Chief Balas Retires, Inspires Four Generations of Airmen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Victoria Nelson
  • 157th Air Refueling Wing

In a time before MREs, when c-rations still fed the troops, Chief Master Sgt. Frederick Balas enlisted open general into the U.S. Air Force.

That was in June, 1983. More than 40 years later he retired with a whirlwind of a story and memories for a lifetime.

“I would love to say I joined purely to serve my country, but I wanted to see the world and pursue a college education,” said Balas, the senior enlisted leader with the 157th Communications Squadron. “And I’ve definitely done that.”

Balas enlisted with the hopes of becoming a photographer, a hope instilled from a well-mannered recruiter who claimed Balas would have a 95 percent chance of getting the job he wanted if he went open general.

“I’ve lived through a lot of surprises,” said Balas. “All of those surprises resulted in either personal or professional growth. Even when you don’t expect it to. Sometimes you realize the things that unexpectedly knock you down are exactly what you needed.”

Choosing fuels technician for a career at Basic Military Training, when photographer wasn’t even on the list, was one of those moments. Balas’ journey took him to Castle Air Force Base in California, then to Europe and back to Pease Air Force Base, home of the 509th Bombardment Wing in 1988.

“The last thing I wanted to do was to be stationed anywhere close to home,” Balas remembered. “I wasn’t gutted but I was disappointed. I wanted to see the world and now I’d only be a little over an hour from where I grew up in Marlborough, Massachusetts.”

Balas said it didn’t take long for him to realize Pease was a fantastic place to be. He graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and transitioned to the Communication Flight in the New Hampshire Air National Guard when the active-duty base shut down months later.

“I had orders to leave but I wanted to stay in New Hampshire,” he chuckled. “I applied for a full-time position in the Guard, and I got it. One day I was driving onto the base active duty and the next I was a Guardsman.”

Balas was the last member at Pease who actively served in 509th. The base has changed significantly in the past four decades and so has the Air Force, constantly striving to embrace innovative ideas and new platforms.

“You can only image now, I am surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “I’m so fortunate.”

Balas remembered transitioning to the Guard with a freshly pressed computer science degree and thinking he was going to know it all, then realizing that was just the beginning.

“I think what continuously surprises me, is how much I didn’t know along the way,” he laughed. “You become a supervisor or a superintendent or the chief of your organization and you realize how much you don’t know, still. It’s humbling and I think for me trying to be vulnerable and saying, ‘hey I know I have these stripes, but I don’t know’ has taught me so much more than I could have wished for.”

Balas has traveled around the world with the Air Force, served in three career fields, attained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, stood for institutional change and showed four generations of Airmen how to lead with grace and a spirit of adventure.

“A funeral atmosphere hangs over the proceedings because Chief Balas is on his way to terminal vacationland,” said Maj. Andrew Rodriguez, the commander of the 157th CS. “Not vacationland as in Maine, specifically, but that will probably happen as well as every National Park you've ever heard of and some of the ones you haven't.”

Balas plans to visit family in Florida, spend time hiking in Arizona and he has his bike tuned up and ready for riding this summer. His most exciting journey though, begins in the fall when he starts classes as a full-time student at the University of New Hampshire.

“I’ll be days away from age 60, a non-traditional student,” he laughed. “I was actually just accepted. I felt like a 17-year-old. After all these years, a Bachelor of Art and Studio Art, which includes photography; it’s something I wanted to do when I graduated high school.”

He is trading his OCPs for bell bottoms and tie dye, which have all made a miraculous come-back for Gen-Z and the rest of the current student population so he will fit right in.

“He has already lived a life larger than anyone and he’s still going,” said Rodriguez. “He has this never-ending energy and constant smile. It makes you feel like anything is possible.”

Ret. Chief Master Sgt. Fred Balas is off on his next adventure but his legacy lives on; through the Airmen, the impacts of his kindness, and his ever-lasting inspiration to dream big.

“I don’t know if I'm jealous,” Rodriguez continued. “No. Who am I kidding? I'm super jealous, and after a quick internal review I'm okay with myself for it. Because while the details may vary, I want to be like Chief when I finally grow up. And your details may vary, but you should want to be like Chief too.”