a part of the organization, without wearing the suit.”
While uncommon to a typical Civil Engineer career track, Cote spent roughly 35 years at Vandenberg AFB, where he ultimately became the deputy commander of the 30th CES.
“As you can imagine, there’ve been quite a few highlights over my 39 plus years. I had several positions in both our Operations Flight, as well as our Engineering Flight before becoming the Base Civil Engineer,” said Cote. “But if I were to choose just one, the highlight was serving as the [deputy] Base Civil Engineer over the past 17 years. I’ve had a front row seat watching how this team of dedicated professionals worked through adversity.”
Whether it was major flooding and storm damage due to El Niño, or wildland fires threatening launch capabilities, Cote saw it all as the 30th CES took care of business, stating it was something that would make him swell with pride. But leaders, such as Cote, don’t get there all on their own.
According to Cote, much of what they do working in the Civil Engineer field is inherently dangerous and it is a 24/7/365 job, which can be challenging and stressful at times. During those tough times, he had two very special people in his life.
“This is not a job that you can turn off when the whistle blows at the end of the day. When I would get stressed, I would look at my granddaughter Jaiden’s pictures in my office, and they would make me smile. It would put things in perspective and the world would be right again,” said Cote. “The second person [who helped me] is my lovely wife of 30 years, Miriam. Countless times I would come home and she would know something was weighing on my mind, and her insight into me as a person and the positions that I’ve held enabled her to know when I needed to decompress on my own. I cannot put into words how much I appreciated her understanding and knowing that she was always there for me when I needed support.”
As Cote reflected on his nearly four decade career, he had an epiphany about the true skill he acquired during his career.
“I’m not necessarily the smartest guy in the room at any given time, but I am smart enough to realize who is. It’s not always that easy especially in a military organization where you have a rank structure,” exclaimed Cote. “You have to be able to put your position aside, your rank aside, and most importantly, you have to put your ego aside, to be able to do that—to function as an enabler, to let the smart people do what they need to do.”
With 40 years at one location, change was inevitable. The biggest changes Cote experienced were simply the older facilities being taken down and new facilities being built. In 1980, when Cote first arrived at Vandenberg AFB, there were still WWII facilities across the installation. Some infrastructures are still in place, but members can see roads that go nowhere, empty fields or facilities that are spaced out. That’s because there were other facilities there that have since been taken down.
“When I first got here, we didn’t have a hospital. The hospital as you know it didn’t exist, and there was a bunch of WWII facilities out by Cocheo Park. I have been fortunate to have been a part of all of that,” said Cote. “Name a mission that we don’t have an impact on. There is no mission that can exist without CE, and there is nothing we don’t touch. Everyone needs power, critical missions need HVAC, you need roads to travel on, and we are a part of that.”
When asked what is next for him following his retirement, Cote explained that it is really whatever he wants it to be. His wife will also be retiring after 41 years in January of 2021, so he plans to decompress for the next 6 months golfing, volunteering and spending more time with his family.
“You spend your entire career feeling like you are making a difference, so there is that emotional need that gets fulfilled. So when you retire, I think the easy part is being able to fill your time. I think that’s the fortunate thing about retirement, you don’t have to have a definitive plan, and you can kind of figure it out as you go along,” said Cote. “The tougher part is to fill that emotional void that you are going to have. I think that’s where volunteer work may come in, but I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m looking forward to it.”
As Cote closed the final chapter in his career, he reflected on the connections he made over the many years at the base.
“You can’t just walk away from a family. It has truly been a family, a 40 year family. So you can’t just divorce yourself from it,” said Cote. “Working with people, that’s the big part. I’ll still be in touch, but it will be on my time. I need to devote a little more time to my other family.