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‘Bittersweet’ outgoing 152nd Airlift Wing commander embraces new journey

Col. Karl Stark applies a new tail flash to a 152nd Airlift Wing C-130 aircraft in 2015. Stark’s three-year tenure as commander of the 152nd Airlift Wing comes to a close this weekend as he passes command to Col. Eric Wade.

Col. Karl Stark applies a new tail flash to a 152nd Airlift Wing C-130 aircraft in 2015. Stark’s three-year tenure as commander of the 152nd Airlift Wing comes to a close this weekend as he passes command to Col. Eric Wade.

Reno, Nev. -- Col. Karl Stark feels bittersweet and exhausted, but that’s a good thing.

“For any outgoing commander, when you get down to it, it’s always bittersweet,” said Stark, whose three-year tenure as the 152nd Airlift Wing commander comes to a close 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Nevada Air National Guard Base fuel cell hangar in a ceremonial passing of command to Col. Eric Wade. “The bitter part is you’re leaving something that you’re extremely passionate about. The sweet part is, I believe, if you do this job correctly, you’re probably pretty tired — as a matter of fact, you ought to be exhausted. That’s the sweet part of holding the burden of command year after year, it’s certainly very challenging. It becomes your life.”

During Stark’s time as the unit’s 22nd commander, the 152nd, known as the “High Rollers,” received a prestigious firefighting mission, a C-130 fleet upgrade and passed its first federal inspection under the new U.S. Air Force inspection system.

Perhaps the highlight was the acquisition of the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System mission, or MAFFS. With MAFFS, the 152nd becomes one of four C-130 units fighting largescale, wildland firefighting missions nationwide.

According to Stark, though, the tangible accomplishments during his tenure would not be possible without an evolution of culture he dubbed, “High Roller Style,” a revised homage to the unit’s High Roller moniker first established in the early-1980s.

“I’ve seen a ton of growth in individuals,” Stark said in an interview with members of the 152nd Public Affairs Office last week. “There’s been growth in missions, but there’s also been growth in individuals. And with that growth, it really becomes a force multiplier in a way, because that growth allowed us to develop the High Roller brand.”

Col. Mitch Sperling, 152nd vice commander, whose career began in the mid-1980s during the heyday of the then-152nd Reconnaissance Group, said Stark’s legacy rests in his ability to resurrect that proud brand.

“During his three years at the helm, he led this unit to its current ‘world class’ performance where we take pride in ourselves and our mission,” Sperling said. “Col. Stark has reminded us how to do it ‘High Roller Style.’”

Master Sgt. Sherri Clark, the 152nd’s executive administrator the past three years, described her time working for Stark as a "roller coaster,” but in a good way.

"It's been fun and challenging all at the same time. He laid out expectations. He held people accountable. He knew what he wanted and things changed for the better," she said. "In a lot of ways, the Wing became his life. He put everything into it. That's where all his passion comes from. That's what he calls ‘High Roller Style.’"

After the change of command, Stark will transition to Nevada Air National Guard State Headquarters and work as the director of operations. He said he plans to retire within a year.

Stark, an upstate New York native, joined the U.S. Air Force as an Airman Basic in 1985. After active duty, he joined the New York Air National Guard and worked a as flight engineer before he commissioned in 1994.

In 2001, he arrived to the 152nd Airlift Wing as a C-130 navigator. Beginning in 2006, he served in multiple duty stations at National Guard Bureau before an Afghanistan deployment in 2010. Afterward, Stark served as the 152nd Operations Group commander before spending two years as the Air National Guard Advisor to the Commander at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. (2012-2014). In 2014, Stark returned to Reno to take command of the 152nd.

Reflecting on his career last month, Stark said he spent his entire military life focused solely on success and not enough on the journey getter there. He wants to change that after he leaves military service.

“We get too wrapped up around the destination and we don’t allow enough time to think about the journey,” he said.

A top priority in his post-military life will be taking care of his mother, who moved to North Carolina shortly before Stark’s father died about a decade ago.

“That’s my primary goal,” Stark said. “I never spent enough time with my parents as an adult in general because the career came first. But what I realized was, when my dad died, I hadn’t spent enough time with him. I would have liked that. And my mom is having some health issues and I want to spend some time with her while I can.”

Stark also spoke broadly about other goals outside the military, but declined to go into detail just yet.

“Regardless of where it takes me, I’m looking forward to the journey.”